“The most important thing to report is that I have found that effectiveness can be learned — but also that it must be learned. It does not come by itself. It is a practice that must be acquired.” — Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive

Do I have the improvement habit? Am I a lazy learner? Do I act as if my formal education was an inoculation that’s left me set for life? Am I a dedicated life-long learner? Am I constantly on the grow? Do I devote at least 10 percent of my time to improving myself? Where is learning and personal development on my list of time priorities? Is it a luxury that I get to occasionally, or is it a carefully scheduled and regularly planned activity?

These are critical performance questions. They are personal change leadership questions. My answers determine my effectiveness in dealing with the fast changing threats and opportunities that are popping in and out of my life. Research continues to show that while there are some “born leaders” (like there are some child prodigies, naturally talented athletes, or gifted musicians), the vast majority of effective leaders are self-made. Strong leaders put learning and personal development high on their priority list. They have developed strong improvement habits that have built strong leadership skills.

So here’s the most critical performance question of all — do we have a process for continuous personal improvement? There are dozens of learning styles and pathways to personal development. There is no one best or right way to keep ourselves growing and developing. We need to find the combination of personal improvement methods that keep moving us forward toward our personal vision, values, and purpose.

Developing a regular, systematic process and disciplined habits for personal improvement is hard work. One reason is because we’re fighting against the Law of Improvement Displacement — short-term performance pressures drive out long-term improvement activities. But if we allow those short-term urgencies to tyrannize our time and displace long-term improvement, we’re condemning ourselves to the treadmill of frantic, exhausting activities with decreasing performance levels.

Discipline: Getting Hooked on the Improvement Habit

“The list of projects was always fresh, exciting, and new,
There were so many improvements to make and urgent things to do, But little got done. There was no follow-through.”

Discipline is the difference between the dreamer and the doer. Many people can vision and talk a good story about what they are going to do. Some even set out to put their good intentions into practice. But few people are able to stick to their plans. Without the discipline to follow through, there can be no improvement. The depth of our discipline will determine the accumulation and longevity of our improvement.

Discipline is as central to management as vision is to leadership. Like management and leadership, vision and discipline are interdependent. Disciplined follow-through creates the results that move us closer to our visions. Visions, in turn, provide the focus and energy that drive discipline. Without discipline, a vision is just a daydream. Without a vision, discipline is drudgery.

As with leadership, discipline is often talked about as something that we’re either born with or without. “He is so disciplined,” I’ve heard people say wistfully of a high performer. But discipline isn’t an innate characteristic. Strong or weak discipline is a habit formed by the hundreds of tiny choices we make every day.

Choices like whether to raise that food, cigarette, or drink to our lips. Whether to do the job ourselves or take the extra time today to help a team member develop the skills so they can do the job tomorrow. Or choosing to invest a few minutes in planning our day while focusing on the bigger context of vision, values and purpose. Each choice of and by itself, is as insignificant and weak as a single strand of thread. But weave enough of these daily choices together and we’ve got a cable of habit that can lift us up or pull us down.