Originally Published: May 1, 2009
Imagine a middle-aged, white belt with a propensity to be on the husky side (my Mom's words, not mine) and a sense of adventure standing amongst serious athletes ranging in age from 16 all the way up to 35.
A little bit intimidating to say the least, but I have a lifelong appreciation for the Martial Arts dating back to my first Bruce Lee movie. In the early 70s I was able to see them in an actual theater, and never missed an episode of Kung Fu. My father and I didn't bond over baseball or football, we watched David Carradine wander through the Old American West. If you are my age, you are probably thinking, yes I remember Kung Fu. But why in the hell would you want to enroll in an MMA class at your age?
Either that or you are thinking I am like John Favreau when appearing on the television comedy Friends announced to Courtney Cox (after buying her a "ring"), that he wanted to be an Ultimate Fighter. That ring turned out to be an MMA Octagon. Happy to say, I am not that delusional.
The answer is simple: to me life is an adventure - to be explored, to learn from and to experience. As Dylan Thomas said ... "do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light." And no matter how many years I have on planet earth, I plan on always kicking it up a notch. Life is meant to be lived!
But surprisingly, entering a Dojo taught me so much more than learning how to pummel my opponent - it taught me some serious leadership lessons that I would like to share. It is about discipline and persistence. It is about giving 100% every time. So here goes...
1. Leadership Focuses On a Singular VisionThe big hot button these days is Change Management, yet Jim Collins in his ground breaking book Good to Great points out that Level 5 Leaders do not focus on change - they focus on the goals for the vision they've established.
In Karate we learn that no matter how impossible something may seem today, we are given glimpses from the Masters as to what is possible in each of us. There are no multiple directions or agendas, just one goal. They hold in their consciousness a very powerful singular vision for us...to become a Black Belt.
If you had told me a year ago that I would be able to flip a 250 pound man with ease I would have told you, you're dreaming. Yet over time, with enough technique and the guidance of those that have gone ahead of me, I too have learned that all things are possible.
As a leader, you just need to point the way and set up the training to get everyone believing they can get there as well. It's not magic it's a form of coaching. But a leader's vision must be believable to be achievable and most importantly, engaging to your people on an emotional level. Without vision there is no direction and without a direction, the next 4 Leadership Keys are a waste of time.
So when shaping a vision, ask yourself ... “will this vision be as exciting to others as it is to me? Is it a worthwhile trip to make? Is this something that is long term or short term?” Asking serious questions will bring about a very serious and exciting vision for your company. After all, people who are fired up about something are unstoppable.
2. Leadership is About AlignmentWhen first entering a Dojo beginners like myself, are shown the basics, then paired up with an opponent. Usually this is someone who isn't too much more advanced and this is done for 2 reasons: first the slightly more advanced student is encouraged to teach what they know so far, to pass on their knowledge base, while at the same time getting a challenging workout from a newbie. Eventually, the class rotates and a new comer gets to work with higher ranks including Black Belts.
I've been a part of this same type of training in the pharmaceutical industry for over 25 years. An experienced sales rep sits in training sessions with newer less seasoned reps to pass on their knowledge and seasoned sales experience. Teaching what you know will make the subject an innate part of your subconscious mind while immersing your students into the nuances of the business.
Q&A is encouraged. This type of mentorship training assures that every individual in an organization is aligned with the same vision, purpose and abilities while opening up the lines of communication for individual improvement. It is the dynamics of a 1:1 mentorship and training program that will help your organization achieve alignment.
But remember, this type of training is not about training from the top of an organization down - it's about training from the bottom up - a plus factor in today's competitive market. Total alignment to a company's mission needs to be on everyone's mind from the mail-room to the boardroom.
I have a theory that Management is The Last To Know because they are in the habit of commanding rather than listening. Listening and respecting the fact that people on the front lines of your company just might know the business better than the top executives is scary to most - especially after years of business schooling. But don't let hubris stand in the way...your sales reps on the front lines, everyday, in the center of the action may understand the forces changing your industry better than you. They see what, when and why changes take place sometimes years before the board of directors can see it.
Remember your history - the greatest generals listened to their soldiers on the front lines with candor and emotional intelligence. Your job as a leader is to not react to the information you are getting from the front lines of your business but to create a strategy that will win the day and get everyone on board. Aligning everybody in an organization in the same direction is like looking down the shaft of an arrow. It is focused and in line with the target. Simple huh?
3. Leadership Sets Simple, Achievable GoalsIt can be intimidating to see a Black Belt jump up in the air and kick over someone's head, but most of us understand that with enough time, dedication and training, you too can be doing these amazing feats of agility. As we say in the martial arts, “A Black Belt is a White Belt who never gave up.”
Fear and intimidation melt away replaced with knowledge and technique. By setting small achievable goals for teams as well as individuals, an organization will become a place where talent is encouraged and developed. Since your vision is emotionally engaging from Leadership Key #1, everything your organization does will stem from the singular goal. By developing and encouraging people you are nurturing a productive environment.
When employees find their workplace challenging they don't want to leave. Goal setting is a start at retaining talent and by setting small achievable goals, many will not notice but over time, those small goals add up to very large achievements. A journey of a thousand steps begins with the first step.
4. Leadership is About Picking and Nurturing TalentIn any organization eventually someone will stand out for their natural abilities. A leader's job is to keep watch for the best and the brightest and pave the way for their future. In Karate the Sensei looks to see your strength and weaknesses. One may be strong in kicking abilities because of their long legs, while someone with shorter legs is better suited for strikes and grappling. This is an individual thing.
Same within an organization. A friend of mine who is a small business owner, realized that one of his top employees, although hired to give presentations, wasn't very good at people skills. He could talk all that tech talk, but he couldn't feel out the direction a meeting was taking and therefore missed a lot of cues to finish up or make his presentation more exciting. Yet his technology background made him an integral part of the team.
What my friend began to see was this young man was an incredible writer and decided to re-purpose him for proposals. He didn't eliminate him from pitch meetings he just nurtured his innate abilities - which coincidentally enabled the company to land larger projects. They doubled their business with that one move.
Spotting and nurturing talent is essential to your organizations health. But don't get bogged down at what you "think" of an individual - look at the skills they bring to the table...skills they may not realize they have. Try to re-purpose people according to their natural abilities.
Bad leaders are threatened by talented individuals. Over time, unbeknownst to themselves, they make the road harder for their employees. Many in the workforce may quit, only to have amazing careers somewhere else, while the dysfunctional leader can't understand why they did so well at another company.
On the other hand, evolved leaders don't make the way easier, but provide the knowledge, the training and point out the stepping-stones along the way. These types of leaders are secure in their positions and welcome new talent with open arms, knowing that with enough time, training and experience, this individual deserves to stand in the same winners circle. They respect each and every individual's contribution to their organization.
I'd like to point out something else that I've learned from the Martial Arts - women are treated as equals in the Dojo, just as capable of achieving the same ranks as men. There is nothing that will get that across easier than the first time you face a female Black Belt. I remember lying on the ground looking up wondering what just happened? The training is the same, and the expectations are the same.
To some, this may be intimidating. To the women at my Dojo, it has made them strong and confident. Business could learn a thing or two about equality from the martial arts.
People don't leave bad companies; they leave companies with bad management. Be an evolved leader, it saves a lot of time and energy, and helps retain your best talent.
5. Leadership Rewards Those That Earn It
In other words, before someone takes the physical test, the Sensei notices that they are operating at that level already. No one receives something they haven't earned in the Martial Arts. If you hand out trophies for every little thing, then those awards become meaningless. When someone achieves a promotion the hard way (by earning it), there is no doubt or favoritism.
Recently I read an article where most employees don't care about making a million dollars...they just want recognition for their contributions. By rewarding those that earn their way and reach their goals, a leader creates a sense of healthy competition that can kick your organization up to another level. It doesn't have to be fancy - a monetary award, or a plaque for best problem solver or more responsibility and a raise. Rewarding those that earn their way is part of nurturing talent.
None of these 5 Leadership Keys are even possible without one last secret: and that is...
Create an Environment Where it is Safe to Tell the Truth.
Not bickering or backbiting but an environment where someone can stand up in the middle of the room and tell it like it is... "It isn't the recession that hurt us, it is that fact that we don't make exciting, innovative products anymore" or "we haven't listened and responded to what our customers are telling us they want."
We aren't managing in a vacuum, and as the global economy gets bumpy, it becomes tempting to return to the old ways of management - but keeping the lines of communication open and nurturing an environment of truth is far more important than hierarchy and micro-management. It is easy to run a company during an era of prosperity, but the real business warriors can manage in any environment.
Four years ago I attended my nephew Sebastian's pre-Black Belt exam over. There were 10 people who were being considered...yet at the end of the evening it was apparent that one young man was not ready, and he was pulled aside to face the truth. It wasn't personal, it wasn't because he didn't know his stuff. It was the truth...he wasn't operating at the level of a Black Belt. He knew what he was doing it's just that his movements were labored as if he was trying to remember each combination for the first time.
The unusual part is the 3 Masters and 4 Sensei's present didn't discount him from the exam. Instead they laid out a course of action. The test wasn't for another 2 months, so if he worked hard, the goal might be in his grasp. Failure was NOT an option.
Two months later there he stood alongside my nephew, a Black Belt around his waste and tears in his eyes. He did it because he had a vision, spent 5 years aligning himself to that vision, with the right teachers to nurture him and small achievable goals, he was rewarded with the rank of Black Belt.
But now the real work begins as first through fifth degrees of Black Belt status means one must train with a different energy and discipline. He is now a leader...a teacher...a role model. Just like in business. Masters are the Board of Directors and Black Belts are like the executives in an organization...looking for those that want to stand in the winners circle.
Ironically the Martial Arts aren't so much about fighting as they are about discipline and balance of mind, body and spirit. The same within your organization. If the body of your company is out of balance, in other words, you are not retaining talent, then your company is going nowhere fast. If the spirit is off, as in morale, then your company isn't going to move forward as well. If the mind is not functioning, or the knowledge isn't being shared, then a company has no direction.
There are some experiences I cannot put into words, but if you follow my 5 Keys I believe you too can achieve a Black Belt in leadership.
Join a Dojo near you and see what I am talking about.
Thanks for reading (I know this was a long one),
Liquid Leadership: From Woodstock to Wikipedia which explores the subject of new leadership styles – mainly how to get the tech-savvy Generation Y and analogue driven Baby Boomers working together. ISBN-13: 978-1608320554
But this is not based on management theory:
Brad is a former C-Level Internet executive who went from entrepreneur to IPO in 3 yrs – co-founding K2 Design, the very first Dot Com Agency to go public on NASDAQ. His Results Only management model was applied to the first wave of Gen Y workers producing great results– 425% profitable growth for 5 straight years and winning K2 the Arthur Andersen NY Enterprise Award for Best Practices in Fostering Innovation among his employees!
Today, through his workshops and keynotes, Brad helps Fortune 500 Companies close the Digital Divide by understanding it as a cultural divide—created by a new tech-savvy worker...and customer.
Mr. Szollose also writes a monthly column on business and marketing techniques that reach Generation Y for A Captured Mind newsletter and is part of The Mind Capture Group faculty.
* 2011 Axiom Business Book silver medal winner in the leadership
* #1 Amazon Best-Selling Author