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 *Note: This article was co-authored with Tim Paul, who inspired the idea and the supporting thoughts.

You hear about discipline being a core trait of a leader. But what is the real nature and benefit of “discipline”?

Discipline is an interesting topic and here’s why: it’s been pegged as a “military-grade” word. When you hear discipline you might think of picture-perfect soldiers marching.

Or maybe you think of the `sharpness of a military formation. Or new military recruits waking up early and grinding away in boot camp.

Yes, the military is synonymous with good order and discipline. However, coming from the military, I can tell you there is a more unique definition of discipline: Doing the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason, regardless of the consequences; or more simply: the ability to triumph over taking the easy way out.

This definition may be a more contemporary one, but it sums up the benefit, and meaning, behind what discipline can offer you as a Leader.

Here’s why: Discipline is related to the word disciple, coming from the Latin disciplus, meaning learner.

So, embedded in the word that we often think of as rigid, razor sharp, or perfectly detailed is this beautiful understanding that discipline is, at it’s core, “learning”. And we all know that learning is not perfect, not rigid and not razor sharp – its messy.

It’s not about learning the outside world. Rather, it’s about self-knowledge — how much do you really understand about how you naturally gravitate towards safety, comfort, and the path of least resistance?

Discipline can be viewed as restrictive or at the very least a nuisance. We often equate it to willpower.

Discipline is not willpower. Willpower is a resource — we know that the brain can become tuckered out using this precious commodity. Come on, you can only resist that cookie for so long.

Discipline – is actually leadership over the brain. 

Our brains are hard wired to survive. That means our brain is always searching for the shortcut, the easy way out, the path of least resistance. It’s not lazy, it wants to find the most effective, and efficient way to do anything so it can focus on survival.

The good news is that if it wasn’t searching for easy ways to do things, even the most simple things would be exhausting: driving your car, sorting your mail, even picking up bread at the store would be torturous.

Having discipline is about moving thoughts away from our primitive survival brain, and pushing them to the frontal lobe where good decision making occurs. It’s the triumph of our mind’s tendency to seek the path of least resistance.

Look, we’re talking about discipline for Leaders, not just discipline itself.

So if we are talking about discipline for leaders, we are talking about culture. Leaders are the keepers of culture. What does that mean? Leaders are responsible for providing principles on how to lead, and how an organization should operate and make decisions that provide purpose for their team.

So how does discipline play into this? Again, it is a deliberate mindset – what do we know about our natural tendencies towards safety that can actually be used to develop our people?

Leaders can deploy discipline, first, by understanding that a lack of discipline is natural, its not just people being lazy (all the time), it is just the natural order of things.

Next, Leaders can recognize that getting discipline is messy and is about learning and development. This mindset elevates the people process over the discipline outcome and allows the outcome to become more organic to the organization.

Finally, Leaders can deploy leadership by reinforcing it in their leadership – remembering to change out instinctually survival-driven thoughts for frontal lobe deliberate thoughts.

Discipline for Leaders is not culture dependent. However, it is a critical mindset embedded into deliberate cultures of high-performance.

And it starts with Leaders building people.

Article Originally Published at

J.C. Glick, LTC, U.S. Army (Ret.), Director, Leadership Resiliency 
360 DEVELOPMENT™ part of Destination Athlete®