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Enforcing Discipline

Successful organizations generally have a disciplined workforce. If you’re leading an organization of any size, chances are you’ve faced the challenge of administering discipline to one of your employees. I performed the task numerous times over my professional career – in and out of uniform. I never enjoyed it but I got pretty good at it. The physical act of administering the discipline was pretty simple once my decision had been made; getting to the decision was often more demanding.

It’s a no-brainer if you encounter an employee who has willfully violated your standards of performance. I had no hesitation about disciplining individuals who had falsified financial documents, abused fellow employees, or stolen government property. Thankfully, those were rare occurrences. More often, I was deciding whether or not to discipline someone who had demonstrated bad behavior but had good intentions…a much more challenging situation. Let me give you an example.

I was called out to the flight line one morning to look at a damaged F-16. The plane had just been shut down after flying a sortie and the crew chief noticed significant punctures to the skin along the aft section of the aircraft. The pilot had not felt anything during flight and had no idea what caused the damage. As we investigated the issue it was quickly resolved. There had been maintenance performed on top of the right wing the night prior to the mishap flight. When the maintenance was completed, a panel was improperly secured. That panel came loose during flight, got caught in the slipstream, and hit the aircraft (causing the punctures) in multiple places as it tumbled down the wing. There were several breakdowns in procedure that allowed the mishap to occur. The maintenance team that had performed the work the night prior failed to secure the panel completely because they intended to complete the action in the morning. They never got the chance; the flight line supervisor, whose job it was to review the maintenance forms prior to releasing the aircraft for flight, had “pencil whipped” the Red X inspection in a hurried attempt to get the jet to the pilot – certifying that he had examined the work performed and deemed it correctly completed when in fact he never looked at the actual work. The jet was allowed to fly with the panel insecurely fastened.

This supervisor was one of my best performers and most trusted NCOs. He had never been in trouble and was revered by pilots and maintainers alike. He was apologetic and chagrined that he had committed such an error and assured me that he’d never do anything like that again. I was ready to leave it at that and allow this superstar to resume his position on the line but I talked it over with my Squadron Chief and together we agreed that this called for action greater than a verbal admonishment. The entire squadron – nearly 300 people – was watching to see how I (the Commander/leader) would handle this serious infraction of the rules. If there was no punishment handed out, then a new standard would have been set…“it’s OK to disobey Tech Orders and falsify paperwork”. Though I wrestled with the decision, ultimately I determined that the best course of action was to administer official discipline. I fined him monetarily and demoted him one rank. The demotion was suspended to allow him to prove that he understood the seriousness of the offense and would comply with procedures as he had been trained. He eventually regained the trust of his supervisors and the squadron, got his rank back, and returned to being one of my best performers.

Here’s the bottom line: enforcing discipline in your organization has to be done fairly and consistently. You can’t just focus on the egregious actors…you might have to take action against one of your best people if the situation warrants. As hard as that is – your organization will be watching to see how you lead. Don’t let them down.


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