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Leadership Series - The Value of Discipline and How to Get It

September 17, 2019


The story goes that a young student once sent a letter to Henry Ward Beecher, the famous Congregationalist preacher, asking him for advice in obtaining an easy job. The famous clergyman responded by writing, “If that’s your attitude, you’ll never amount to anything. You cannot be an editor or become a lawyer or think of entering the ministry. None of these professions are easy. You will have to forget the fields of merchandising or shipping, abhor the practice of politics, and forget about the difficult field of medicine. To be a farmer or even a good soldier, you must study and think. My son, you have come into a hard world. I know of only one easy place in it, and that is in the grave.”


What Henry Ward Beecher was trying to impress on this young man is that anything worth doing is worth working hard at doing. In other words, if there is something you really want, you’re going to have to roll up your sleeves and really work to get it. Nothing comes easy. I can’t help but wonder how the young student responded to this advice. Did he complain to his friends that the minister didn’t tell him what he wanted to hear or did he mock the minister as if he didn’t know what he was talking about? Or, perhaps the young student took a few moments to carefully consider the reality of what Beecher had written and decided right then and there that he would dedicate as much time to studying and thinking as was necessary to be successful at whatever profession he chose. Henry Ward Beecher was telling this young man that nothing comes easy and to get anything worth having, you need to discipline yourself to work hard for it.


If a young person were to ask about finding an easy job today, they might be told something like, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” This so-called advice has put thousands of young men and women in the unemployment line. I won’t tell you that you shouldn’t like what you do but even then, you should at least like and appreciate why you do it. It may not be your life’s fulfillment to empty other people’s trash cans for a living but there is certainly honor in someone who disciplines themselves to get up every morning to ride on the back of a garbage truck because they have a family to provide for or a house they want to pay off. Just because you have a graduate degree doesn’t mean you have a job waiting for you somewhere. There are plenty of young men with graduate degrees who either can’t find a job or who would rather take welfare than “lower” themselves to work a job that requires cleaning up after they clock out. To discipline yourself means to exercise humility; be humble enough to accept the authority of your circumstances and also accept the responsibility for improving them.


It isn’t enough to simply want to be disciplined, you have to adhere to it for it to have any effect.  Jim Rohn once said, “Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment.” It’s nice to have passion but it isn’t a reliable bridge over the gap between your goals and accomplishment.  Passion will stir your heart and help you dream but it won’t get things done – discipline gets things done.


Discipline isn’t easy and you’ll find yourself making every excuse in the book to justify the easy road. Navy SEAL and author, Jocko Willink, puts it best when he sums it up like this, “The temptation to take the easy road is always there. It is as easy as staying in bed in the morning and sleeping in. But discipline is paramount to ultimate success and victory for any leader and any team.”  You have to commit to taking the path to success no matter how difficult, time consuming, and painful it might be. If cold calling fifty potential clients stands between you and the five sales you need to exceed your quota, then fifty calls are what you have to make. It isn’t the easiest to make phone calls, especially when your faced with a great deal of rejection. It simply isn’t fun. You will be amazed at how fast you can come up with excuses to not pick up the phone but all you’re doing is creating barriers to success. A disciplined man doesn’t care about how much passion or fun is in play – he sees a job that needs to be done as a means of taking one more step toward success and he does it. Nikola Tesla once said that he could only achieve success through self-discipline and then only if he applied it until his wish and his will became the same thing. If you wish to make those sales, then you must will yourself to make the calls. Discipline is choosing between what you want now and what you want most. John Maxwell once said, “The discipline of desire is the background of character.” If you are disciplined enough to work until your desire becomes you reality, it is the testament to your grit and strength of character in the face of opposition.


So much of everything you want to do requires a degree of discipline to get. There isn’t a soldier anywhere in the military that accidentally climbed the ranks to become a General and there isn’t a father or husband anywhere who accidentally provided for his family. If you want something to happen, you’re going to have to make it happen. America is increasing in its supply of men who sit back on their haunches with big dreams of owning jet skis, Hummers, and vacationing all over the world but they never lift a finger to do anything for it. Eventually, their lack of discipline catches up with them and when it does, they are usually trapped doing the kind of work they thought they were too good for and would be free from doing once they got their millions.


Your position in life won’t change unless you change it. You can disregard the importance and value of discipline and take the easy road but it will take you places you don’t want to go and it’ll keep you there longer than you want to stay. I had a friend one time who was always talking about some settlement he hoped to get from suing an employer or some company in whose store he tripped and fell. He had big plans for the millions he was going to make after he won his frivolous cases. The last time I spoke to him was on his front lawn asking him if he would be interested in a job opening I knew of that paid well above the median wage for our area. He told me it wasn’t necessary because he was expecting a big payout and then he invited me to go on a trip to the lake to enjoy the jet skis he was planning to buy from the settlement money. I stood there in disbelief at what I was hearing. The delusion of laziness had a vice grip on the mind of this grown man. Like so many, he was just expecting to be a millionaire, someway, somehow, whenever his “ship” came in.  Within a year of this conversation, his wife had a child and he was forced to take a job at a small local restaurant or face his wife leaving with the baby. This guy spent his entire life wanting all the financial success of a disciplined life but he wasn’t even remotely interested in living a disciplined life to someday get there.


When I shipped off to Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, CA in the summer of 1999, I knew to expect a life of discipline. It wasn’t until I was months into boot camp that I was really able to grasp the value and importance of discipline in my life. In the Marines, we defined discipline as “instant willing obedience to all orders, respect for authority and teamwork.” The point of this definition is that when you have your orders you simply obey – there isn’t any room for second guessing because you might know better and there isn’t any time for hesitation because every second you lose is a second you give away to the enemy – and believe me, the opposition wants as much of your time as it can get. When Marine recruits wake up in the morning to the sound of a yelling Drill Instructor ordering the platoon to get dressed, make their racks, and get in formation, it isn’t for fun or to play dress up. This is done every day, the exact same way for three months and it conditions the mind and body of these recruits to be quick, disciplined, to follow orders with a sense of urgency and work together as a team so no one is left behind all while accomplishing the mission. Why is it important to be disciplined like this? Because in another three or four months, those recruits will be Marines carrying rifles in a combat zone and they need to be able to immediately submit to the authority of their leadership and the authority of their circumstances if they want to change the current situation and accomplish their mission.


Doing what you know you have to do when you have to do it is a discipline that has been lost to millions. If you’re a follower and you aren’t disciplined to do what you have to do at the moment it needs to be done then you are worthless to the team. If you’re a leader who isn’t focused on instilling discipline in yourself, your department, agency, platoon, family or company, you are teaching your subordinates that it is ok to approach their roles casually. Causality creates casualties. Never forget that . A lack of discipline only helps break down the unit and as a leader, it’s your job to instill discipline in not only yourself, but also in the team.


Suggestions for Improvement


Remove temptation. You’re more likely to take the easy way when you create an onramp for yourself. A few years back, the University of Cambridge and the University of Dusseldorf did a study that sugg