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A graphic of a woman standing at the front of a group of people outside.
By
Cindy Willmann

Discipline is a word that has different meanings to so many people. To some, it is a trigger word, burdened with guilt and shame – and even rebellion. (If this is you, bear with me!) To others, it evokes a sense of joy, fulfillment and accomplishment. How can one word or practice have such a different experience for people? Our view of the word discipline is as varied as our life experiences, and it often is a byproduct of the homes, cultures and environments we grew up in and what was reinforced.

You may have guessed that I’m in the latter camp that finds joy in discipline since I’m writing a blog post about it. I have multiple to-do lists, and I find so much satisfaction in crossing things off that sometimes I add things I’ve already done just so I can mark them off, too. (You can admit it, you’ve done the same thing). I have a tracker that I use to monitor goals I’m working toward and habits I want to cultivate on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. In short – I track all the things. 

This year, I started using a planner that walks you through a process of reflecting on different areas of your life and setting specific goals for the year. By the end of March, I had a functional home gym set up in my detached garage, and I’m using it a few times a week. This was a multistep process that the planner helped me break down into monthly targets to help me reach my overall goal of having a home gym. During this ongoing pandemic, it feels so good to be able to walk about 10 steps from my house and get in a decent workout without anyone else’s germs.

Although I am a fan of the structure that comes with discipline, this doesn’t mean that I have mastered all facets of my life – there are some aspects where I still struggle. (Don’t we all have that one thing that will be a constant challenge?) There are areas where I get bored with my tracking mechanisms and doing the “right” thing or times when my inner rebellious 3-year-old rears her ugly head and cries “I don’t wanna!!” But, having discipline has helped me tame that inner toddler and create the life I want to live in more ways than not. And, I’ll count that as a win!

As I consider the concept of discipline from a leadership perspective, I can think of many benefits. Also, disciplined leadership can look a lot of different ways depending on the context. It doesn’t have to mean someone who is so rigid that they can’t be flexible or allow different ways of doing things. A few years ago, as a leadership team, we talked a lot about principles versus preferences. We talked about having guiding principles for our expectations as an organization and our staff and focusing on those principles over our preferences on how things were done. So in short, a disciplined leader is clear about what needs to be accomplished while leaving flexibility for how it is accomplished. This isn’t necessarily easy by any stretch – my preferences are strong! Sometimes it takes a lot of discipline to keep my mouth shut when the employee has arrived at the destination I wanted but in a very different way than I would do it. 

Disciplined leadership can also co-exist with job functions that require flexibility or agility. In those types of functions where change is the norm, a disciplined leader can work with their team to come up with decision frameworks to help plan for how changes will be managed and controlled so that objectives and deadlines are still met.

In my experience, leaders who apply these approaches and take on certain traits often find themselves with happier employees. So here are a few benefits I have found as a result of discipline in my leadership:

  1. Create a stable work environment. 
    Stability benefits everyone – not just children in their developmental years. Instability can create chaos, which is detrimental to team productivity. Leadership that constantly shifts priority to the next shiny object or next screaming customer can be demotivating to team members if they are never able to finish things and feel like they are making progress. Stability helps provide predictability and clear expectations for the working environment so that these things do not become distractions that hinder employee performance.

    As I alluded to above, stability and inflexibility are not the same. Creativity, brainstorming, pushing toward the future and adapting to a changing environment can co-exist with a stable leadership style and organization. There is definitely a balance to be found here and all of us face times in our work where we must be agile. We have all learned a lot in the last year about adapting to a changing world. Leaders who communicate clearly and think strategically in response to shifting environments or priorities provide stability for their teams. 
     
  2. Establish clarity about what’s important.
    Being a disciplined leader and setting clear goals helps you and your team prioritize. When employees lack clarity about their priorities, they often spin their wheels and become frustrated when they don’t make progress. 

    It takes discipline as a leader to control the impulses that may send your team chasing your most random thoughts. For example, it’s easy for me to take any random thought that crosses my mind and say to someone on my team – “hey, we need to think about X, Y or Z.” It’s a completely different thing to say “hey, when you’re done with your current project, I’d like you to think about Y because it’s really impacting the business in these ways.” I’ve witnessed leaders who are verbally processing something with junior team members, and then the team runs off trying to work on items that were not really important. Your team needs to know the difference between a real priority versus a random thought passing through your mind. 

    This doesn’t mean that priorities can’t shift. It does mean that when they do shift, you are ensuring your team understands the new plan for moving forward, that you are clear about why priorities are shifting, and that you aren’t shifting priorities every week!
     
  3. Increase employee retention 
    You’ve probably heard the saying that people leave managers not companies. Now this is not completely true – sometimes opportunities come up that they can’t refuse, or circumstances change in their life, etc. However, I would argue that in many cases, a disgruntled employee can be traced back to an undisciplined manager. 

    According to Forbes, the following are some signs of undisciplined leadership: 

    “It first reveals itself in long-term financial performance. The organization can’t perform at the highest level over the long term. Second, you see team dysfunction and higher levels of employee turnover. Third, there is constant negative chatter underground that permeates the organization and is generally hidden from the business leaders.”

    While they are not the sole factor, managers have a direct impact on overall job satisfaction and employee performance. Offering structure to your team is part of being an effective leader and establishes a sense of security – even in challenging times

So, how can you become more disciplined in your leadership? Thankfully, it can be learned and taught just like many other things that become standard practice. Here are some habits you could work on to increase your discipline. It may help to prioritize those that fill your own specific leadership gaps or the areas that are most needed in your team or specific circumstances. (Source)

  1. “Time-management (apply timelines, don’t procrastinate, respect the time of others) 
  2. Focus (prioritize tasks, plan your day, break down long-term goals into short-term plans) 
  3. Interaction (communicate clearly, concisely and regularly with all key players) 
  4. Positive attitude (create energy, share your vision, unite teams and pursue excellence) 
  5. Persistence (progress with patience and determination despite obstacles) 
  6. Responsibility (take psychological ownership for anything you commit to) 
  7. Consistency (treat people the same and provide a predictable environment).”

Individually, none of these things are so hard or life-changing, but collectively they can create a leader that anyone would want to follow. Take some time to assess what you need to work on. Ask your team or colleagues for feedback about where you could improve. I know I can procrastinate on tasks that are less interesting to me, so I’m personally going to work on that one. Where will you jump in? Your team will thank you for it!


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Cindy Willmann

Cindy Willmann

Cindy Willmann is the vice president of operations at Global Impact. In her role, she wears many hats: overseeing internal and external facing technology, leading our Charity Services team and wrangling content for our board so they are equipped to serve us well. It’s a varied portfolio and keeps her on her toes! Cindy is a Boston native, but you wouldn’t know it from talking to her (she hopes!) and currently lives in Arlington, Virginia, with her husband and black pug mix, Chloe. In her spare time she loves reading to keep up with her 2+ book clubs and catching live music when she can, especially her husband who plays guitar. 

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