September 2 – True discipline

September 2. “True discipline isn’t on your back, needling you with imperatives. It is at your side, nudging you with incentives.” (Sybil Stanton)

When most of us think of discipline, we think of something that is external to ourselves. I know that I will usually first harken back to my school days, when the Principal or Assistant Principal would mete out punishment for bad behavior. Or, I might think of my mother, or my own parenthood, and go to the idea of setting rules and enforcing them. In our common language, this has become what discipline means. But, that doesn’t tell the whole story.

The word disciple shares the same Latin root as the word discipline, that is discere (“to learn”). In the case of the word disciple, it has evolved to mean not only the person who learns, but who also later teaches others. The root of the words mention nothing about punishment or harshness of the rules. When we think back to those who had disciples – Jesus, the Prophets, etc. – we think not of people who would be called “disciplinarians” in today’s parlance, we think of teachers.

If a rule, or way of behavior, is learned and enforced only through punishment, then the best one can expect to gain from followers is compliance. As soon as the person enforcing the punishment is gone, or distracted, then the undesired behavior will return. For the behavior to become innate to the person, it requires an attitude around discipline that’s implied in this quote, it has to be something the person wants to follow.

At work we used to talk about that special radio station WIIFM, which stood for “what’s in it for me”. This was something I would consider when creating standards and rules for Project Management. If the standard didn’t have a clearly defined “value proposition” to the practitioner, then the best I could ever expect on a large scale would be compliance. Cooperation only happens when everyone clearly understands why a standard is set.

A good example of this is asking for forecasts in the 3rd week of a month. Many times we would get push back that we were asking too soon, that the managers wouldn’t know until a couple of weeks later. They worried about their accuracy and so on. They couldn’t understand why we needed the data so early. This would be a source of frustration for all. Finally I laid out a calendar where I showed all of the downstream processes that relied on these forecasts. I showed other deadlines that more senior management had for their reporting and consolidation. I even showed how this would have an effect on the projects in the longer run for funding and help with problems. Only when I laid out this longer timeline did some begin to understand and cooperate with the requests. Once I tuned in the radio station WIIFM, they were convinced.

Leading a disciplined life is not about blindly following rules in fear of punishment. It is about being a lifelong learner, a follower of something larger than myself, and a teacher to others. It isn’t weighed down with rules and regulations, it is buoyed by the incentive of knowing that by following and teaching there is a greater good to be had.

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