Discipline vs. Spontaneity

I am absolutely convinced that one of the most important keys to success in business (and life) is discipline.

I am absolutely convinced that one of the most important keys to success in business (and life) is spontaneity.

I am absolutely convinced that one of the greatest sources of stress in business (and life) is feeling guilty about not being disciplined or spontaneous enough, depending on your personality.

As a naturally spontaneous, creative—aka disorganized—individual, I am constantly down on myself for not being more disciplined in just about every aspect of my work life. That includes how I manage my daily schedule, respond to e-mail, and manage my employees. My mantra could be: "Think how much better I'd be if I could only avoid distractions, adhere to an agenda, resist bright, shiny objects…." This usually shows up at home, too, and includes everything from finances and food to parenting and prayer.

On the other hand, when I decide to go on one of my semiannual discipline jags, I begin to lose my passion for work and I'm reminded that I am fed by my freedom to be spontaneous and creative.

Some leaders I know are the opposite. They work with extraordinary discipline. They rarely, if ever, forget about a meeting, let an important e-mail message sit in the in-box for more than eight hours without a response, or blow off a one-on-one meeting to take a call from an old friend. Yet I've come to realize—with relief, I must admit—that these people often feel guilty when they see successful leaders who live by the seats of their pants and seem to have richer, less predictable, and seemingly more exciting work lives.

They might try a week of spontaneity, throwing caution to the wind. ("Today I'm going to ignore my e-mail, call an unplanned brainstorming meeting, and maybe even take my staff to the movies.") Of course, this only puts them in a state of unbearable stress and eventually drives them back to the comforts of a regular schedule and predictable work life. Like me, they're left to confront the recurring guilt about their inability to be more spontaneous (or in my case, disciplined).

stop feeling guilty, then change some

The $64,000 question is, are we doomed to spend the rest of our lives lamenting our lack of discipline/spontaneity and wondering how much more effective we could be if only…?

Maybe not. The first step is not to change the way we work, but to eradicate much of the guilt we allow ourselves to feel. The truth is that some leaders and managers operate better when they behave spontaneously and unpredictability, responding to opportunities as they arise, regardless of the schedule. Others flourish in a more structured, disciplined setting. The key is to realize which is true, explain this to those you lead, and then accept most of the unpleasant consequences that come with it, knowing you can't have it both ways.

The second step, unfortunately, is to change the way we work—just a little.

The fact is, I really should be more disciplined. Why? Because it would make my creative, spontaneous gifts so much more effective and enjoyable. I need to pick a few—I'll repeat that: a few—parts of my world in which adding discipline wouldn't hinder my ability to be who I really am.

For instance, I can certainly afford to show up on time for staff meetings and review my schedule more regularly without meaningfully limiting my ability to be creative and spontaneous.

As for my disciplined friends, they do need to embrace spontaneity, allow their meetings to veer from the agenda, and carve out bigger chunks of time for brainstorming and unstructured strategizing. Still, there's no reason to ditch their diligence about important communication or toss their daily regimens out the window.

Once we take on those few areas, the key is to let the rest go. When our lack of discipline or spontaneity bites us in the butt from time to time, as it certainly will, we might as well celebrate what makes us the leaders that we are.

Hey, maybe someone out there with discipline could teach me how to improve mine. In return, perhaps I can take your staff to the movies.