A Disciplined Mind

I am sure that many of you have witnessed cases of what might be called “inappropriate” advancement into management. That is, a person is performing very well in an area or business and as result is promoted. It might be a salesperson promoted into sales management or a technical person into project management. It soon becomes apparent that the promotion was inappropriate because the person starts to struggle in their new situation. Unless that person is a quick study or has some substantial help, they often do not succeed, and others are left wondering why.

I touched on this point in a previous Blog posting about the difference between a project manager and a technical team lead (“Are You a Hands On Project Manager?” December 14, 2009) and it came to mind again as I am reading a very interesting book, “5 Minds of the Future” by Howard Gardner. One of the 5 minds that Gardner writes of in his book he calls The Disciplined Mind, I believe holds a key to why some people struggle in the situation that I described above.

Early in his description of the Disciplined Mind Gardner differentiates between subject matter and discipline. Subject matter he defines as content or knowledge and consists of facts formulas and figures. On the other hand, he defines discipline as a “distinctive way of thinking”* , that utilizes different types of tools and methods to come to conclusions. He uses the examples of a scientist, historian or even a business person as someone that might practice a discipline.

The author insists that a discipline is not easily learned, and often takes years to master; it is more than a passing or superficial knowledge of an area of expertise. He also posits that while there few people that actually master more than one discipline in life, it is possible, even necessary for people to attempt to use some of the tools of a particular discipline in other areas.

Now, this is a very interesting theoretical discussion, but before I drift off to far, how does this apply to the situation that I posited in the first paragraph, that is the hapless person that is promoted out of his or her area of competency? Actually, there are two that I can see. First, that as Gardner points out, the mastery of a body of knowledge does not guarantee a discipline. Rather, a discipline is a systematic approach to that body of knowledge. It may be that our erstwhile high-performer had mastered the knowledge without mastering the system.

I think that Gardner points out another important facet: someone who is a high-performer in an area has probably mastered the discipline. However, I think that people often believe that mastering a discipline also give one the ability to manage other people who are working in that discipline. In reality, management is a completely different discipline that is quite distinct from any other subject matter. It goes without saying that a certain level of knowledge of a subject matter is important in order to manage others working in that area, but a fundamental mastery of the discipline of management is also required.

Given this distinction, it is amazing that so many companies do not have programs in place to adequately prepare people for management by helping them acquire the knowledge and expertise of the management discipline before putting them in that position. In many smaller companies, success leading to rapid growth often challenges those who find themselves vaulted into management positions. While some are born leaders, most people need to learn the management discipline in order to become able leaders.

*5 Minds for the Future. Howard Gardner, Harvard Business Press, Boston Massachusetts,

3 thoughts on “A Disciplined Mind

  1. Brad Marsh, PMP

    Mr. Callahan,
    Thank you for the enlightening information.
    You spoke of the problem to the company, but what about the repercussions of the inappropriate advancement down the chain of command? For example, if a supervisor understands the system so well that he sees what the problem is far better than his manager does.

    How would someone in this situation survive not only this specific relationship, but succeed in the business?



    • Kevin R Callahan


      An excellent question. How the hypothetical supervisor survives the relationship and succeeds in the business will depend at least on several of variables:

      1. Is the manager open to what the supervisor has to say and to be helped? If the manager is not open, it will be difficult for the supervisor. Many managers do realize their strengths and weaknesses and rely on their subordinates to be successful. In reality, any manager that does not rely on their subordinates ultimately will be less successful.

      2. Is the supervisor able to approach the manager in a way that is non-threatening? If the manager is threatened or intimidated by the supervisor, then it will be difficult to help.

      3. How well does the manager’s manager understand the person that was promoted? Will that manager be able to help the new manager acquire the discipline necessary? Does the new manager now from the start what is expected of him? Does the company set up expectations for the new manager, or just throw the new manager in at the deep end?


  2. Michelle Kelleher

    At one time Corning in Corning, New York, had a program for the PhD scientists who became new team leads. Leading PhDs can be like herding cats. The scientists are incredibly smart and have tremendous knowledge of a specific area, but that does not mean they can lead (or follow).

    The program for new team leads was irreverantly referred to by the scientists as “Charm School”. I consider the irreverant name not far off the mark. Part of the discipline of managing others is the people skills one brings to the job, hence “Charm School”.

    I believe finding and promoting management talent from within very technical disciplines an especially difficult problem.

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