Issue 3.3 | November 2011

In this Article: disciplined action, not just a great idea, makes a leader.

by Jonathan Wilson

It is a tiresome and common fact of our world that the noble-minded are plenty, but few of them act in accordance with their sentiments.  Thought-leadership does not a leader make.  It is a man’s actions that define his leadership.  But not any action: busyness does not a leader make.  Discipline distinguishes the action of a leader from the action of a follower.  Specifically, a leader is disciplined about three things: where she’s going and why (focus), how she will get there (culture), and what will get her there (persistent learning).

Disciplined Focus

Disciplined focus enables the concentration of power – not in a leader, but in a cause.  The disciplined allocation of resources optimizes capacity.   An organization’s identity and purpose should be so well defined that it is always clear, on reflection, how to align and allocate resources.  The more fuzzy its purpose, the more likely a company is to experience conflict between divisions or among leaders, for there is no clear guide to sort out internal competition for resources.

Organizational leaders tend to be innately curious, creative and visionary.  These qualities can pose a considerable danger, however: the danger of distraction.  Market volatility, competitor actions, customer whims and interesting technological developments can all distract leaders from fiercely focusing their and their organization’s resources on its purpose.  Distraction leads to the dilution and dissipation of an organization’s power.

Distraction can come from desperation too – the need to survive.  I saw this in southern Africa when the AIDS crisis was peaking and large donors were making significant funds available for relevant interventions.  Suddenly, virtually every hard-done-by not-for-profit had an AIDS component to its work, even where there was no apparent connection to its core purpose.  Now while the pandemic certainly requires a comprehensive, cross-sectoral response, it was equally evident that the promise of a new source of operational funds pulled many organizations down a path not genuinely aligned with their identity and purpose.

Disciplined Behaviour

Disciplined behaviour is the strict adherence to and nurture of the cultural qualities that shape the ways and means by which an organization does its business.  A company’s power is found in its distinctive ethical, relational and other operational qualities (for example, one company may excel at highly transparent and collaborative approach with customers, while another produces magic from within secret “skunk works”).  When a company pays rigorous attention to the support and nurture of these qualities, it enhances its operating power and increases the likelihood that it will reach its goals and deliver superlative value.  This discipline is exercised both positively and negatively.  One CEO recently described having to remove what he called a “cancer” from the organization: an employee whose behaviour badly undermined the team culture of the organization.

Disciplined Learning

The discipline of learning accounts for two proven dimensions of a successful initiative: firstly, that great things are achieved only by the dogged pursuit of a great objective over a long period of time (this includes dogged practise); and secondly, that the success of such determined perseverance is enabled chiefly by a company’s willingness to learn.  An organization that is hungry to learn is willing to listen to all voices including those bearing bad news; it is willing to measure and to be held accountable, willing to take the significant time required to think well, willing to experiment and willing to fail.

When the 19th Century British politician William Wilberforce and others concluded that slavery was an evil that should be removed from the British Empire, they cannot have known that it would be some forty years before this grand vision would be realized.  In-between lay at first dreams, then fierce opposition, accusations of undermining the British nation, and personal sacrifice – but also clever experimentation, then failure, then fresh experimentation and, through it all, unrelenting grit.  All this culminated in 1807 with the abolition of the slave trade by the British Parliament.  Slavery itself was outlawed 26 years later.  A glance at modern history shows that any company has to plan for a similar time frame if it wishes to achieve significant influence.

Building a Culture of Discipline

Earlier this year a colleague and I helped a mid-sized technology company thoroughly work out its soul (or identity) and its purpose (the first informs the second).  The analysis revealed specific ways in which the company’s expertise, resources, insights and passions combined to create unique and significant value for customers.  This motivated the leadership to immediately begin two key initiatives.  The first was a progressive restructuring of the major divisions (sales, research and development, and service) so that they were thoroughly and seamlessly integrated – not just for efficiency’s sake but because this company’s soul came alive when particular strengths present in each division were brought together synergistically.  Historical analysis had already shown that, wherever this synergy was at work, customers got the best out of the company and the company got the best out of them in terms of revenues.  The second initiative was to develop criteria that clearly defined the optimal client.  The best motivational speech could not have spurred the sales team into action as effectively as did that list of clear, rational, soul-aligned criteria.

?The result of discipline in leadership is that an organization’s resources have been stewarded well, when they could have been squandered or abused and exploited; that its efforts issue in excellent and superior products or services; and that it has endured where others failed — failed to learn, failed to adapt and, most especially, failed to be faithful to who it is and what it truly has to offer.

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