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Martial Arts: Leadership Lessons in the Art of Continuous Learning

Written by Brad Smith
Jun 15, 2014

By Brad Smith

At the age of fourteen, I enrolled in a martial arts academy to learn Tae Kwon Do. What I didn’t anticipate at the time was that the greatest lesson would not be the martial art techniques themselves, but rather a leadership philosophy that would guide me through the rest of my life. That philosophy is the constant search for knowledge and self-improvement, and is personified in the progression of belt ranks in my particular style of Tae Kwon Do. Let me explain.

Unconsciously incompetent: the white belt was the entry level. The color of white represented innocence … purity … a blank slate. As a white belt, I had more questions than answers, and didn’t know what I didn’t know. I was thirsty to learn the basic fundamentals in each lesson. My ultimate goal at this point was to become a black belt, with a belief that when I achieved that rank, I would have all of the answers to my questions!

Planting the seed: Once learning a foundation of skills, I was tested for gold belt. The color of gold represented the seed of knowledge, still small and in need of being fed, but a progression beyond a blank slate as it had been as a white belt. I coveted every new concept, and practiced continuously to refine the techniques.

Nurturing individual ability: Following the gold belt, the rank of green belt was pursued. Green represented the growth of skills and knowledge, as the advancement started to take bloom and the student began to develop a particular style that is unique to their own natural and developed talents. It was in this stage of development that I began to see my authentic style emerge, and discovered the areas where I excelled more naturally, and areas where I needed much more work.

Translating individual ability into organizational capability: Then the student progressed to brown belt, where the self-discovered style that was found as a green belt was forged and hardened with a “bark” (thus the color brown) to further develop and protect the skills being developed. In my particular school, brown belt also began the official training for black belt and involved student teaching, where a new requirement was introduced – the need to develop the ability to “not only do, but to also teach.” It was at this stage that I became aware my success was no longer singularly dependent on my individual ability, but now depended on my skills in translating that experience into capability in others as well.

                 


                 

                 

At the karate school where I taught and trained. My instructor, Mike Spaulding, is the one flying through the air and ready to strike!

Situational leadership & scenario planning: The next two belt ranks focused on learning to use your skills in offensive and defensive circumstances. The red and blue belt ranks represented yin and yang, the positive and negative forces that make up the universe. During my red belt training, I was taught to seek the opportunities to go on the offensive with techniques that would deliver the desired outcome. Once that was “mastered,” the blue belt training was focused on the opposite approach, using an attacker’s energy and momentum against them, deflecting and defending in a way that led to victory. This stage of training reinforced that there was not a “one size fits all” application of knowledge. The student must read the situation, and adapt their style and choices to the circumstances they encountered.

Consciously incompetent: After years of learning, practicing and continuous testing of mental and technical skills in various situations, the next step was black belt. The black belt exam required an application of all of the techniques and experiences that had been accumulated since the initial journey of white belt. It also included observation and measurement of how the students I had been teaching as a student instructor had advanced under my tutelage.

At the end of the journey, I successfully achieved my black belt test. It was at that moment that I realized something very revealing – that my learning journey had just begun. I had an awakened understanding of everything I did not know, and all that I felt I was not achieving to my fullest potential. I didn’t have all of the answers. I had more questions. Thus, the choice of black – representing void and infinity.

I have learned the same lesson has applied in my leadership journey. Your title makes you a manager, but your people will decide if you are a leader. After years of learning and applying good management techniques, learning from the most inspirational leaders, and gaining experience through both failure and success, I have come to appreciate how much more I have to learn, and how much more I have to develop to realize my fullest potential.

What has shaped you as a leader?

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