Servant Leadership and the Exercise of Discipline

Leaders who create a culture of discipline and service experience three significant outcomes: great employees  continue excellent performance, good employees step up to better performance and bad employees understand that their lack of performance will no longer be tolerated. This thesis lines up with the concept of servant leadership that asserts that people freely respond to leaders they trust to have other’s best interests in mind.
However, I find that people in leadership roles who struggle with effectiveness either misconstrue servant leadership as never having to enforce a standard (these people show a lack of skill in coaching and correcting poor behaviors) or misinterpret discipline as menacing or threatening employees.  These individuals work to survive or to avoid risk and detection. The result in organizations is not only the loss of employee engagement it is mediocrity.  Mediocrity is any state or outcome that is substantially less in quality than what is reasonably possible given the available people and material assets.

As a student of leadership I spend time looking at the latest research and reviewing historical practices of great leaders. My thoughts on discipline are deeply impacted by the Apostle Paul whose leadership in the first century served as a catalyst of the Church’s expansion throughout the Mediterranean world.  Paul’s leadership consistently expressed the concept of servant leadership in three ways: he loved the people he led; he developed structures around his strategic objectives and he identified and empowered leaders.

Titus was one of the leaders Paul worked with extensively. Paul saw the need to advise this young leader on how to handle the chronically insubordinate, complaining and intentionally misleading. Paul’s advice is as pertinent today as he gave it. Leaders who are working to create a better future and more effective workplace are wise to pay attention to Paul’s practical wisdom. Paul demonstrates three leadership behaviors needed to create a culture of discipline and thus avoid the trap of mediocrity. Paul’s advice to Titus encouraged Titus to: (1) Name problem behaviors; (2) Exposes and opposes problem behaviors when they appear and (3) Rebuke (be openly intolerant) of destructive behavior.  Paul wrote:

There are plenty of people, especially those who announce that this is the way we have always done it, who respond to authority with noncompliance, propagate groundless rumors and intentionally misconstrue the facts. (Titus 1:10 my own paraphrase)

Name Problem Behaviors

The first leadership lesson Paul gave Titus is; name problem behaviors.  I was about to have my first team meeting. The company recruited me to develop the capabilities and the perspectives of the team. I opened the first team meeting looking into the faces of my new team. I saw curiosity, trepidation, doubt, and mistrust.  I expect to see these emotions in a significant transition and especially a transition with a team troubled by poor performance, languishing morale and a forced change in leadership.  The previous manager transferred because perennial problems plagued the team’s performance.

In the meeting I introduced myself and the leadership philosophy I intended to follow. I had developed the essence of this philosophy as part of a curriculum development project for a client.  In the research phase of the client project the main themes emerged. I determined to test my observations by interviewing highly effective production managers.  The interviews with financial service managers, call center managers and manufacturing managers confirmed the validity of what I had read and gave me the stories I needed to put shape to my own approach to leadership and management.  I designed the presentation that morning with my new team to name the problems I consider intolerable and outline a constructive strategy for success. One of the things I learned was that effective leaders don’t pull punches in naming problems that torpedo the results their teams need to accomplish.

In talking about behaviors I do not tolerate I talked about building ownership for ideas by asking questions.  What does each producer want to accomplish?  What works well?  What does not work well?  What is needed to redefine success and move outcomes to all new levels of performance?  Building ownership requires a strong emotional intelligence i.e., the ability to perceive and constructively act on both one’s own emotions and the feelings of others.

Managers and leaders who are effective in naming unacceptable behaviors start by owning their emotions. Their emotions do not own them!  Similarly successful teams own their own emotions.  Part of owning one’s emotion recognizes that some issues have to be discussed in an environment that allows individuals to process their feelings in order to work through to understanding. Individuals in managerial or leadership roles cannot coerce, manipulate or force people into compliance.  I explained that my office is a transparent environment. I wanted the team’s feedback even if it was raw and unvarnished.  But, two things had to be understood in order to facilitate the kind of unvarnished conversations I described.  First, intense and potentially turbulent conversations cannot occur without a mutual respect.  I do not tolerate disrespect of the other person in any conversation.  Second, fierce conversations had to be held away from others who are not part of the subject matter.  When these conversations occur they happen in my office behind closed doors and they do not spill out into the office in the form of gossip or insubordination.

Ineffective individuals in leadership roles recoil at the idea of labeling behaviors – the problem is that such individuals cannot define successful behavior anymore than they can name problem behavior. Leaders must possess the courage and the clarity needed to define clear expectations.  These are the kinds of leaders that can define a vision for the future that makes sense.  They support that vision with concrete expectations about what kinds of behavior that are needed to achieve the vision.

I am talking about labeling behaviors not people.  Never label people as problems. When I hear individuals in leadership positions label people as problems I know that upon scrutiny these individuals behavior will exhibit insecurity, incompetence and fearfulness (the fear of failure ties them to inactivity and blame shifting).

Expose and Oppose Problem Behavior When it Appears

The second lesson I learn from the Apostle Paul is to expose and oppose problem behavior when it does appear.  The team appeared relieved as I expressed a coherent approach the management and a desire for a predictable work environment – the previous manager’s behavior routinely exploded into tirades that included yelling, kicking furniture and bouts of pouting in isolation from the team. His episodic behavior had created a culture of complaint, mistrust and suspicion.  I concluded the meeting with a question and answer period in which we discussed my expectations of performance and ran scenarios about how my management philosophy played out in life situations.  I felt like we had a good start to developing a transparent and empowering culture that would increase productivity, morale and fun.

Two days later Sally knocked on my office door. She was obviously agitated.  “I need to have one of those fierce conversations you talked about” she said as she entered the office and closed the door.  She launched into an animated diatribe on why the performance expectations I had set were unfair.  I asked questions, listened for underlying issues, clarified the questions and confirmed that I understood her objection.  Then I pulled out the performance numbers from the last quarter.  I showed her our gross profit number, it had dropped.  I showed her a twelve month review of performance metrics across the team – all of them were down.  I showed her the market trends which were all going up, our market was growing, our performance was falling and the direction of the gross profit meant that I would have to let one or more of the team go to replace them with people who could keep up.  Then I asked her what her recommendations for changing our team’s performance were. The look on her face was priceless – it was the shock that accompanies an epiphany.

She said, “I don’t have a better suggestion than the strategy you outlined.” The conversation graduated to a different tone and cadence.

“Look”, I said, “Tom did not tell you guys what was really happening in the company nor did he apparently show you your own performance metrics.”

“We never had metrics just quotas” Sally responded.

“Right, remember what I said about results” I responded, “We control activities not results.  That is why defining the right activity is important.”

The conversation went well. Sally left my office to return to her work station.  I was about the savor the victory when I saw her pull Pam aside and walk off to the side of the room. Their expressions and gestures indicated that Sally’s epiphany had worn off fifteen feet from my office door.  I walked out and asked Sally to meet with me in her office.

“Sally, did you just leave my office to pick up the same complaint with Pam over the team metrics you just spent forty-five minutes discussing in my office?”  The intensity of my expression seemed to surprise her; I apparently have a look that drills through people when I am upset.

“Yes.” Her response was more tentative now.

“Ok Sally, we talked about the how I work in our first meeting.  What did I say about taking complaints back onto the floor that needed to be discussed and resolved in my office?”

“You said you would not tolerate it” she answered.

“Why did I say that?” Now I wanted to test my own communication.  Had I been clear?  Did I clearly communicate the importance of open even fierce discussions and how to have them without descending into gossip and subterfuge?  Sally’s response let me know that she understood exactly what I had said and that she appreciated the idea. She was testing me.  I concluded our impromptu meeting by giving her a verbal warning and documenting this in her personnel file.

Rebuke – be Openly Intolerant of – Destructive Behavior

The third lesson I learn from Paul is that a leader must be openly intolerant of destructive behavior. After that encounter Sally became one of my greatest supporters and star producer. I realized that discipline in leadership is critical.  Without discipline there is no real assurance for employees that their efforts will be recognized and rewarded.  Why?  Without discipline failing performance is ignored or worse, it is continuously threatened with severe results that never materialize.  Why bother working hard when leaders fail to recognize good performance and fail to discipline poor performance?  Spineless leadership is what leads to mediocre performance and behaviors that undermine the trust and integrity necessary for success. Sally was about to test the strength of my own spine.

Things were going well.  I could see and measure improved performance and an improved morale in the office. The team had gathered into the conference room for our weekly debriefing.  I started to describe what the numbers indicated in our performance when Sally blurted out, “See that Charles, your numbers stink.  You should have been fired a long time ago. I don’t know why you are still here.”

Sally’s outburst commenced as I had turned to point out something on the screen and as I turned back around I shot back, “Sally, stop.” It felt like the tension filling the room was also displacing the oxygen.  “Enough” I said this time with emphatic emphasis.

I turned my gaze to the team who all sat with mouths agape and eyes wide as saucers.  “Team, what is the fourth value I talked about in my leadership philosophy?” Pages shuffled around the table as those who could regain composure leafed through their training books.

Bill tentatively raised his hand, “I think I have it. You said that you manage activities not results and that you evaluate production diagnostically.”

Successful production managers know that they cannot manage (or control) results; they can manage activities that contribute to results.  Leaders have to know what their teams need to do to hit the results and leaders and managers monitor performance consistency and quality in all activities.

I turned back to Sally, “What part of your speech was diagnostic?”

“None of it” she slowly answered.

“That’s right Sally, you violated one of my leadership values.”

I turned to Charles, “Charles are you open to receiving constructive feedback on your performance?”

Charles was still in shock from the volley that Sally had fired his way.  “Yea, I guess.”

“No, I need a definite answer” I said.

“Yes, I want it” he said.

I lead the team through an exercise evaluating the metrics of Charles’s performance.  The conversation ended constructively. The team expanded their understanding of how to use metrics to coach new behaviors.  I dismissed the meeting and asked Charles and Sally to stay behind.  In the discussion with Charles and Sally I reiterated the ground rules of respect.  Sally apologized and Charles accepted her apology.  Then I asked Charles to leave and Sally to stay.

“Sally” I started, “you appear to be frustrated.”

“I am frustrated, Charles produces nothing.  He doesn’t know the products. He can barely close a door much less a sale.  I don’t know why you keep him.”

“Have I demonstrated consistency or inconsistency with my management philosophy in the time I have been here?” I asked.

Sally thought for a minute then said, “Consistency.”

“Based on what you observe in my behavior do you think I will continue to act consistent to what I say?”


“Then you let me do my job and I will insist others do their job.”

Sally sighed in relief.  She had often felt like she had to cover for the previous manager, a role she neither wanted nor felt competent to fulfill. As a result she developed a pattern of publicly bullying people in meetings to vent her frustration.  No one had ever called her on that before.   My insistence that her former behavior would not be tolerated combined with an awareness of the situation that contributed to it helped her change.

Evaluate behavior diagnostically.  Stop the destructive behaviors as soon as they occur, then probe for the issue behind the behavior.  Like my experience with Sally employees are often trained to behavior in less constructive ways by the behavior of poor leaders.  New habits cannot be developed without clearly identifying the bad habits by (1) calling people to be responsible for their own emotions and (2) identifying those poor managerial behaviors or employee misbeliefs that contributed to their development.


Creating a culture of discipline is catalytic – it initiates changes throughout the entire system of the organization. By the same token bringing a culture of discipline to an organization that has run impulsively may result in reactions to the change throughout the entire system.  Paul’s advice to Titus assumed that Titus possessed a level of authority, power and influence required to push past system wide resistance should it occur. Remember the assumptions Paul operated on with regard to leadership – he was a leader who served those he led and he possessed a transparent agenda for the common good.

In serving others Paul demonstrated two important dimensions of leadership behavior.  First he was engaging.  He was confident in his own voice and encouraged the emerging voices of leaders around him. He took risks and helped others take the kinds of risks that resulted in great accomplishment.  He demonstrated an adaptability in altering his approach based on the situation and in refusing to be a know it all. He routinely pushed problems back to their source as an act of discovery and creativity in outlining solutions.

Second he understood how to connect with others. He networked (as he was doing here with Titus and the church in Crete).  He sponsored emerging leaders.  He worked on a principle of reciprocity and encouraged reciprocity between leaders and churches so that their combined resources did not dissipate in siloed activities but accelerated success through the synergy created.

Leaders who work in organizational cultures that lack discipline need to determine two things up front.  First, how likely is it that the introduction of a culture of discipline will succeed?  Determine this by the scope of power, authority and influence you have in the organization.  If you are a sole proprietor your job is easier than if you have just been promoted to department head within a global enterprise.  Find sponsors and mentors if they exist. Build a network of support as you introduce discipline.  Review your mandate to determine whether it supports a culture of discipline.  Then act. Exercise courage and develop the right team for the performance mandate you have been given.

What if the organization you are in does not support a culture discipline?  Put your resume out.  Why would you stay? Find an organization that understands the value of leadership and put your competencies to work in a situation in which you can make a difference.  Why languish away a career fighting an organizational culture that will not allow excellence?  A word of caution is important. Before you make a transition talk with an experienced leader about your situation. By seeking out the input of others with more experience or with insight into organizational and human dynamics you may discover the problem simply requires a change of behavior on your part to initiate a significantly new shift in the way work gets done.  Talking to experienced leaders will open up new options or new opportunities you may not have seen previously.

One Reply to “Servant Leadership and the Exercise of Discipline”

  1. […] Silent leaders in times of conflict abdicate the narrative of the situation to their critics. The result is that followers feel rudderless in the organization and ultimately feel betrayed by the leader’s unwillingness to step up to the demands of the pressure. (See my Article, “Servant Leadership and the Exercise of Discipline” at […]

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