By Stuart R. Levine
Published In, The Credit Union Times

Discipline is required to achieve success in business and in life.  Too often the word has a pejorative connotation, but its Latin origin means instruction, knowledge and learning.  Correspondingly, in the language of Emotional Intelligence, the concept involves exercising self-regulation in order to improve.  Discipline means consistently acting in alignment with your values, long-term goals and self-imposed performance standards, despite expedience or taking the easy path.  Discipline means mental independence, an ability to remain steadfast in the face of herd instinct and external pressures – having the inner will to do what it takes to create a great outcome, no matter how difficult.

The writings of Jim Collins, a passionately curious author, professor and researcher, speak to the importance of disciplined decision-making.  In “Great by Choice”, discipline is the deciding factor in the success of the first two explorers who attempted to reach the South Pole over a century ago.  Roald Amundsen’s team succeeded and returned; Robert Falcon Scott’s failed and perished.  Collins also describes how discipline made Southwest Airlines extremely successful over its nearly 50-year history. It recently won its sixth consecutive “Domestic Carrier of the Year” award, while maintaining consistent profitability and exceptional return to shareholders.

Collins uses the metaphor of “The 20 Mile March” to illustrate how discipline leads to success.  Regardless of the weather, terrain or conditions, the explorer who succeeded committed to a steady 20-mile daily pace.  Clear, intelligent plans, rigorous performance and unwavering commitment to steady progress were key.  The successful team did not wait for sunny days to meet the goal, nor blame bad weather for failure.  Steady, consistent action built confidence in their ability to perform in tough circumstances while reducing the likelihood of failure when tumultuous events occurred.

The dramatic story of the race to the South Pole shows how different behaviors under the same conditions led to significantly different outcomes.  Amundsen was disciplined in his planning, preparation and the pace of his South Pole trek.  His conservative planning calculations left great margin for error and contingency.  Scott planned only for his expected case scenario, leaving him unprepared for the inevitable problems.  Amundsen studied the best gear to use, such as proven Eskimo dog sleds. Scott tried the new technology of motor sleds, unproven in the harsh environment.  They failed.  Ponies, which were Scott’s back-up, also failed, leaving only manpower.  Amundsen had discipline in pacing his team.  Regardless of weather conditions, he had the same daily objective for distance, working hard to keep on plan in bad times and not exceeding plan on good days, conserving precious human and animal resources.  Scott, however, raced on good weather days and rested on bad days, falling behind schedule.  Scott blamed bad luck and weather for his misfortune, not accepting responsibility for his choices.

The disciplined leader accepts the harsh conditions of the uncertain, ever-changing world without making excuses or complaining.  It takes discipline to persevere in tough times and show restraint in great times.  Through discipline, organizations that pursue consistent and measured growth find it easier to maintain a healthy, steady culture with high-quality customer service.  They do not abandon discipline to satisfy the demands of stock analysts for “spasmodic” growth, especially when good conditions make growth appear unproblematic.

Southwest was consistent, always maintaining its self-imposed demand for steady profits, whether fuel prices were high or low or the economy was booming, lagging or recovering from the terrorist attacks of 2001.  The discipline of maintaining high-quality customer service, a family-like culture and profitability, regulated its growth.  Southwest’s leaders ignored Wall Street’s demands for rapid growth.  One year when more than 100 cities wanted Southwest service, Southwest added only four.  The results were profitability in both good and bad times — an award-winning position in the industry and extraordinarily strong stock price performance.

Our clients see the importance of this disciplined, steady approach.  One healthcare client seeking substantial improvement in patient satisfaction and outcomes set challenging but achievable multi-year goals within the context of a clear, smart plan.  They required steady progress regardless of the difficult economic and regulatory environment, which included countless changes under the Affordable Care Act.  Dashboard metrics, which all employees could see and track, gave everyone the information needed to advance toward the goal.  Confidence grew as the team saw steady improvement.  Discipline throughout the organization built the teamwork, systems and continuous learning that allowed the progress in effective patient service.

Outcomes are not about luck.  As Collins says: “Greatness is a matter of choice, not circumstance.”