Whether you are a parent, teacher, mentor, or in any other leadership position, there is one thing that we all need: discipline! We need self-discipline and must demand discipline from those we lead (that includes our children).
The first image that pops in my head when I think of the word “discipline” is the iconic U.S. Marine Corps drill instructor. That’s partly because every drill instructor probably says the word a million times. In fact, one of the first things the senior drill instructor tells his or her recruits at Marine Corps Recruit Depot (aka “boot camp”) is, “Discipline and spirit are the hallmarks of a Marine. Each one of you can become a Marine if you develop discipline and spirit.” Although it would be the absolute worst time to ask, a recruit may be wondering, “Sir, what is discipline?” So that’s where I will begin.
My thoughts on discipline.
As a guy who grew up in the south, I have always heard, “spare the rod, spoil the child” or as Ms. Trunchbull said in Matilda, “My school is a model of discipline! Use the rod, beat the child, that’s my motto.” Both of these are a spin off of the biblical verse in Proverbs 13:24 that says, “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.”
I recognize that I probably just split my audience in two. One group’s pants just dropped as they ripped their belt from their waist and said, “that’s what I’m talking about!” The other is ready to just stop reading and give me a thumbs down. Either way, I am here to neither condemn nor endorse a particular disciplinary method. My goal is to simply provide my take on discipline. After you finish reading, I encourage you to research and develop disciplinary methods that will work for the people you are leading.
What is “discipline”:
My thoughts on discipline are a result of several things. First, my upbringing and life experiences as a U.S. Marine officer, parent, and mentor. Next, the books I’ve read like “Quiet Strength” by Tony Dungy , “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie, “It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership” by Colin Powell, and many others. Most recently, I discussed discipline in my home Bible study group with other U.S. Marines (who happen to be special operators and fathers themselves).
Discipline is both a noun and a verb that is defined in numerous sources as “the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience.” In verb form, there is an even more direct definition that says, “punish or rebuke (someone) formally for an offense.”
Seems pretty clear that discipline is all about training by applying painful consequences!
Before we commit to that logic, let’s take a look at the root of the word.
The word “discipline” is from the Latin word “discipulus,” meaning “pupil, learner.” “Discipulus” is also the source of a familiar English word “disciple” which means “one who accepts and assists in spreading the doctrines of another.” As you continue to follow the word “discipulus,” you will find it also produced the Latin word, “disciplīna” which means “teaching, instruction, branch of study, orderly conduct based on moral training.” Here’s where it gets interesting, “disciplīna” produced the Middle English word “discipline” which we have already defined. The interesting part is now the word “chastisement” or “punishment” was introduced in 13th century religious practices. To me, that means the word lost its purity over time as various teaching methods were introduced.
My countercultural belief.
Aside from quotes like Ms. Trunchbull’s in the early 1990s, you will hear quotes like “pain retains” when discussing discipline today. Even so, I submit that if we truly want to achieve the ultimate goal, which is for our followers to develop self-discipline, we must return to the root of the word. With that in mind, my belief can be summarized by the quote below.
“But it worked for me!”
I will give a personal example below; however, I encourage you to do your own research on the relationship between punishment and training. Here are a few scholarly articles to get you started: “The dark side of families: Current family violence research,” “The role of maternal discipline and involvement in peer rejection and neglect,” “Discipline and deviance: physical punishment of children and violence and other crime in adulthood,” and “Moderate spanking: Model or deterrent of children’s aggression in the family?”
I believe the above authors would agree that punishment creates immediate conformity, but again, the goal should be self-discipline, which is a long-term objective. I define self-discipline as the continued application of lessons learned regardless of the circumstance or level of supervision.
My personal example
Sometimes, immediate conformity is necessary. For example, my 3 year old was innocently wandering towards the street. I rushed over, physically stopped her, and sternly commanded, “do not go into the street!” After doing this three to four times, one would assume that discipline by physical means or punishment was achieved. To that, I’d agree. My daughter (the pupil) has learned that I am willing to use physical force to immediately stop her from walking into the street. Many leaders would stop there–assuming the child has received the appropriate instruction and has adequate discipline. The immediate question I would ask is, “what happens when Dad is not around?”
In this case, I needed instant conformity to stop my daughter from wandering into a dangerous situation to prevent a potentially fatal outcome. However, as the instructor who is looking to help the pupil develop discipline, my work does not stop there. I must help her accept my teachings by making it relevant to her. Then, and only then, has she achieved self-discipline. In this example, I showed her how fast the car is going and explained how dangerous it is to walk into the road. When we passed vehicle accidents, I showed her how people could get injured and how vehicles were ruined. Now, she corrects me if she doesn’t see me check both ways before crossing the road. Self-discipline has been achieved.
Effective discipline leads to self-discipline.
If discipline is training your followers to accept what you or your organization believe to be right, then (as I said before) self-discipline is the consistent application of these lessons regardless of the circumstance. For example, I wasn’t the best free throw shooter in high school. In fact, I shot around 65-70% accuracy. I remember the coach telling us, “free throws are FREE!” In other words, the free throw is the only uncontested shot in basketball.
Of course like many other teams, we ran for missed free throws. Though it helped me get in better shape, running had very little impact on my free throw shooting accuracy. What forced me to change was my realization that my poor free throw shooting could be the difference between a win and a loss. That realization encouraged me to practice. Many great free throw shooters will tell you that the secret to shooting more accurately is to do the same thing every time. That means from the way you wipe your sweat to the way you bend your legs to the way you breathe to the way you release the basketball. These factors (and more) contribute to your accuracy. My free throw shooting percentage significantly improved when I learned to consistently apply my coach’s shooting instructions. This is what developing discipline is all about–consistently applying instructions regardless of circumstances for your benefit and the benefit of the entire family or organization.
How to lead others to develop discipline.
I wouldn’t dare claim this is an all-encompassing list, but here are my thoughts on how you can lead others to develop discipline.
1. Set the example!
One of my favorite phrases is, “more is caught than taught.” In other words, people want to see their leaders practicing what they are teaching. Leaders must have self-discipline before they can discipline others.
2. It’s a team effort.
In case you haven’t realized it yet, you have an integral role in helping others develop self-discipline. I know Hollywood would have us believe that we can climb Mount Fuji shirtless to find ourselves and develop discipline, but that’s not reality. For example, U.S. Marine Corps drill instructors don’t allow recruits to just wander around for thirteen weeks until they find this mythical thing called “discipline.” The drill instructors lead the recruits on a physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional journey and allow them to graduate once they demonstrate self-discipline.
3. Repetition is key.
I elaborate on this in a previous blog post entitled “Establishing Winning Habits.” Therein, I said, “You are what you repeat.” Which means we have to teach our followers to practice applying the instructions we provide. That is the only way to influence habitual behavior.
4. Be consistent and persistent.
I have had the opportunity to peak behind the curtains at Marine Corps boot camp. From that experience, I can tell you that some recruits require longer than thirteen weeks to develop self-discipline. That means that some recruits graduate with a different company than they started with. However, as long as the recruit (pupil) refuses to give up, the team at the Marine Corps Recruit Depots will continue to lead that recruit. This same logic applies to any pupil. Everyone is different, so that means you may have to train them longer (or shorter) than you expected. Remain consistent and persistent in your teachings.
5. Reward and hold accountable.
There are numerous studies that conclude that living beings respond positively to being rewarded for doing well. But, we cannot ignore the other half of the equation–accountability. Celebrate successes and quickly correct deficiencies. That is the best way to ensure someone accepts your instructions.
6. Prioritize education and explain the “why.”
This is one of the most important factors to encourage others to accept your instructions. As a leader, telling your followers what to do is easy, but great leaders understand that educating followers by explaining the “why” is what allows the followers to consistently apply the teachings regardless of the circumstance. Help your followers understand why your instructions are relevant to the family or organization as a whole, and help your followers understand why your instructions are relevant to them individually.
There are a few key points that I want you to take with you today. Self-discipline is the ultimate goal. That requires leaders to lead their followers on a journey towards developing self-discipline. Along this journey, it’s imperative that leaders research and develop disciplinary methods that will adequately contribute to the overall goal. In the end, discipline is what will ensure your family’s or organization’s success. It is up to you to instill that discipline.
Thanks for reading! Have a great week!