Discipline: The Lost Art of Leadership

In law enforcement we often wonder why the effectiveness of our organizations is less than we desire. We ponder all kinds of reasons, such as; budgets, time, the legal and liability effects. We label people as malcontents, nonconformists, or poor performers, or perhaps poor policies and procedures, rules and regulations and poor or inconsistent training. Failure to hold people accountable and a lack of discipline are also discussed at length. These discussions about people and how they perform are important and most often focus on the coercive method of discipline and accountability dealt out in a progressive way to weed out the problem people with letters of reprimand, suspensions that can ultimately lead to job termination. Is this really what discipline is all about, punishment, coercion and use of force in an effort to gain compliance? In this piece I want to focus on the critical question; is there something more to the word discipline and its positive influence on people and their effectiveness, when discipline is used persuasively to develop those you lead?

Attitude means everything when it comes to how we perform and leaders must ensure that positive attitudes are kept a flamed through creative and rewarding work while negative attitudes are sparked and kindled through positive leadership practices that create and nurture a positive and cohesive spirit that leads to self-discipline and a willingness to perform at a high level of professionalism. In policing we often lose sight of how this is done. We often discipline people even the positive people with a zero defects climate. No mistakes even if they are good mistakes that evolve our learning the attitude is we must discipline in the negative sense of the word, as in to punish.

I remember 18 years ago sitting in a sergeant’s leadership class as a newly appointed sergeant. My mind and heart was full of optimism as I sat in class. There was much I did not know about this new job, now in a formal position of leadership. One of the big concerns I had was on motivating others. I had been around police officers long enough to know that leaders had a profound effect upon the organizational climate which from what I had seen and experienced in my first decade of policing was mostly of the negative variety. Leaders punished you for mistakes and never discussed the lessons learned and most often never advised you how to perform better.

I was excited to attend this leadership class. I was eager and ready to learn. The first class of the week long school was on motivating employees. The instructor started the class with if you have problem children in your ranks….croak them! If you have officers who do not follow the rules…croak them! If your policy and procedures say to do this and they do that…croak them! If they show up late…croak them! If they fail to wear their hat…croak them! If they fail to wear their tie or tie tack…croak them! Croak them! Croak them! Croak Them!!! And make sure you CRAOK THEM, in writing so if there is disciplinary action needed in the future you have a record of the problems you have dealt with.

“Croak Them!” was the mantra throughout the first two days of this school. I was completely dumbfounded and my optimistic inspiration about becoming a leader, quickly turned pessimistic and deflated. I thought, is this the idea of leadership and motivating employees that cops are being taught? Progressive discipline is what the instructor called it. I thought, no wonder why every tiny little mistake that was made was documented and filed in an officer’s folder, so they could use it as discipline or punishment in the future. This was not my experience with what the true meaning of discipline was. My understanding of discipline I learned in the United States Marine Corps, and in the context of leaders, disciplining their followers centered on developing a working together attitude and self-discipline.

My understanding is that the word discipline comes from the word disciple and effectively means “train thy disciples!” Discipline is used as a tool used to inspire the all more powerful self-discipline which ultimately drives a culture in the positive direction so that all members of the organization benefit in a meaningful and positive way, at least initially.

I in know no way want to suggest that discipline is all fluff, hugs and kisses because it isn’t. Coach, mentor, develop and if all this fails then take steps to punish or remove a person who does not want to or for some other reason just cannot fit the bill and perform. There are indeed times that persuasion fails and coercion or punishment must be used in those worse case scenarios where persuasion has either failed or the circumstances dictate a more controlled form of bringing out the lessons learned.

The real meaning of discipline has a much more positive meaning, and when used appropriately can be the catalyst to developing a high level of professionalism throughout an organization. The contributions we make to our organization and the people in it when it comes to discipline determine the reward which brings to mind the quote “as you sow, so shall you reap.” It is time us in policing stop using a one-sided approach to discipline and begin to grasp the importance of balancing persuasion and force to influence positive outcomes.

In his book “Leadership the Warriors Art” where I got most of my research for this article, Chris Kolenda states: “That discipline has become a misunderstood quality and often regarded as taboo is not surprising. Part of the stigma comes from the frequent coupling of discipline with sanction; to "discipline" people implies punishing them. Another, more salient reason is that discipline as a method of gaining compliance comes in a variety of forms. Models range from the unquestioning automaton who performs precise bodily movements under the direct threat of physical coercion to the professional self-discipline described above.”

This coercive discipline is or seems to be the meaning I most often hear discussed in policing. When the word discipline comes up the thought of developing people does not even occur to people, at least not in the positive sense. I will teach that so and so a lessons! He thinks he can screw with me? “I disciplined that S.O.B. and if he continues to screw up I will write him up again and again until I can suspend him and if necessary get rid of him.” In my 28 years not very often did I hear anything but CRAOK HIM! I cannot think of a time when I heard the positive side of developing people associated with the word discipline; “this cop has some great qualities but he has made some mistakes. Let’s work with, coach, mentor and develop his self-discipline so he develops these positive qualities and make him a more effective cop!” Let me take that back, I have heard the words coach, mentor and develop but have not seen the words applied and implemented in a positive way. Quite frankly I have seen the progressive discipline letters in a file referenced as: “we talked about this with so and so in an effort to coach, mentor and develop but had no success in influencing his negative behavior.”

This attitude or lack of understanding towards the word discipline has driven me half-crazy over the years as my quest has always been to develop good cops who have character and integrity who can make sound decisions and solve strategic and tactical problems under pressure and I have been very effective at it, over the years using persuasion and coercion as artfully and skillful as is humanly possible. I have used critiques, after action reviews, and decision making exercises to develop the relevant ethics and values necessary to be a good cop. I have had heart to heart discussions and I have chewed people out to raise and emphasize the relevant points and influence behavior in a positive way. On occasions where persuasion failed to influences I have written people up and in a very few worse case scenarios I have lead investigations that ended with a cops termination. Quite frankly in these worse case scenarios I felt as if, or questioned myself as whether or not I had failed the individual as a leader somewhere along the way in his development that perhaps somehow led him astray?

Discipline comes in many forms and its time we in policing understand the full meaning of the word and its powerful effect on organizational culture and ultimately the organizations effectiveness. Discipline must effect our organizations reaching the outcomes we seek, our goals and objectives or it means nothing.

The Forms of Discipline

Chris Kolenda in his book Leadership the Warriors Art says:

“Coercive discipline is most appropriate for immature organizations: those whose members have a low level of skill competency or have yet to internalize specified behavioral norms. Mass conscript armies with little time to train and build cohesion naturally fall into this category as do typical basic training units. Relying primarily on the tools of reward and punishment and constant, direct supervision, these organizations must employ the "carrot and stick" approach to establish and enforce standards and reward compliance.”

This coercive method so popular in the police culture creates a climate of do what your told to do and only what your told to do. Interest in the job and hence learning, initiative and innovative thinking is for all intents and purposes stifled. Kolenda makes another valuable point we should consider:

“Naturally, this coercive model tends to foster a level of dependence which can be anathema to independence and initiative. While independence and initiative are not sought after in conscript or basic training units, sole reliance upon coercion is not an appropriate method for organizations that need innovation and creativity to sustain their vitality. The general result in organizations that emphasize punishment to gain compliance is a sullen minimalism.

Their members will only put forth enough effort to keep them out of trouble, and only then when the "boss" is watching. As a result, they can never "push the envelope" of higher performance. The cost to a business is profit and productivity; an army pays its price in blood.”

Thinking About Leadership and Its Effect on People

“Though is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible, thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habit. Though looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and chief glory of man.” ~Bertrand Russell

What is the aim of purpose of leadership? Think about that question. W. Edwards Deming said: “The aim of leadership is not merely to find and record failures in men, but to remove the causes of failure.” Leadership is the process by which a person influences others to accomplish an objective, and directs his or her organization in a way that makes it more cohesive and coherent. Leaders do this through communication, and personal attributes such as ethics, values, knowledge and skills. Outstanding leaders, lead, by example and insure that example is set to a high standard. The goal of this is to provide mission, direction and inspiration to accomplish organizational goals. This comes by developing self-discipline.

Leaders also must practice fairness. They commend work that is praise worthy and educate, coach and train failures in an effort to fix the causes of failure. If this education and refinement fails due to a poor attitude, on the part of the person who failed and that person refuses or makes no effort to change, then discipline becomes necessary. This discipline is done above the board and face to face with the person. I make this point because all too often recognition of a job well done is not seen for what it is or, it’s simply thought of as “he or she was just doing their job.” Failure is seen as a “must do something about this” type of situation and disciplining the person involved in the situation seems all too often the focus, a letter in a file or a suspension. There is no balance! The problems continue and we wonder why?

This lack of persuasion and coercion balance seems to those in the organization, unfair. Morale issues begin to show themselves and productivity dwindles. A more detrimental component to this lack of balance and fairness that shows itself is in the decision making realm. People in the organization stop making decisions and look for direction from above, when the answer and actions to be taken are clear. This is not because they think you “the leader” has the answers, it because they want whatever answer to the problem to come from you, no headaches if you make the call! Also decisions are slowed down to the point any opportunity to gain advantage is lost. In the law enforcement and security realms the decision that was not made could mean the difference between life and death or cause great embarrassment to and liability on the organization. We end up with a dysfunctional organization that accomplishes nothing more than maintaining the status quo.

Leadership the Warriors Art explains the effects of discipline applied in an effort to develop people and the organization;

“The true test of discipline, therefore, is functionality. Discipline must directly contribute to the accomplishment of the organization's goals and objectives or else it is meaningless. For organizations such as the military that operate routinely in chaotic and uncertain situations against a thinking, uncooperative adversary, discipline must contribute to skill performance and appropriate behavior as well as subordinate leader independence and initiative. Self-discipline serves as a nexus of trust between the individual and the collective. In this way, a military organization maintains its versatility and ultimately its effectiveness over the long-term.

This level of discipline does not occur by happenstance. It must be developed within the organization. As Lord Moran, a British front-line doctor in the First World War and Churchill's personal physician during the Second, suggests in his classic study, Anatomy of Courage: "If discipline is relaxed when it has not been replaced by a high morale, you get a mob who will obey their own primitive instincts."' In essence, Moran argues that discipline is at first imposed externally and can be relaxed or tightened at the discretion of the leaders depending upon the morale of the soldiers. High morale, he asserts, will eventually create the same effect as discipline; after a period of training soldiers can develop a high level of professionalism and perform without supervision. In his assessment of the Guards, the elite of the British Army, Moran claims that "they must submit to the creed that there is another discipline besides the discipline of movement - the self-discipline that drives a man to the mastery of his art through long, laborious days, eschewing pleasure.

Once this level of discipline has become inculcated within the culture of the organization, the foundation is established for an initiative-based organization – one that values and promotes versatility and independence of thought in the absence of orders or in the context of a rapidly changing situation. This essay will discuss some theories on how this mature level of discipline is developed and how leaders can use it to build an initiative-based organization.”

Freedom breeds discipline. Intrepid cops produce positive outcomes on the street through utilizing initiative while intimidated cops lose their motivation and effectiveness on the street because the fear of being wrong or making a mistake and the consequences of coercive discipline creates friction in decision making that ultimately stifles initiative and leaves people waiting around waiting to be told what to do.

A leader’s responsibility is in developing his people to perform based on the vision and values established as critical to the organization. Discipline will help you attain this if you take advantage of all its foundational principles illustrated throughout history.

Stay Oriented!


Make sure you pick up a copy of Leadership The Warriors Art by Christopher Kolenda. I have had the book for 10 years, refer to it often and I highly recommend it!