Steven's Blog

Discipline To Do What You Know

There is not knowing how to do something and not being comfortable with doing it—and the two are not the same. Leaders I encounter often know more than they think. It is those who possess the discipline to do what they know who achieve the greatest success. Click To Tweet

A division head once asked me, “How do I deal with people on my staff who simply are not motivated in the business no matter what I say or do for them?”

“You fire them,” I replied. He, of course, knew that before he even asked the question. He just did not like the obvious answer and had hoped I had some wizardry that could help him avoid his discomfort.

I don’t. No one does.

A senior-level executive, who I was coaching for a position that reports directly to the CEO, asked me what it takes to be a good leader, as if she did not already know. So I asked her to describe the behaviors of a leader she thinks are good. Among the behaviors she described was decisiveness, even when the decision made is unpopular among the staff. I nodded my head in agreement.

When she asked me, “So you’re telling me that this is one of the things that good leaders do?”

“No, you’re telling me. I’m just agreeing with you,” I answered.

“Yes, but how do I get over the fear of confronting people like that?”

“That’s different from not knowing what to do. That’s a matter of having the discipline to do what you know. Just have the discipline!”

Two expat CEOs of major international companies I know each have mandates to reform their respective underperforming operations in Japan. Both know exactly what to do. Each have been told by local staff and other managers that what works outside of Japan will not work in Japan.

One CEO is driven by his own discomfort. He starts by reorganizing top leadership—as his experience tells him and against the advice of his managers—and gets some improvement. However, he is uncomfortable going further. Some on his leadership team are uncomfortable with the changes he wants to make, and this CEO is uncomfortable with their discomfort.

The CEO consults with his unsuccessful predecessors who held his position for advice, all of whom tell him the reforms he wants to implement in Japan won’t work—even though they themselves had never tried them. Why he listens to them I do not know. They tell him a Japanese company is impossible to change, and he is inclined to agree despite the real evidence of his own initial successes!

The Asia regional finance director is skeptical about dispensing any budget on reform efforts he wants to make, and even though this CEO has control over his own budget, he is uncomfortable going against the advice of a distant finance director whose only interest is a balanced budget and who has no accountability for the CEO’s results. If CFOs could make all strategic decisions for a business, why do we bother having CEOs? Reform progress stalled in the CEO’s business as a result of inaction, indecisiveness, and self-doubt.

“I just don’t know how to rapidly reform a Japanese company. How do I do that?” this CEO asked me.

“You already know exactly what to do!” I told him. “You just need the discipline to do it!”

The other CEO, despite his own admitted discomfort, ignored the dire warnings of staff and so-called “Japan experts.” He fired underperforming executives and managers without compunction. He promoted top performers based on merit above their seniors. He tied remuneration to behaviors and results. He favors the excellent despite being told he is being unfair.

This CEO’s HR director once buttonholed me in the corridor to confide in me all the terrible things this CEO does without regard for Japanese culture, and advised me to “speak with him so he understands.”

I told her not to worry. He is doing all the things that the most successful CEOs in Japan I know do. The rapidly improving results in the business and increased morale of staff show this CEO to be right. There is a reason HR directors don’t run businesses.

I define discipline as the ability to do what you know is right even when the immediate consequences are negative and when future payoff might not be certain. Success is often merely a matter of discipline to act on what you know, and you likely know a lot more than you think.

And what about the executive I mentioned at the beginning of this piece? She had the discipline to do what she knows. She ignored her initial discomfort and confronted those when she knew it was right to do so. She achieved success as a result.

You and anyone else can do the same.


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