Impulse Control In Leadership

6 min read
29 May 2024
Impulse Control In Leadership

Leadership requires a diverse range of skills and qualities. One such attribute that is critical yet often overlooked is impulse control. Influential leaders display composure under pressure and engage in critical thinking while providing appropriate responses in various situations.

When Impulsive Reactions Negatively Affect A Leader’s Performance

The ability to manage impulses allows leaders to think clearly, consider the long-term consequences of their actions, and make sound decisions that benefit the organization. In contrast, leaders who lack impulse control may react hastily, making decisions that are not well thought out and that can have detrimental effects on their team and the organization as a whole.

The lack of impulse control can lead to serious problems in leadership and organizational success. Impulsive behaviours can result in conflicts with colleagues, subordinates, and stakeholders, undermining the leader’s ability to foster a collaborative and positive work environment. These conflicts can erode trust and respect, which are essential for effective leadership. Additionally, impulsive reactions can damage the leader’s credibility and influence, making it difficult to inspire and motivate their team. Without the ability to manage impulses, leaders may struggle to maintain a clear vision and provide the inspiration needed for long-term success.

What does it mean to have impulse control?

Impulse control refers to an individual's ability to resist or delay an immediate urge, temptation, or inclination in order to achieve a long-term goal or comply with societal norms. People with impulse control problems struggle to inhibit behaviours that can be harmful or inappropriate, often acting on desires without considering the consequences. This can manifest in various problematic behaviours, some of which include:

  • Gambling: Individuals with poor impulse control may find it difficult to resist the urge to gamble excessively, leading to financial instability, relationship issues, and severe mental health problems.
  • Angry or Aggressive Behavior: This includes acting out in anger impulsively, often with little provocation. It can result in verbal outbursts or physical aggression towards others, causing social and interpersonal difficulties.
  • Compulsive Shopping: People may compulsively purchase items they don’t need and often can't afford, leading to financial distress and personal regrets. A memorable movie about this is "Confessions of a Shopaholic", a film that vividly portrays the struggles and consequences of compulsive shopping. The story centres around Rebecca Bloomwood, a young journalist living in New York City, who is deeply entrenched in a cycle of excessive spending and accumulating debt. Despite her glamorous lifestyle, Rebecca's compulsive shopping habits lead to severe financial distress, illustrating the often hidden dangers of this addiction.
  • Substance Abuse: Impulsivity can contribute to the misuse of substances like alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. The inability to resist the urge to use, even in harmful circumstances, characterizes many substance-related disorders.
  • Binge Eating: Similar to substance abuse, binge eating involves periods of excessive eating. Individuals may feel an uncontrollable urge to quickly eat large quantities of food, often leading to physical discomfort and feelings of guilt and shame.

Current Examples of Lack of Impulse Control in Leaders

Elon Musk’s Twitter Management

Since acquiring Twitter, Elon Musk has made several impulsive decisions that have attracted widespread criticism and concern. His abrupt changes to Twitter’s policies and structure, public firings, and controversial tweets have raised questions about the impacts of impulsive leadership on a company’s stability and culture. Such impulsive decisions can significantly hinder the achievement of organizational goals by disrupting direction, alignment, and commitment within the team.

Political Leadership

Boris Johnson, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, frequently displayed impulsive behaviour with significant political repercussions. His spontaneous decisions and statements often resulted in confusion and inconsistency in government policies, particularly noticeable during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Historical Examples

Alexander the Great (King of Macedonia, 336–323 BC)

While renowned for his extraordinary military achievements and strategic insight, Alexander the Great also exhibited signs of poor impulse control, particularly later in his career. His decision-making became increasingly erratic, and his temper led to rash actions, including the murder of one of his most trusted generals, Cleitus, in a drunken argument. Alexander’s inability to control his impulses may have contributed to the ultimate unravelling of his vast empire after his death. Had Alexander developed better impulse control, he could have been a better leader by being more adaptable, ethical, and able to build trust and credibility among his followers.

Nero (Roman Emperor, 54–68 AD)

The fifth Roman Emperor, Nero, is infamous for his extreme lack of impulse control, manifested in erratic and extravagant behaviour. His reign included numerous acts of cruelty, lavish personal spending that strained the empire’s finances, and impulsive decisions that led to political instability. One of the most notorious legends about Nero is that he “fiddled while Rome burned,” a story that, while apocryphal, symbolizes his reputation for the empire under his control and his focus on personal pleasure.

Developing Better Impulse Control

Leaders can improve their impulse control through various techniques:

  1. Mindfulness and Reflection: Regular practices like meditation can help leaders become more aware of their impulses and pause before acting.
  2. Feedback Loops: Encouraging open feedback from peers and subordinates can help leaders recognize and correct behaviour patterns.
  3. Professional Development: Training and workshops focused on emotional intelligence and decision-making can equip leaders with strategies to improve impulse control.

Improving impulse control is crucial for effective leadership. Leaders who manage their emotions well can prevent angry outbursts that disrupt team harmony and negatively impact performance. By maintaining control over their impulses, leaders can foster a positive group dynamic, enhancing overall productivity and morale. Effective leadership hinges on maintaining composure under pressure, making thoughtful decisions, and fostering an environment where team members feel valued and respected. This approach not only benefits individual leaders but also strengthens the entire organization.

Causes of Lack of Impulse Control

Lack of impulse control can be attributed to several factors, including genetic factors, highlighting the complexity of addressing these issues in leadership. In many cases, lack of impulse control can be related to brain health and function. Dr. Daniel Amen, a prominent psychiatrist and brain health expert, has conducted extensive research on the brain's role in impulse control. His work highlights several key causes:

  • Prefrontal Cortex Function: The prefrontal cortex (PFC), often referred to as the executive centre of the brain, plays a crucial role in impulse control. This region is responsible for executive functions such as planning, decision-making, and moderating social behaviour. When the PFC is underactive, individuals may struggle with impulse control, making it difficult for them to resist temptations and make thoughtful decisions. Conversely, an overactive PFC can lead to excessive worry and anxiety, which can also disrupt impulse control​.
  • Neurotransmitter Imbalances: Neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin are essential for regulating mood and behaviour. Imbalances in these chemicals can lead to impulsivity.
  • Childhood Trauma and Environmental Factors: Early life experiences, such as childhood trauma, neglect, and exposure to adverse environments, can significantly impact brain development and function. Dr. Amen’s research indicates that these factors can alter the structure and function of the brain, particularly the PFC, leading to impaired impulse control. Additionally, chronic stress and unhealthy lifestyle habits can exacerbate these issues by affecting brain health and increasing the risk of impulsive behaviours.

By understanding these underlying causes, individuals can seek targeted interventions, such as cognitive-behavioural therapy, medications, exercise and lifestyle changes, to improve impulse control and overall brain health.

As current leaders who struggle with this trait demonstrate, the consequences of poor impulse control can be significant. By recognizing the importance of enhancing this skill, leaders can substantially improve their effectiveness and contribute positively to their organizations.


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  3. Stanford Graduate School of Business. (n.d.). Case Studies on Leadership and Decision-Making. Stanford Graduate School of Business.
  4. McMillan, R., & Wells, G. (2023, May 28). Inside Musk’s Twitter transformation: Impulsive decisions, favors for friends. The Wall Street Journal.
  5. Broadman, H. (2020, February 27). Boris Johnson’s impulsivity will undermine UK Brexit trade negotiations. Forbes.
  6. Grainger, J. D. (2007). Alexander the Great Failure: The Collapse of the Macedonian Empire. Hambledon Continuum.
  7. George, M. (2018). Emperor Nero: The Splendour Before The Dark. Berkley.
  8. Amen, D. G. (1998). Change Your Brain, Change Your Life. Three Rivers Press.
  9. Amen, D. G. (2001). Healing ADD. Putnam.
  10. Amen, D. G. (2020). The End of Mental Illness. Tyndale Momentum.
  11. Estevez, A. (n.d.). ADHD & Impulsivity: Understanding the connection. Healthline.

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