Center for Simplified Strategic Planning

A Culture of Discipline -- Building Toward Great

Thomas E. Ambler
Senior Consultant, CSSP, Inc.

Tom Ambler

In his outstanding book about great organizations, Good To Great, Jim Collins concludes, "Sustained great results depend upon building a culture full of self-disciplined people who take disciplined action, fanatically consistent with the three circles." (The three circles for an organization are (1) what it can be best in the world at, (2) what its people are already deeply passionate about and (3) what drives its economic engine. Focusing on the intersection of these three circles he calls the Hedgehog Concept.) He further states, "A culture of discipline is not just about action. It is about getting disciplined people...who engage in disciplined thought and...who then take disciplined action." Since he is vague about how you actually make this happen, why don't we take a crack at it?

First, let's define what we mean by "disciplined people."

  • Based on dictionary definitions for "discipline," they exhibit "training, especially of the mind or character," "a trained condition of order and obedience" and "the training effect of experience, misfortune etc."
  • They have a habit of self-discipline (the discipline comes primarily from within and it is "grooved").
  • They typically finish things they start.
  • They are capable of facing and dealing with brutal facts, even about themselves.
  • They are willing to adhere to the organization's systems for getting work done. (Collins makes a big point that these systems should be consistent, promote focus on the Three Circles and give people the freedom to fulfill their responsibilities.)
  • They have a passion for doing certain types of work or advancing certain purposes.
  • They possess unique skill sets.

So, we want our organization to be "full of self-disciplined people." The most important such person is the CEO, who exhibits not only self-discipline but ideally also models and practices the other attributes of Collin's "Level 5 Executive" (see Chapter 2). We also need to recruit and/or raise up a host of other disciplined adults.

Recruiting disciplined people requires a well-tuned filtering process that not only determines if there is a fit of the candidate's skill sets and passions with the job requirements of the organization but also determines whether the candidate is self-disciplined. We can take a cue as to how to do this from the recruiting process used by the football program of an academically elite Division 3 university with needs for self-disciplined candidates similar to our organization. Their process attempts to determine through hard and soft measurement what the candidates have attempted and accomplished in their previous academic and athletic careers. Naturally, this involves study of high school football statistics and personal interviews by the coaching staff of both the candidates and their coaches and teachers. However, it goes even deeper by looking at less obvious things like the load and difficulty of the courses they took and other activities they pursued and their success. They also listen carefully to the language (including body language) used by the candidate to describe their previous career. They listen for those words and practices (or the absence thereof) that relate positively or negatively to self-discipline and other key character traits--words and practices such as "daily," "commitment," "sacrifice," "dedication," "off-season training activities," "jobs" etc. We can use an analogous approach. We would look for the evidence and language that strongly suggest that the candidate practices the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People codified by Stephen Covey, particularly the following:

  • Be proactive
  • Begin with the end in mind
  • Put first things first
  • Sharpen the Saw.

Once the person is recruited, we have the opportunity to complete the job of building discipline, manifest in both thought and action, through our leadership and with our systems. This requires that we devote almost fanatical attention to modeling discipline, setting clear expectations, reviewing performance, assigning developmental jobs and rewarding disciplined behavior and contributions to a whole culture of discipline. As leaders, we must also step up to the responsibility to weed out those who are either unable or unwilling to rise to the desired level. Perhaps our most important role of all is capturing the wholehearted commitment of the person by helping them realize that their passions align with the mission of the organization. We can then promote their application of the Hedgehog Concept to themselves personally and help them lift their skills and passions to a whole new level. When applied to all of our people, we move the entire organization toward Great.

So, a culture of discipline with all of the key people on the Hedgehog Concept bandwagon has tremendous transformational power. Can we achieve it? I believe we can. How? By discipline!

Tom Ambler is a Senior Consultant with Center for Simplified Strategic Planning, Inc.
He can be reached via e-mail at

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