Establishing order starts at the top

BY Jayashantha Jayawardhana

Of all the characteristics needed to achieve success in life, discipline is perhaps the most important. But many seem to cling to the false notion that this doesn’t need to be a part of life. While this is bad enough, their definition of discipline is woefully inadequate; they equate it with dress codes and avoiding mischief.

The problem is that when you define discipline so narrowly, you underestimate its immense power to change your life for the better. Clearly, discipline largely explains the disparity between the competent and mediocre – whether at school, university or work – and the disparity between the rich and poor. Of course, we have to exclude those who inherited wealth.

Even closer to life, discipline explains the difference between compulsive gamblers and those who don’t gamble. Simply stated, at a personal level discipline is what forms our habits, routines, decisions and choices from the moment we wake up in the morning to when we hit the sack at night.

Right now, the government is fighting the COVID-19 outbreak with unprecedented measures and the topic of discipline is being talked about at different forums.

There could hardly be a better time to take this up for discussion. Unfortunately, what is increasingly highlighted on all fronts isn’t disciplined behaviour but the lack of it – particularly where there’s little supervision by law enforcement officials.

Further, most state and private sector organisations have been compelled to permit their employees to work from home – and indeed, this brings the discussion on the organisational dimension of discipline to the fore.

According to leadership scholar Jim Collins, a culture of discipline isn’t a principle of business but rather, one of greatness. So how do we set the tone for a culture of discipline?

To begin with, we must realise that discipline is something that should be cultivated at the top first. It should then flow gradually down the hierarchy. If those at the top lack discipline, it’s impossible to inculcate it among those at the bottom of the ladder.

Executives too often rush to conclusions about the source of potential cultural problems or frustrations in their organisations. In this case, accountability is a classic example. While a leader might be unhappy with the lack of follow-up, proactive action and attention to detail in his or her people, the same employees often complain about a lack of clear priorities, expectations and support.

In many cases, if the leader was to delve into the matter and analyse it objectively, he or she will discover that the real problem is a lack of discipline at the top.

This sheds light on the fact that leaders can’t afford to be equivocal about their priorities, objectives and expectations. The more room you leave for interpretation so that you can change your mind later, if circumstances change, the more confusing it’ll be for your management and staff to decide on which course of action to take.

So start building a culture of discipline by defining your core purpose and values, which form the soul of your organisation. Instead of creating a vision that sounds lofty, develop one that resonates with your beliefs and what’s achievable with the resources at your command, as well as the limitations you face.

Furthermore, document your strategy, performance priorities, goals and areas that need particular improvement. Articulate them so that even lower level staff can easily understand what they have to do and how they’re expected to behave. You have to communicate this across the board as compellingly as possible and frequently.

Where required, you have to implement the necessary coaching and training programmes, to enable your people to acquire the skills and knowledge needed to fulfil their job responsibilities in line with the corporate mission.

Managers have to realise that building a culture of discipline takes a perfect mix of habits, practices and routines. These have to be shaped and influenced by a leader who demonstrates an unwavering commitment to the principles and practices that he or she wants people to abide by.

But if you leave the training and learning to chance or only commission sporadic training programmes, positive results are unlikely to materialise. Left to their own devices, people might simply get carried away and try to pick up skills that are irrelevant to their job functions.

You can’t simply impose a culture of discipline from the top overnight. It takes time, leaning, practice, regular communication and a concerted effort, to implement, reinforce, monitor, adjust and reimplement this process until it takes root in your organisation.

If you do this right at the highest level of the organisation, culture will begin to take care of itself.