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Why Creating a Culture of Discipline is the Path to Greatness

Without disciplined people acting in a disciplined manner, no company can achieve mission success.

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BY Brent Gleeson - 29 Jul 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

For any organizational transformation effort to succeed, discipline and accountability must become the bedrock of the culture.

How do determined young men become Navy SEALs? How do elite athletes achieve peak performance? One word. Discipline. They cut out everything in their lives that don't add value to fulfilling their goals - the people, behaviors and distractions that drawn them further from greatness. People and organizations that lack discipline have made a conscious choice for that to be their reality.

When I made the choice to transition from corporate American to the Navy to become a SEAL, I had to make a significant mindset shift. Anything that stood in my way had to go - with no exceptions. My social life, diet and training regimen were all redesigned to fit one vision. Becoming a SEAL.

As I write this article, another class of brave and disciplined young men are graduating and joining the ranks of the SEAL Teams. As a member of the executive board for the SEAL Family Foundation, I have the honor and privilege of attending these graduations. You can't accurately describe in words the feeling and emotion that permeates the training center on graduation day.

For most, the journey has been years in the making. For all, earning the SEAL trident is a reward for discipline, focus and an unrelenting pursuit to achieve a singular goal. They understand that the trident is our symbol of honor and heritage - that it is a privilege they must earn every day.

We have an informal tradition that usually takes place after the formal ceremony. The trident has three 1/4 inch pins on the back used to secure it to the uniform. Those pins have backings that snap on to ensure the trident doesn't come off. Behind closed doors, new graduates will remove those backings so that the sharp pins are exposed to the flesh. Other seasoned frogmen attending the graduation will line up and pound the trident into the graduates' skin as hard as they can with their fists - or at least this was my experience. This symbolizes that the trident is now a part of you. The discipline that led you to this day doesn't stop there. It is only expected to increase.

In a presentation I gave to The North Face's elite athletes in Moab, Utah, I used the example of my friend and teammate David Goggins, a Navy SEAL and ultra-marathon runner. The North Face team is made up of elite ultra-marathon runners, skiers, snow boarders, climbers and cyclists so it was no surprise they knew David and some had raced against him. His journey to becoming a SEAL and elite athlete was no different than any of theirs. It took discipline.

For any person or organization with a desire to grow or change, discipline requires consistent behaviors that align with achieving goals. Then those behaviors become habits. And when productive goal-oriented behaviors become habits, it's hard to stop. That's why they are called habits. For example, a healthcare company I have worked with started referring to their core values as habits. That was done by design because values are only as good as the words and actions that support them.

In previous articles, I have written about the process for measuring and improving trust and accountability as it relates to preparing your organization for change. With these pillars as the foundation of a company's culture, focus and discipline are more likely to be achievable. But like anything else, creating a disciplined team culture starts at the top.

In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins said that "a culture of discipline is not a principle of business, it is a principle of greatness." Those words might resonate with many leaders who are feeling frustrated about aspects of accountability, follow-through, attention to detail, collaboration, or some other area in their organization. The reality is that discipline must start with the habits and routines of leadership.

Let's say for example a large media agency is beginning a major transformation with a vision to drastically improve internal efficiencies that will lead to a 10% improvement in customer satisfaction. One of the areas they need to slow down on to accomplish this is sales. In order to focus on new initiatives business development needs to stop for a while. In fact, they need to remove 25% of the existing client base. The senior leadership team all agrees and the production teams are relieved.

But in a company-wide meeting, the Sale's Director announces the closing of the firm's largest new client! Confusion and fear sets in immediately.

The reason that this was undisciplined behavior is because the senior leaders had already collectively agreed that new business had to stop during the early stages of their transformation so the company could focus on the important initiatives and gain momentum. They were all aligned in this decision - or so they thought.

Unfortunately, one of those senior leaders couldn't resist bringing in this business. When the Sales Director brought forth the opportunity to a senior VP, he actually dropped everything for a month to focus on helping close the deal! Instead of being a productive member of the transformation task force, he shifted gears completely to do the one core thing that the company had decided to stop doing.

Competing priorities will plague a change effort from beginning to end. Without disciplined people acting in a disciplined manner that aligns with the vision, the mission fails every time. Discipline and consistency are the path to greatness.

Any time I talk to senior executives who complain that their teams are falling short of meeting specific goals, I ask them what they feel the root causes are. Lack of accountability, trust and collaboration are typical answers. But when you dive deeper you typically see that these behaviors aren't being exhibited at the top. How can any organization expect to have a culture of discipline when it doesn't exist among senior leaders?

It can't.

In Good to Great, Jim Collins focuses the three fundamental areas of discipline in an organization. You can only form a disciplined foundation if you have the right people on the bus, who are themselves self-disciplined. Applying this over time you will be able to cement this into the company culture.

Those three areas are disciplined people, disciplined thoughts and disciplined action.

Self-disciplined team members who are accountable don't have to be managed as much. When you decentralize controls and create ecosystems of empowered leaders and managers throughout an organization, all you need to do is provide the framework within which the team can operate - then watch the magic happen. But when undisciplined leaders and employees exist within that framework, things fall apart. People lacking discipline have to go. When discipline is an issue at the top, however, that chances of successfully leading change are dismal.

When gathering intelligence and planning the change mission, a stop-start-continue exercise plays a critical role in defining actionable steps for achieving the change vision. The activities listed in the stop category are among the most important because they detract from the mission.

Those activities will usually fall into one or all of the following categories:

• They don't align with the vision.

• They have a negative impact on the desired culture.

• They add no value to the mission.

• They distract people from focusing on the "win".

The struggle is that those activities are usually the bi-product of years of behaviors and mindsets based on an outdated vision. This is one of the main reasons organizational change efforts fail, even when a company has made significant progress in early stages.

For example, very few of the contestants on the hit TV show The Biggest Loser actually keep the weight off. They typically have lacked discipline throughout their lives and fail to transform their mindset to focus on a new reality. They don't rid themselves of old habits and adopt new ones. The same applies for failed change efforts.

But with disciplined people acting in a disciplined manner, chances of mission success skyrocket. Less oversight is required freeing leaders and managers to focus on activities that push the change train forward. Given the proper resources and training, people can innovate within a given framework. This is why elite special operations units are so effective and why great organizations crush their competition.

They have discipline.

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