Building Disciplines, Not Skills!

March 31, 2020

by Dave McKeown

The following is adapted from one of my favorite chapters in The Self-Evolved Leader. Get your copy now at

We talk a lot about “soft skills” and “hard skills” in the workplace. Hard skills are the tangible, functional skills that you need to succeed in your role: being able to code, knowing how to use a particular piece of software, or the proficiency to drive a machine. You know those things you can point to, get certified on, and otherwise “prove” you possess.

Everything else falls under this big, mushy umbrella we like to call soft skills: communication, time management, thinking strategically, managing difficult conversations. Those are things that are a little harder to define and even more difficult to prove you possess.

The problem is that we’ve collectively gotten lazy in our pursuit of said soft skills. The thinking goes like this: Given they’re so hard to define and prove, they must also be hard to learn and develop. Somehow, we only become better leaders through time, or maybe we read a book or go to a workshop and the lessons somehow flood our inner being, and through sheer osmosis we become a better leader. Hogwash!

When we treat leadership as a soft skill, we get soft leadership. It comes from nothing more than our collective desire to not want to put in the additional hard work to define our own development needs and to practice, truly practice our leadership.

I suggest a change in the nomenclature to help us out. Let’s banish all talk of skill as it relates to leadership (soft or not) and instead start to speak in terms of disciplines

Disciplines are hard to master; they require an objective understanding of your relative strengths and weaknesses, and the only way to develop a discipline is through repetition and review. 

You try something, assess the impact, chart a new course, and try again and again and again, until it’s second nature. Most important, however, disciplines are the only way to lead to ongoing, behavioral change. It’s only when you’ve mastered the discipline that you can take the training wheels off and the behavior sticks.

Here are six disciplines that if you work on this year, I can guarantee you’ll become a more effective leader:

1. Take a Pause

In today’s always connected, always on, faster-than-fast-mov- ing world, we’ve eliminated any time for introspection, for reasoned decision making, and for time to think about the medium and long term. We’re too busy for that. There’s an actual job to be done.

In doing so, we’ve created a high-stress, high-reward culture for those willing to put in the hard yards and keep us moving in a direction. What we’ve lost is the ability to take a breath, to center our thoughts, and to give ourselves the headspace to think more innovatively and creatively.

Taking a pause can help you regain your composure in times of stress, clear your head when you need to think strategically, and create the space for collaborative solutions to emerge. It’s a tool that’s seldom used; it’s small in stature but mighty in impact.

2. Exist in the Present

Multitasking is not leadership! I know you have a million and ten things to attend to, but when you’re dealing with those through your computer, tablet, phone, pager, or by throwing up smoke signals rather than actively dealing with the person in front of you, you’re sending them a message. You’re telling them that they are not as important or at least only fractionally as important as everything else that’s going on. It drains your authority; it drains your ability to be empathetic and it drains the likelihood that you will get the best outcome from the current interaction.

Building the discipline to exist in the present is a difficult thing to do in the context of a fast-moving organization, as we’ve developed mild addictions to the draw of something potentially more exciting. Those who master it, however, end up building stronger relationships with everyone they work with, they generate more creative solutions, and they reduce their own stress levels.

3. Set Context

One of the key characteristics of a Self-Evolved Leader is their ability to maximize the outputs from their interactions. Instead of booking a one-hour meeting and letting the group fill the time, they set a clear goal and identify the time required to complete that goal. It’s not that they focus on speed or efficiency at all costs, it’s that they get really good at understanding how to move everyone from confusion to clarity to commitment in the shortest period of time. If that is going to take twenty minutes, good. If it requires three hours, that’s equally as positive. If it can be handled over a quick email, superb!

One of the key disciplines in making that happen is to constantly set context. By that I mean helping everyone engaged in a conversation understand where in the team’s pulse the conversation fits and the broader impact the decisions they come to will have.

4. Be Intentional

You’ll seldom see a Self-Evolved Leader turn up for a meeting they’re unsure of or chase down a rabbit hole that they know is fruitless. They are almost ruthless in their pursuit of the things that bring them closer to achieving their own and their team’s goals. 

At the beginning of any major interaction, whether it’s a discussion, event, project, or meeting, take two minutes and define what you want to get out of it. Ask yourself the following:

  • What does success look like for you?
  • How does that link to your and your team’s goals?
  • What roadblocks may be in your way, and how might you overcome those?

What you put into your day is directly proportional to what you get out of it. Although you can’t control all the external factors, you can control your approach to them. In setting your intention, you’re operating from your locus of control.

5. Listen First, Talk Second

This is a super simple one. As soon as you as a leader offer your opinion or perspective on a matter, the vast majority of your people are going to say, “OK, let’s do that then!”

To prevent that happening, let everyone else share their perspective first. If there seems to be a consensus that isn’t objection- able to you, go in that direction. If there’s no consensus, share your thoughts and go around again to see if there’s a common ground. If there’s still no agreement, then at that point you can make the decisive call.

Give the power to your people to make the decisions they know most about, are the closest to, and will have the biggest responsibility to deliver. Allow their opinions to be heard first, and if there’s silence, let it do the heavy lifting. You’ll get to a stronger decision almost every time.

Although it’s a simple discipline to understand, it can be very difficult for some leaders. Many have to unlearn years of bad habits of speaking before thinking and believing that their job is to know the answers.

6. Push for Clarity

The last micro discipline to develop is the ability to push for clarity. Related to context setting but nuanced in its use, pushing for clarity can help keep your team aligned and in agreement when the dynamics of a discussion or decision are fluid or change over time. It’s particularly helpful for difficult or substantive discussions like strategic planning or a performance-related conversation.


Dave McKeown is a leadership coach and consultant focused on helping busy leaders achieve excellence by doing ordinary things extraordinarily well. He has worked with leaders at fast growing companies like Fedex, Akamai, Bank of America & Spectrum Health and has shared his leadership strategies at countless conferences including Inc. 5000, Foodbuy and MHA. Dave is the founder of Outfield Leadership and writes a weekly column for Inc.Com.