Self-Command: Four Horses and One Charioteer

Thomas Bateman
Leaders & Managers
Published in
4 min readJun 17, 2023


How you manage yourself is an endless and customized exercise in choosing goals and pursuing them over time. The process can be thoughtful and successful but often unfolds on autopilot, sometimes effectively and sometimes not.

Source: elukac/Pixabay

You can easily find recommendations for managing stress, improving time management, avoiding procrastination, dealing with burnout, and sticking to diets and exercise programs. But you can also do well by adopting a single, basic framework for managing your thoughts and actions in a lifelong program of self-command.

The population of academic studies and how-to articles that help “manage you” is vast and never-ending; this makes the many potential paths to personal effectiveness challenging to know and execute wisely. The good news is that a single research-validated model can help with almost any unfolding professional or personal challenge.

Four sets of essential activities allow self-command to germinate, grow, and flourish:

Choose high-value goals. Determining worthwhile goals is the starting point for high-impact self-command. As you read this, choose one personally meaningful long-term project or goal to think about — managing stress or the other challenges mentioned above, developing your desired professional reputation, launching a successful venture, ensuring the success of a cross-unit or inter-organizational project, or becoming a better leader or problem solver.

Exercise forethought. Human beings possess impressive skills for planning for the future and thinking strategically before choosing what to do. Strengthening your future-mindedness — thinking about possible futures and how to avoid the worst and realize the best — is a good goal for jumpstarting the journey toward self-command. I highlight this because our default is to run more on autopilot, controlled primarily by the paths we chose in the past, our personal habits and work routines, and immediate situational demands and constraints.

Fruitful forethought includes thinking about futures more distant than tomorrow and next week, envisioning various possible scenarios, scanning for potential opportunities and problems, and identifying strategies and tactics for preventing or overcoming possible challenges or obstacles.

Pursue your goals and self-monitor. Having carefully considered your goal(s) and strategically determined how to proceed, you can begin a more active, forward-moving goal pursuit. Activities requiring sustained attention and effort over long time periods are uniquely challenging. This self-monitoring, self-regulating function is where willpower and determination gain value, helping you continue striving toward your goals while evaluating your actions and progress. Keys here include finding intrinsic rewards in your pursuits (signs of improvement or forward progress, meaningfulness, learning and discovering new things, and other gratifications), responding constructively to setbacks and successes, and taking good care of your physical and mental health — good health being a valuable goal inherently plus crucial toward achieving your full long-run potential.

Reflect and correct course. Most likely, pursuits don’t go perfectly, trajectories shift, ventures hit plateaus or go south, and you must make new decisions. Your options are many: stay the course, give up, ratchet up, wind down, or change goals, strategies, or tactics. Now is an excellent time to check your physical and psychological well-being. Plateaus and setbacks indicate a need to reconsider and redirect your energies via job crafting (dropping some activities and adding useful new ones) and tactics that avoid further backsliding. Correcting course might mean changing a few tactics or making a considerable strategic shift. Still, your core personal and professional values should remain steadfast.

You now know the four horses of self-command. But the model is complete only when the charioteer knows how to engage the team. One essential mindset — proactivity — can activate all four self-command components.

To be proactive is a cliché at one level, as in the post hoc analysis, “We should’ve been more proactive.” But proactivity is far more profound; it is a unique, high-impact class of behaviors, comprising not familiar everyday actions but future-focused actions that create change by taking initiative, altering or forging paths, persisting, and achieving new results. Proactivity runs counter to and achieves better outcomes than our standard defaults of passivity, delayed reaction, resisting change, and maintaining current trajectories and business as usual.

Extensive research shows that proactive mindsets and behaviors predict many positive outcomes, including higher individual job and team performance, personal well-being, charisma, perceived transformational leadership, career satisfaction, promotions and pay raises, entrepreneurialism, stress management, and more. These and other studies indicate the targeted and big-picture value of effective self-command, initiated and sustained by a proactive charioteer, toward reaching your personal and professional goals.

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Thomas Bateman
Leaders & Managers

Tom Bateman lives in Maine and Chicago and is professor emeritus, McIntire School of Commerce, University of Virginia.