One of the more fascinating elements of martial arts training to me is how the characteristics of leadership are formed. To be able to lead means you have to get others to go where you want to take them. This skill is innate to some people but it can be learned over time by almost anyone. In fact, most people that wind up reaching a black belt training level, weren’t very capable at leading at the beginning from what I have seen and experienced (myself very much included). That said, I view leadership as a skill – it is most certainly learn-able.
Leadership is a complicated subject because there are so many components to it. A leader has to have a vision, set an actual direction that others can strive for and ultimately be able to motivate others to take action. All are critical elements of leadership and we see them often in everyday life situations. Some examples of leaders (in my personal development definition) include:
- Business people, who are responsible for making decisions that affect the livelihood of themselves and others (employees, customers, etc…);
- Teachers, who influence others intellectual development and opinions;
- Parents, who guide a child’s framework of what it right and wrong;
- Writers, who put opinions and thoughts out in the public domain;
- Scholars, who advance theories that challenge conventional thinking;
These are all the types of people I have trained with in karate over many years and they are each leaders in their own way. Yet, many people that walk through the dojo door don’t necessarily view themselves as “leaders”. I found this to be odd until I really analyzed it from martial training perspective and realized that the majority of people have traits of leadership – they just lack the confidence associated with this trait because they cannot see themselves this way.
Most people think leaders have to be authority figures, but they don’t. They just have to exhibit the traits of them through a projection of confidence.
I write a lot about the characteristic of confidence. It affects so many things from a personal development perspective. Virtually everyone doubts themselves to some degree. Yet the most successful people I know leverage confidence as a tool to project authority. And projecting authority (effectively) is at the heart of leadership. They also view themselves as being a leader of others. Put simply, they “Stand Tall” when they need to.
Look for Ways to Lead
In martial arts training we constantly look for ways to put people into positions of leadership as it is one of the 6 Elements of martial arts training. Quite frankly it’s the mainstay for getting to this level. If you can’t lead yourself through a path of personal development, you cannot lead others. One of the most common ways we develop leadership is to simply have students teach some kind of technique in front of a larger group as I have written about here. A drill or exercise where they have to get stand before others, explain a technique and show it, get the class up and working on the drill, make comments individually on what students are doing right and wrong, and then bring the group back together to address them.
The process is a great vehicle for helping someone establishes leadership. Why? Because to get up in front of others and address them requires a level of authority that others believe in what you are saying. Addressing a large group is one of the best ways to develop confidence and ultimately leadership. It forces you to believe in yourself and have a level of mastery over a topic. If you can’t do this others won’t believe in you. You don’t have to be forceful in the delivery of the topic, just confident in how you project it. I am also a firm believer that people like to be led. They may disagree with you on a specific point, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want someone else to lead them down a path of knowledge or direction.
Here is the interesting part. I see people that are very confident in one aspect of their lives (they are authority figures on some professional level as outlined above) yet when they are thrown into an unfamiliar situation, they lose the qualities of leadership. They cannot “stand tall” enough to be considered a leader and take on that role. I realized through this process that many people have many of the traits of leadership they simply struggle to view themselves as a leader until they are in front of a group of people explaining something. And even then they don’t view themselves as a leader or an authority figure.
The Opportunity of Situational Leadership
A business mentor of mine once told me “you can be anyone or anything you want to be in business, just play the part”. I remember the day I was first promoted to a position Vice President in my work life. I went into a meeting with about 15 other staff members. They day prior we were all peers and now I was “in charge”. We were seated around a large conference table and the person that called the meeting started off by explaining why the meeting was gathered and what needed to be accomplished. She talked for about a minute and then stopped and everyone was staring at me. There were staring at me because they expected me to lead the discussion. It’s important to point out that the topic was something I wasn’t involved with and didn’t understand as it was ancillary to what I normally worked on. But everything changed overnight. Mind you, only a split second elapsed between the time my colleague that called the meeting said “Marc, what do you think we should do?” and the realization that all eyes were on me. I couldn’t just say “I don’t know” as everyone was expecting something from me.
So I did what came naturally from years of training. I started by stating I wasn’t familiar with the topic but I wanted to lead the group in a discussion to explore ways to solve the problem. I asked one of my co-workers to re-state the problem in the simplest terms possible. I then solicited feedback on solving the problem from each person in the meeting and had someone write them on a whiteboard. This got everyone involved. I then divided everyone into two working groups and told them to brainstorm a solution in 15 minutes and that I would come back to the meeting and have them present their ideas to me. We come up with a solution that everyone was happy with, I got smart on the situation at hand and everyone went on with their business.
A Simple Leadership Framework
The purpose of the story is to show that leadership isn’t always about dictating what others should do (although that can be part of it and often is in a martial arts setting). It also can’t be taught in a single posting. However, I believe focusing on the pursuit of leadership development pays very real dividends in personal development. For leadership to be developed on a personal level you have to pro-actively look for places where you can evolve it. I offer a simple framework that anyone can leverage by:
- Spotting the opportunity to lead something;
- Taking the opportunity (to me, this is the hardest part);
- Expressing and projecting confidence when a situation to lead or learn unfolds (very much the hardest part for most people);
- Involving others to provide input so they help to set the direction (which allows the situation to rely less on you to solve a problem);
- Guiding the conversation to establish authority and overall decision making.
This is a very simple process. I used to believe leadership was all about dictating to others what to do. Sometimes it is that, but often it is not. If you look at the picture at the top of the post you will see a small figure walking between the trees. Often people, even those that are authority figures, fall into this trap of not thinking they are “tall enough” when situations outside their comfort zone emerge so they don’t lead. A black belt automatically sees these opportunities and seizes them. They stand as tall as the trees.
Thanks for training with me.