A bird does not sing because it has an answer.  It sings because it has a song.

17 February 2010


"Discipline" has been a recurring theme in my world recently, most notably in the servant leadership workshop I'm developing for a current client, but also in other arenas of my life. It's an interesting word that means different things to different people. Sometimes it even means different things to the same person, and that's the experience I'm having right now.

A particular theme that comes out of the philosophy of servant leadership is the relationship between the word "discipline" and the word "disciple." Religious connotations aside, a "disciple" is someone who is both a leader and a follower; both a learner and a teacher. Discipline, then, is the practice of living these different yet interconnected roles.

I remember, not very fondly, a teacher I had in high school who seemed convinced that teaching was the opposite of learning. She was closed to all input from students, particularly when the students pointed out egregious discrepancies between her lectures and the text about which she was speaking. Remember what they say about horse training. If you want to train a horse, what's the first thing you need to know? More than the horse.

My teacher's approach to leadership was not one of discipline or discipleship, but rather one of unbending authoritarianism. By standing firm in her position regardless of new information, she lost the respect of her students, the control of her classroom, and most critically, the opportunity to expand her own world with valuable new learning. (It's worth noting here that the students in question were college-bound honor students, and most of the other teachers in the school were outstanding role models of discipline.)

I have certainly been known to fall into the "know-it-all" trap, insisting I'm right no matter what or who contradicts me. Perhaps you have too. "Expertise" confers some benefits. We've enjoyed the benefits of getting the right answer since we first started school. It feels great to be right, and for that reason, it can be easy to get carried away in a brilliant monologue. But all that speaking cuts us off from listening, and thus from the learning that might go with that listening.

Neither will your life be fulfilled only by listening, though. Lifelong learning expands our horizons and enriches our lives, but it is no substitute for action. Pure listening can be treacherous, too -- if our minds become so open that our brains fall out. Balance is key, in this as in all things. The more we can remain open to new experiences and integrate that learning into productive activity, the greater our discipline and the more effective our leadership.

What is your experience of discipline? What does the word mean to you, and how do you apply it in your life? Where is it really working for you, and where is there room for improvement?

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