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Leadership the Martial Arts Way

Updated: Mar 4, 2019

Watching the news today, I am reminded about the horrible leaders in this country. So I wanted to share a talk I did for Music City Agile about leadership.

On October 2006, I was walking on Broadway and was approached by a man asking for a few dollars. I told him I didn’t have any cash and walked away. A few moments later, that man grabbed my arm. My flight or fight instincts came on. I pushed him off and looked around, grabbed a metal trashcan and threw it at him and ran. This was the start of my martial arts journey, which I thought would help me on my self-defense skills, but it was a lot more than that. It was a learning process that help seek perfection, coinciding with my journey with leadership and martial arts training.

I am going to say something controversial:

A leader’s main job is to make themselves not needed.

How can you leave a legacy? Tae Kwon Do is 2,000 years old. The secrets, forms (poomsae, patterns) have been passed down for thousands of generations. If you think about it, at some point we will leave, move on or even die at some point. If people can’t function without you what have you done? By not being needed, means you are teaching others to lead and to carry-on the legacy.

Being a leader and teaching others to lead requires a foundation of trust and respect.

Build Respect and Earn Trust

Your title may put you in a leadership role, but first you have to earn respect and trust. The people who you guide decide whether you are a good leader. How do we build respect? It’s as simple as just showing it.

"The taller the bamboo grows, the lower it bows." - Chinese Proverb

In martial arts, bowing is a sign of respect, respecting your instructor, the person you meet. Because you are lowering your head even against an opponent, you trust that they are not just going to attack you while you are not looking. You are giving someone a chance to show respect.

In Lean management, respect comes from being in the trenches with your people. This applies not only when there is a problem. Leaders support and mentor the people closest to where the work happens. This is called the Gemba. Leaders do not sit in their glass towers, they go to the gemba, “the real place where the work happens.”

Not only do leaders do the Gemba walk, but they observe to make sure the system and process is achieving its purpose. They show compassion to their people and are considerate of their work. This walk is not sporatic or an occasion. Lean leaders live the Gemba style. They understand and respect every aspect of their organization.

Leadership Kata

Showing respect requires leaders to rely on and trust their people. This means the decision-makers are the ones closest to the work.

Your trust is built through giving others trust. Trust your people. Create a safe place in the Gemba where it’s safe for everyone to speak up and have different opinions.

Train and Practice

Martial Arts is rigorous training. We constantly practice our movements, but each time that movement should be better. How do we empower the people closest to the work to be decision-makers?

Don't memorize. Think.

Life is not a choreograph. Leadership is not a mold. We must be able to adapt our skills, learning, and teachings to the different environment and situations encounters. There are not set solutions to every problem. Train and teach your people to think, not to follow orders. How do we do that?

1. As leaders we tend to try to do all the work, do all the leading, and make all the decision. Develop the problem-solving skills of your employees. Asking questions instead of giving answers. As leaders you ask a lot of whys, whats, and hows to get to the root of the problem.

2. Challenge people to develop their own solutions. Showing people the way instead of telling them how to get there. A leader fosters, creates, and supports a problem solving culture. When everyone is able to problem solve, you don’t have bottlenecks. A good leader is a great teacher, a mentor, a coach, a facilitator. Leaders do not put out the fire, they build teams to be firefighters.

Bruce Lee says: “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”

Leaders focus on long-term, continuous learning and relentless improvement.

Continuous improvement vs. relentless pursuit of perfection.

Not only continuous improve your process and your organization, but have relentless pursuit of perfection for your skills and your people skills. This pursuit of perfection is for the success of your organization and for your customer’s delight. Just like the self-defense technique. Make the hidden known, the Toyota way, “If there’s no problems, that is a problem.”

Leadership Kata

Always be prepared and have a plan, whether it is for a meeting or for a quick chat. Practice simplicity. I’ve been at a place where there was a 15 page document for parking. Keeping your process and policies simple is easier to follow and easier to change. Training sessions. Use your skills and knowledge to teach others to be leaders.

Self-Control & Integrity

In martial arts, self-control is fighting your ego, showing humility, humbleness. Self-control for Lean leaders is leading, being genuine and acting with high integrity. Are you an executive who is too good to clean a table or to wipe the boards?

We have promotion testings in Tae Kwon Do to move higher in rank. Everyone is always excited to change their belt or move to be higher ranking, but the more promotions we have, the more responsibilities we have and the more we have to teach to our junior belts. Same with Lean leaders, the higher our title the more we have see our responsibilities and the more we have to help our people.

The more power we have, the more humble we must be.

Self-control is finding waste in our personal warehouse, things that hold us down, holds our organization down.

Leaders make sacrifices. They admit mistakes; they fail fast to learn even faster.

To create a “culture of continuous improvement” you must see in yourself that you have room for improvement.

Yin and Yang is bringing everything together. Leaders do not throw their people under the bus. Leaders hold the bus up for their people. Leaders fail with their people and win with their people. Just like when a captain goes down with his or her ship. An organization survives by working together and moving together.

How you act and what you do determines your rank.

At tournament, a high spirit of competition happens when we spar. I normally fight in a division 18 year olds to 35 year olds. I remember sparring an 18 year old Olympic sparrer, who’s only desire was to win. I was 35 and a mother to a 2 year old. She found out I was that old with a child. She sparred with great honor and respect by pushing me to do my best, but also not trying to injure me. I lost that fight, but both of us won that day. She could’ve used her rank, her strength to destroy, but she didn’t. She pushed me to my limit to give me an honorable fight.

The same is true in leadership. You push your people to be the best they can be. You help them achieve mastery; this gives self-motivation to continuously improve and learn.

Integrity is a simple rule: be humble, authentic and honorable.

Leadership Kata

Lead by example. The easiest way to describe integrity is doing the right thing. And doing what you say you are going to do. If you say you are going to be at the meeting, be there on time. Admit your mistakes and show people you are not perfect, and fix your mistakes. If it feels wrong, it’s wrong.

Indomitable Spirit

Tae Kwon Do was one of the free outreach programs offered at my low-income, inner city middle school. My family could never afford it, so I studied for one year in school when I was nine years old. When I turned 26, I finally had saved enough money to study Tae Kwon Do and was able to fulfill my childhood dream of joining a school. I’ve been studying for over 13 years now, will keep going and will never give up.

I worked with a CEO who failed 5 start-ups. He lost money, friends, and a little of his hope, but he kept going and now he runs a Fortune 500 company.

Leadership is showing that you can keep on doing and going. When you think you can’t go any further, you as a leader must continue, so your organization can continue. You survive, so you can find ways to make it better.

Take aways: Start with your leadership strengths. Use them to teach and train your people, so they can teach and train others.


When we break boards in Tae Kwon Do, we break through our all greatest problems, so we can learn from them. Leaders are always students continuously learning. When the learning stops, your leadership stops.

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