Posts Tagged ‘discipline’

When I was in the Army many years ago we would have all kinds of competitions. Many focused on military drills and skills, such as shooting, but there were also When I was in the Army many years ago we would have all kinds of competitions. Many focused on military drills and skills, such as shooting, but there were also a lot of sports competitions, one of which was an annual snowshoe race. You read that correctly; we would actually run in snowshoes. Not particularly fast, but run we did.

The team coach was a highly proficient sergeant and an excellent snowshoe runner himself. On the first day of training one year, he gathered all the team members together and told them he would divulge the “secret” of snowshoe racing. You would have thought he was about to reveal a great truth. In a way he was: “You start by putting one foot forward, then the other, then the other, then the other again… and you keep on doing that until you get to the finish line or collapse trying.”

Now, you have to admit that’s a pretty open “secret,” but it contains it contains a basic truth. Most things we undertake are really not that difficult or complex. However, they do take discipline and persistence. These are traits that the military seeks and reinforces in its recruits and members. You can’t accomplish a task unless you set your mind to it. Moreover, most worthwhile undertakings will entail a certain degree of difficulty and challenge, or could even be subject to the competition and aggressive intentions of others.

This story highlights another aspect of discipline and persistence that are often forgotten or not even acknowledged. I wish I could remember who it was, but another former military colleague once said that discipline is really mostly voluntary. This goes against the common understanding of discipline as something that is imposed. However, the origins of the word are the same as disciple. In other words, to practice and master a discipline, once must first submit to a teacher and his teachings. That is what a disciple is: someone who willingly follows a teacher who knows more and is more skilled a field than the disciple.

When you combine the fact of voluntary discipleship with persistence and the rigour of a systematic approach to knowledge and skill development, you get a potent mix that ensures the maximum chances of success. A key part of discipline and persistence is to actually follow the steps and technique laid out in systematic procedures.

When I was writing my first book, Brilliant Manoeuvres, a few years ago I did some research into the best approaches for productive and effective writing. I came across a book for academics titled How to Write a Lot, by Paul Silvia. You’d think there would have been a lot of technical insights about outlining and getting organized and other assorted methodological pointers.

The author pointed out instead that all of those things could actually get in the way of productivity. How? By becoming excuses to procrastinate. It turns out that the “secret” to productive writing is to sit down and write. Sounds a lot like the advice that sergeant gave about “effective” snowshoeing. There is never going to be a good moment to start writing. Inspiration and creativity come with practice and work, not by sitting there and thinking or worse, hoping and wishing. I applied the same discipline and persistence I learned in the army (for snowshoeing and other more life-defining undertakings). That’s how I produced my first book.

I could also talk about other factors in discipline, such as the unattainable search for perfection and waiting for the “right conditions” or the “right timing.” The reality is that there is never a right time or the right conditions to do anything. What we need is a systematic method (also known as rigour), the discipline to actually apply it, and the persistence to continue despite setbacks, mistakes, opposition, and the occasional discouragement.

I speak to a lot of entrepreneurs, business owners, and executives. Most have gotten to where they are through hard work, discipline, and persistence. But there is always more opportunity and need for discipline and persistence, as well as rigour. Every business and individual gets to a point of questioning and renewal in order to grow or break through to the next level. This takes just as much discipline and persistence as it took to get to the present level.

Richard Martin is a The Force Multiplier. He brings his military and business leadership and management experience to bear for executives and organizations seeking to radically improve performance, grow, and thrive in the face of rapid change, harsh competition, and increasing uncertainty.

© 2015 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes are permitted with proper attribution.

When asked what they find most striking or typical in the military way of doing things, most people I’ve asked readily answer discipline, organization, or rigour. The military has a disciplined way of going about its business, and this is one of the most salient lessons from military wisdom.

But what do we mean by “discipline”? In one sense, discipline refers to punishment and correction. This is certainly true; military leaders have a range of disciplinary tools at their disposal to enforce obedience and conformity. On the other hand, discipline also refers to a way of doing things, individually and collectively.

The Latin root of “discipline” signifies “learning” and “teaching.” It can also refer to a unified body of knowledge. This is the sense that I think most people are thinking of when they say that the military has a disciplined approach. It also incorporates “organization” and “rigour.” I believe this is also what people have in mind when they say lack discipline or that Olympic athletes have herculean discipline.

My first military assignment upon joining the Canadian Army was as an officer-cadet at Collège militaire royal de Saint-Jean. I studied and trained there for five years, after which I was commissioned as an infantry officer. When I arrived on my first day at military college, I was struck by the politeness of the senior cadet leaders. They were calling us Mister or Miss so-and-so. They would politely ask us to “form up” in three ranks, even though most of us had no idea what they were talking about. Then they would politely introduce themselves and address us. They would explain what they wanted us to do and then tell us or show us how to do it. Of course, they were capable of being very direct and forceful if required, but that was always a later resort, after politeness failed to have the desired effect. We were marched around everywhere to get our uniforms and go to classes. It was all quite—that’s right—disciplined, organized, and rigorous.

At one point in my military career, after I had been commissioned as an officer and I had gained some practical leadership and command experience, I realized that discipline is in fact mostly voluntary. You can try to impose it from without, but in fact it relies on the intrinsic motivation of people to adhere to a doctrine and ethos and to follow leaders and teachers willingly.

The secret to being disciplined is the willingness to learn and relentlessly apply a systematic approach and attitude to thinking and acting. In the military, and in other life-and-death disciplines such as emergency room medicine, first aid, and piloting an aircraft, the key thought processes and techniques of the discipline are reduced to drills and routines. They are applied systematically and relentlessly in analyzing problems and executing actions. No matter what the situation, there is a drill to deal with it.

For instance, in the army you learn drills to react to enemy fire, to advance and attack, to withdraw and defend, and many more. The air force and navy have analogous procedures and drills. The important thing is that everyone learns the same approach and it is applied in all situations. This philosophy goes beyond individual and collective action however. Even cognitive processes are instantiated as drills for thinking through and analyzing a situation, coming to a decision, creating a reasonable plan, and then communicating it effectively and efficiently to subordinates and colleagues. When in a pinch and under great stress, such as enemy fire, the main action is to refer to these drills and action lists and implement them.

A further characteristic of military discipline is that it is learned and applied at all levels of the organization. The only difference is the extent of detail and comprehensiveness. A general essentially uses the same cognitive and leadership tools as a corporal. This makes communications between levels and branches much simpler and enables professional development to build on previous lessons and experience, without having to inculcate completely new approaches at each level.

In essence then, military discipline is based on a rigorous set of drills and procedures, which are applied systematically at all levels and in all areas of endeavour. If there is a need for specialized drills and processes, then these are built on the basis of the common set of techniques. Furthermore, the drills and procedures are iterative, recursive, nested, and modular. This means that you apply them cyclically, over and over again as problems come up or you are given new tasks and missions. You can mix and match them as needed, and they are applied up and down the line.

I have written extensively about these types of drills and disciplined approaches in my newsletters and articles over the years. In fact, if you go through the archive of newsletters on my website,, you will no doubt find procedures that can be applied in a large number of business and organizational situations. The challenge is to apply them to your reality, and also to work on creating your own disciplined and rigorous approach to thinking, deciding, and acting.

Richard Martin is a consultant, speaker, and executive coach. He brings his military and business leadership and management experience to bear for executives and organizations seeking to exploit change, maximize opportunity, and minimize risk.

© 2014 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes are permitted with proper attribution.

Routine means discipline. If you decide to write an hour a day or call 5 prospects every day, you sit down and you write or make your calls. You do it even if you don’t feel like it. At the end of the allotted period, you stop, whether you feel like continuing or not. The point is to not let yourself off the hook for emotional reasons and conversely to not binge and overdo it when you’re feeling ‘in the zone.’ That’s how your create habits, routine, and discipline.

© 2013 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with full and proper attribution.