Martial Arts Leadership

Leadership within the context of a martial arts school or style is not often examined properly. As often as not, the leaders or founders of a school, style or system feel themselves to be the authority on the subject, and they wish to have all power within the group, they feel that all decisions are theirs alone, and they tend to get their feathers ruffled when someone disagrees with them on most topics, but especially so when it comes to topics directly related to whatever it is that they are in charge of.

Take a moment and contrast this with effective leadership from any other business venture.

Outside of the martial arts, those who are viewed as good leaders understand the nature of being a leader as being one part of a relationship. I don’t use this term in so base a sense as “you can’t be a leader unless you have followers”. What I am talking about is the interaction and interplay of human emotions which are constantly changing between those in a role of authority, and those who are under authority. The type of “top down” leadership where the “boss” sets the goals and the vision or mission, and everyone else does what the boss says has been shown in study after study to be ineffective. This is the model that is clung to by most martial arts groups, but obviously we can do better.

The fact that obscures the insight needed to cause many martial arts groups to change their model of leadership is simple. A ruthless and cranky boss creates tense followers or employees. Tense and stressed people can be extremely productive in the short-term, so with a high turnover rate, an illusion is created where the boss feels that his near fascist style is effective. Without the high turnover, in this case being mostly students who quit, but also instructors who work for the school or organization moving on at the first opportunity, the method might have been dropped long ago. But perhaps not, as the driving motivation behind these people is power. They do love to lord it over others.

Another added difficulty is the “this is the way it has always been done” mentality.

This mentality, and the strange ideas that we carry on generation to the next about what precisely we feel it means to “be a Black Belt” are part of why leaders of schools and styles can go so far off course. I am certain that no one ever plans out becoming an evil overlord of a particular martial arts style or school, but it does happen every day.

It would be good here to stop and consider a series of questions. This is an exercise that is of great importance to those of you who are leaders or instructors right now as the answers apply to how you lead, whether this leading is part of an organization, or leading the students in a class. I would ask the following:

What is the ideal instructor/leader like? Take some time to list the qualities of the ideal leader. What qualities would this person have that would make you want to work with them. Perhaps you can make this easier by calling to mind someone you worked for in the past that was so good or inspiring that were they to be transferred to another area, you might be motivated to request a transfer to continue working with them. Ask yourself what the mood of this person is like? What is their approach to the people they are in charge of, and how do they treat those people? Perhaps you might want to consider how they develop the vision or mission of the group, is it top down, or is it more collaborative? Do they take action or talk about problems and challenges? What is the ideal?

What am I like now? If you are a leader in any capacity now, you should next consider what you are like now. This is not as easy as it may seem at first. Most people have an idea or image of how they are seen by others. Whether this idea or image is how they are actually seen is another matter. There tends, in my experience, to be a disconnect of sorts between how people think others see them and how they are actually seen by others. This issue has only been exacerbated with the rise of the digital identity. It can be disastrous to the leader to allow the false image of how they are seen to go unchecked.

For a leader, there must be an honest assessment of how they are perceived by those they lead. This can be honest assessment can be had many ways, but one easy way is through the anonymous survey. Constant feedback from the people you lead is not always easy, in fact it can be painful. No one enjoys hearing about the areas where they are weak or ineffective, especially when those are the very areas where our imagined self is the epitome of effectiveness and strength, but true growth means being an adult and facing the truth. Take the necessary steps to find out where you are right now, because without this information, the next step is impossible.

How do I get there from here? Once you have an honest and true picture of how the people you lead view you, you can begin the process of mapping out your journey from where you are to where you need to be. Some may find that the journey is short, and others may find that it is more distant, but that part does not matter. What matters is in knowing you are not where you want to be, and taking the steps necessary to become the leader you imagine yourself to be. Chart the path in small steps, and remember that you need to be genuine. Being a positive leader does not mean slapping a fake smile on and handing out a bunch of platitudes. Such gimmicks are identified immediately, even when those you lead do not openly say so.

As the steps are taken to make the needed changes, stay genuine to the idea behind making the changes, and keep a professional, disciplined, and consistent focus on making actual change.

As a final note, a person does not have to be an evil martial arts overlord in order to benefit from this introspection. Good leaders constantly ask themselves questions just like these in order to continually improve. Being a good leader, just like being a good instructor or good student, is a continual process of refinement. Always improve.