The D-Word – Discipline Is Not a Dirty Word
Guest Post by Malcolm Peart (first posted on CERM ® RISK INSIGHTS – reposted here with permission)
In our aging societies with a work force ranging from Baby Boomers through Generation Xers to Millennials the ‘D-Word’ may summon up images of stoical sergeant-major types shouting and barking and removing any freedom of thought or act. Discipline is variously defined but it is generally understood to be ‘the ‘training that produces orderliness, obedience and self control to follow rules‘ and, operatively, if rules are broken ‘chastising or punishing‘. .
The nursery rhyme “Baa Baa Blacksheep” and the line “yes sir, yes sir, three bags full sir“‘is almost 300 years old and exemplifies a time-honoured perception of discipline as subjugation. Subjugation is ‘oppressive discipline’ and the resulting blind obedience creates a lack of self-respect in individuals who will not have any consideration of their own or actions or the actions of others. Contrarily, disciplined people care for themselves, respect others, have pride in their work and work within accepted ethical norms.
But can non-oppressive discipline be a burden that restricts individuals? For example, take any sport; teams are dependent on collective discipline to function while a sole competitor requires self-discipline alone. However, all sportspeople require some degree of self-discipline and, far from being restrictive, discipline is the very opposite.
In the uniformed world of the military, police, fire brigades, nursing, etc discipline is essential. In an operating environment of threat and uncertainty and rigorous discipline is quintessential and expected by their relatively undisciplined political masters and a public that are quick to criticise. “Don’t do as I do, do as I say” is a hypocritical approach to nurturing discipline and ‘leadership by example‘ is a phrase that would-be leaders should remember.
Freedom & Obedience
To some discipline means a lack or loss of freedom and restricting choice; but take a look at driving;
Driving one’s car is freedom;
Driving on the correct side of the road is discipline.
Driving without discipline is anarchy.
Discipline is also a trust that other people will follow the rules and norms of their society. Not just driving but everything from public transport to industry at large including professional and lay-people alike. It’s a collective expectation in the rule of law and ethics. Discipline is everywhere; even anarchists have their own rules!
“The habit of obedience‘ is another view of discipline related to self control. Self-control is an aspect of behaviour and, obviously, applies to individuals. However, the ‘self-control’ and governance of a country, a corporation, an organisation or a team and how that entity behaves in respecting others is also a facet of discipline and reflects the leadership and individual leaders of such entities.
Everybody is accountable to somebody and leaders are accountable to their followers. It’s about symbiosis and synergy rather than parasitism and discord. Leaders need self-discipline and obedience to the responsibility, authority and accountability they hold. An idealistic view perhaps but leaders need to keep their egos in check and overcome the temptations to their ideals.
Discipline & Leadership
Discipline has been defined in the British Army as “the ingrained habit of cheerful and unhesitating obedience”. ‘Cheerful’ may seem contradictory in the context of discipline but ‘cheerfulness’ is an important aspect of a disciplined team and leading it. Not joviality and laughter but rather having enjoyment in carrying out their work. People can ‘have fun’ at work and discipline can be a catalyst for such ‘fun’ as there is collective focus and ‘team spirit’.
Leadership involves managing, commanding and organising and ‘leaders’ inevitably have their own style be it charismatic, transformational, situational or transactional. It’s about “doing the right things” rather than “doing things right” but it’s also people and encompasses morale as well as discipline. Without discipline the chains of command that bind any group of people together will break resulting in confusion, chaos, and uncertainty. Uncertainty causes fear and it will be the discipline of the group that will determine its response to that primordial reaction of ‘flight or fight‘.
“Fear is a reaction; courage is a decision” said Churchill and fear is felt by everybody at some time. Fear can incapacitate but physical fear can be overcome through training. However, even though all fear is in the mind, when people’s ideas, beliefs or actions are challenged they may doubt their own convictions and ‘mental fear’ results. Doubt debilitates decisions and ‘moral courage’ is needed that requires mental toughness and an ability to think critically; these are essential leadership traits.
Leaders require a belief in their own convictions and the mental strength to carry out their duties requiring self discipline and moral fortitude. Leaders need to demonstrate the type of courage expected of them and if you are in a leadership position you are afraid then don’t show it and don’t let fear stop you. It’s worthwhile recalling the British Governments 1939 message of “Keep Calm and Carry On” and also that, to some, “Courage is just well concealed fear”.
Discipline is essential to freedom and without discipline in any society or any venture, there will be anarchy. When discipline fails then any rules, rather than being broken, are simply not followed resulting in some degree of fear.
Discipline ensures that people will behave in an expected or anticipated fashion and this is indispensible ingredient to leadership. Hierarchies and chains of command are respected and reinforced resulting in synergistic teams. Conversely a lack of discipline results in discord and fragmentation.
We do need discipline. Not the oppressive variety with zealotic idealism characterised by extreme Nazism, goose-stepping and clicking of heels, but that of ingrained and cheerful obedience. in this sense than discipline becomes a palatable concept.
Discipline in whatever guise will rule at the end of the day but we have a choice as to which type of discipline we accept…and that can be a courageous decision.
UK Chartered Engineer & Chartered Geologist with over thirty-five years’ international experience in multicultural environments on large multidisciplinary infrastructure projects including rail, metro, hydro, airports, tunnels, roads and bridges. Skills include project management, contract administration & procurement, and design & construction management skills as Client, Consultant, and Contractor.