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Charismatic Discipline

Updated: Sep 21, 2022

Several years ago, when I was still on active duty in the Marine Corps, I published a short article about leadership in the Marine Corps Gazette. I proposed then, and still think now, that the best foundation for leadership is friendship—specifically friendship understood as a mutual striving for the same good. A leader worth his salt unites his followers in a voluntary commitment to pursuing the good together. For example, as Marines, that meant extreme physical fitness and strong moral character so we could rely on one another in difficult circumstances; it meant countless hours honing tactics and individual skills so we could anticipate each other’s actions; it meant sharing a love of country and each other so we could trust one another implicitly. For those who have genuinely made a commitment and joined this kind of friendship, there is no external discipline that is more effective than one’s own conscience—no consequence for failing that is graver than self-reproach.


The principle of friendship is actually at the root of all discipline, including that maintained by parents and teachers. A vocation to teach or to parent is a vocation to lead and the same principles of leadership apply. Adults have to offer children a compelling vision of the good along with an invitation to join them in pursuing it. This happens first through the example adults set. A parent’s behavior is the first model a young child has to emulate and will almost inevitably shape what the child considers to be good. This is helpful because the parent needs no special talent or skills of persuasion to capture the child’s admiration. It is also, for the very same reason, a formidable responsibility.


As the child grows older, adults will come to rely less on the child’s inherent desire to imitate and instead introduce invitations to pursue the good together. This might look like showing a child how to make his bed or doing the chores alongside him. For teachers it will mean modelling the virtues you hope your students will develop and challenging them to grow by striving to do the same yourself. All discipline starts with this leadership by example because there is no friendship unless you’re pursuing the same good together.


It is important to make a distinction between bureaucratic and charismatic discipline. Bureaucratic discipline takes many forms: a proscribed consequence administered by a distant authority; a meaningless activity that embarrasses and demeans; or even an abstraction like adverse paperwork. None of these can accomplish true discipline. Usually bureaucratic discipline creates resentment and active antagonization.


Charismatic discipline, on the other hand, is rooted in the friendship between two people. It requires the leader to earn the right to discipline the subordinate by first modelling the good, then inviting the subordinate to join in its pursuit. When a young person does something wrong, he or she risks the friendship you have cultivated together. If you’ve done your job well, that friendship is too valuable for them willingly to risk it for long.


The 19th-century Italian priest John Bosco is a prime example of charismatic discipline. In his ministry to orphaned and homeless youth in Turin, he pioneered many of the principles described here. He is said to have convinced the guards of a juvenile detention center to allow him to take every inmate on a daylong excursion in the countryside. He had spent the week giving them a retreat and had established a good rapport with them. Bosco simply impressed upon the young men how important it was that they not run away once they were outside the gates, and that he trusted them not to. At the end of the day, against all expectations, every boy returned with the priest.


Ultimately, approaches to discipline that fail to recognize and appeal in an age-appropriate way to the inherent freedom and dignity of the person being disciplined will not last. And if this charismatic approach sounds too soft to work, remember that in my experience it is the only approach hard enough to galvanize Marines in the most severe circumstances.


This is the kind of discipline our leaders and schools need to develop.


One final illustration: Gen. John A. Lejeune led Marines in Europe at the end of World War I, including in their final charge across the Meuse River just hours before the armistice was announced the morning of Nov. 11, 1918. In his memoir, he described asking a young Marine amputee in a field hospital, “What induced you to cross the bridge in the face of that terrible machine gun and artillery fire when you expected that the war would end in a few hours?” The Marine responded that their commander had called them together just before the attack and said: “Men, I am going across that river, and I expect you to go with me.” The young Marine then told the general, “What could we do but go across, too? Surely we couldn’t let him go by himself; we love him too much for that.”




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