This is the fifth in a series of posts that will examine ten insights Community Wealth Partners has uncovered through our research of and experience with initiatives that have created transformational social change. This series was introduced in a previous post.
Articulating a bold and believable goal is critical, but alone, it will not lead to transformational change. Discipline is key—without it, a daring goal, such as eradicating malaria, represents unattainable idealism. Leaders must use discipline to achieve their objectives.
This is not a revolutionary concept—the for-profit sector has studied the concept for years. In his recent book, Great by Choice, Jim Collins argues that the country’s best companies adopt a “20 Mile March” approach to problem solving. Business, he argues, is not a sprint—it’s a marathon. Collins shares the following illustrative story (I have paraphrased here):
Imagine two athletes in San Diego, both of whom plan to walk to Bangor, Maine. The first (let’s call her Sally), decides to walk 20 miles, every day, rain or shine. Even though it’s 75 degrees and sunny in San Diego, she walks 20 miles—no more, no less. Soon, she’s in the desert with the unforgiving sun beating down. So she gets up before sunrise and walks 20 miles. A few days later, Sally is in the Rocky Mountains—no matter, she walks 20 more miles. A few months later, she is eating blueberries by the Atlantic Ocean.
Our second would-be traveler (John) takes a different approach. John wakes up in San Diego, sees the perfect California weather, and decides to walk an easy 40 miles on the first, second, and third day. But soon, he’s in the desert. The weather is overbearingly hot, so he only goes five miles. The next day is worse. Each day, he wakes up, looks outside, and determines how many miles he’ll walk. Frustrated by his lack of progress, he overextends himself in the Rocky Mountains and is forced to waste time nursing himself back to health. He eventually stumbles into Kansas at the same time Sally is swimming in the Atlantic Ocean.
Collins says this approach—steady discipline—is a common denominator among successful companies. The best companies do not overreach—they don’t travel 40 miles just because it’s sunny outside. Rather, they stick to the plan— progressing 20 miles every day—no matter what.
Collins points to Southwest Airlines as the best example of the “20 Mile March”. At its founding, the company’s leaders vowed to make a profit every single year—this was their 20 mile benchmark. For thirty consecutive years, Southwest made a profit because it stuck to its goals. It took eight years before the company expanded outside of Texas, and it did not reach the East coast until nearly 25 years after its founding. This is not to say that there weren’t opportunities to grow faster—in 1996, as Collin explains, there were 100 cities asking Southwest to expand into to their airports. Instead, the company expanded to four, because it had chosen to walk “20 Miles,” and not a step further.
In the nonprofit world, instead of making money, organizations need to seek transformational change—eradicating childhood hunger, ensuring all kids read at grade level, or ending obesity. The goals are different but the principles are the same. Discipline is what transforms idealism into results.
How can a leader build a disciplined organization?
- Hire the right people: This is somewhat obvious, but self-motivated, driven, and goal-oriented employees are critical to achieving and maintaining discipline in an organization.
- Establish a clear goal: Set a long-term goal (could be 3, 5, or 10 years) for the change you want to see. It should be Bold and Believable.
- Set short-term milestones:
- Make sure these milestones (could be ½, 1 or 2 years) relate to the long-term goal.
- Also, make sure day-to-day activities relate to both the short-term milestones and the long-term goal. In Sally’s transnational journey, such a framework would look like this:
- Walk across the United States.
- Get to Denver in three months.
- Walk 20 miles per day.
- Stick to your goal: After setting the agenda, stick to it.
By being goal-oriented, organizations can check themselves and stay on target—that is, stay disciplined. It’s important to note that discipline does not mean being completely inflexible and unopportunistic—sometimes, strategy has to change. A truly disciplined leader knows when and how to alter strategy and take advantage of unique opportunities. There is a profound difference between adopting changes that advance toward the goal, and reckless changes that ultimately undermine the organization.
Stay the course—be disciplined. The weather may be really nice—for example, a donor may offer you millions toward off-target programming—but a disciplined leaders stays on track, walking twenty miles, no matter what, every single day.