“Duty then is the sublimest word in the English language. You can never do more, you should never wish to do less”
Robert E. Lee
As a leader, you can’t be omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent…that’s someone else’s job description. You have to trust your team to have the discipline to do the right thing. As C. S. Lewis said, “Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is looking”. The same applies to discipline, specifically self-discipline.
In the body of literature there exist multiple scholarly publications and popular articles extolling the techniques to instill self-discipline in children. For example, How to Teach Kids Self-Discipline on the website Parenthood.com, discusses 4 techniques for parents to use with their kids:
- Give children lots of freedom to exercise choices over issues with small consequences.
- Secretly hope your child blows it.
- When he or she blows it, provide a dose of sympathy.
- Let your child make the same mistake again.
Robert Brooks, Ph.D., a Harvard Medical School psychologist says, “Self-discipline will give them the ability to think before they act, improve their relationships with others, enable them to perform better at school and at work and to become good problem solvers”. All of these traits make for successful team players in adults as well.
Can you teach self-discipline or do you have to hire personnel who already exhibit that trait? I argue that a good leader looks for this trait in his or her hiring processes AND works to improve this trait in their employees.
The above list of 4 techniques is applicable to employees as well. This is why we take new team members and give them smaller amounts of responsibility at first. As a fighter pilot instructor, I would never put a brand new student in charge of 8 friendly fighters escorting 12 bombers through an advanced defensive system against 20 enemy fighters. I first give him a simple problem of following a more experienced flight lead through the maneuvers and working his own weapon system. I already know he’s going to make mistakes, but in this simple problem, the consequences of those mistakes will be minor. After we land, I’ll debrief his mistakes, show him how to correct them next time, and send him back up again. Hopefully, he’s a quick learner and won’t make the same mistake twice, but the more difficult tasks often require several failures before the fighter pilot learns to have the self-discipline to avoid that pitfall.
The same can be applied to business. A bank might start off a new employee with a small account, where mistakes will have minor consequences. Once the employee learns how to have the self-discipline to handle that, the manager will give her progressively larger and more complex accounts.
The team members you hire will obviously have some level of self-discipline or you would not even be interested in bringing them onto your team. You can grow that self-discipline in adults just as you would grow self-discipline in your children. Before you assign tasks to new employees, take the time to think through which tasks he or she can tackle all on their own and make mistakes without negatively effecting the outcome of team as a whole. By allowing him or her to make mistakes and learn from them, you are effectively encouraging the individual to SELF discipline. This is the true root of the word…self. You are teaching your team member to self-regulate, to do his or her duty and accomplish the job whether or not supervision is present. I’m not recommending you treat your adult team members as children, but the same thought processes for training kids works for adults. Just don’t put your employees in time-out when they show-up late for work!