As a student we press forward with confidence because our teacher has laid out the path for us. Once we are a teacher, we look to better teachers and masters for direction while we cultivate our understanding. Leadership can be researched by watching other leaders, but the crash course in leadership is running headlong into the things that will not happen if you do not step up and do them yourself. Every leader will find different challenges and situations and each leadership story will be different, but the constant is that they must all drive forward into the unknown with enough confidence and passion that people will follow. I finally see myself as a leader, not because I have this many students or have been teaching this many years, but because the leaders that are blossoming under me are becoming the sort of people I’d be proud to follow. As we walk down their paths and I look to my experience to guide them in how to overcome leadership challenges, I realize that not only am I their leader, but I have plenty to offer them on how to become better leaders themselves. So here are the suggestions I would offer to those who would lead. I believe these are lessons that reach beyond my single experience.
Be Decisive - Be Inspirational - Be Known - Be Experimental - Be Open
Be Decisive - I describe to my students that the way to judge the quality of a set of choices or the value of a decision is to examine how far out in time and how wide a group of beings it considers. What you want at this moment is of small worth compared to what will benefit your family in five years. What will benefit your family in five years is of small worth compared to what will build your community for decades to come and so on. At the same time you understand that if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be any good to anyone else. This clash of nobility and practicality creates daunting choices. The leader must weigh their people, their current stability, their vision of the future, and their willingness to sacrifice and then declare a plan with infectious confidence.
Leadership is placed on your shoulders when people see that when you’re around they won’t have to know the whole plan, find the solution, be the voice that overcomes uncertainty, or ever stand alone. Many of the decisions of leadership are weighty and unclear. A badly made decision can break what it was meant to build—a relationship, a project, a class, or a school. While only those on whom these decisions fall can fully understand the pressure of leading down one unclear path over another, everyone innately appreciates not having to make them. It’s the quiet security that gives one faith in their leaders. Since the results of those decisions will determine the success of a group, the willingness to take responsibility for those decisions is a required quality of the leader.
Look to those outer consequences. Make a plan from the information you have. Weigh the unknowns and then move forward. This is the step that shuts most people down. You can never know for certain that a plan will work, but to put anything new into the world you will have to move forward anyway. Successes and failures are how we learn from the past but mapping them onto the future creates fear and stagnation. To move forward you must make your peace with being a ship at sea. Evaluate. Correct your course. Evaluate. Correct your course.
Be Inspirational - If you are leading, where are you going? Obviously as martial artists we will inspire our schools with our martial arts skill. We literally present to them what they can accomplish if they’ll keep working. What are you showing them? As my students approach black belt we have the conversation, “What kind of sensei do you want to be?” Our Cuong Nhu community offers hundreds of different answers to that question, and we’ll see thousands more in the future, but whatever decision you make will determine the type of students that will be drawn to your leadership. It can be your forms, your weapons, the extra programs you want to start, another style that you’ll add to your training, the books you’re writing, or the new dojo you’re going to pioneer. You’ll need to pick your path and then forge ahead. Inspiration is infectious. Nobody can catch it from you if you don’t have it first.
This can present a unique problem. As your inspiration attracts large numbers of people, you must become a manager to keep everything going and everyone attended to. Management is generally not inspired or inspiring. It is about being thorough and meticulous and can exhaust the part of you that brought all those people together to begin with. Generating energy for teaching and leadership becomes a conscious exercise instead of the natural byproduct of doing what you love with your friends. The good news is that once you generate energy and pass it on, people will pass it right back. The hard news is that you’re going to have to come up with a continual supply to feed your school and battle entropy on your own. What inspires you? Another teacher, music, books, stories, art, travel? You’re going to need it. If your students seem uninspired, first ask yourself if YOU are inspired. If you can’t point immediately to what’s inspiring you right now, then find something quick. You’re slowly bleeding out.
Be Known - I can’t remember the source of this quote so by this time its likely best called a “paraphrase” but it goes something like this.”The worst leader rules by fear. A better leader leads by gaining the respect of the people. A great leader is loved by the people, but the greatest leader tears down the idol of themselves that the people have built.” As we walk the long and dedicated path towards mastery, one thing becomes very clear. You might be amazing at a few things and good at a few more, but you will never be all the things needed to accomplish the grand plan. Some leaders will fear this exposure of their imperfection and hide it from the people for fear of losing their faith. When your students are new they think that you can do anything, that they’ll never be as good as you, and its easy to fall for the fallacy that when they discover how far they’ve come, they’ll become aware of your imperfection and rebel. That is only true if you’ve built a grand lie of perfection around yourself and then they see past it.
Know your strengths and show your strengths. Be honest about your weaknesses, seek help and support, and let your students see you do it. You’re their teacher. Teach them about asking for help and don’t act like you’re just delegating what you could do better if you had more time. If you’re still learning and growing there will always be new things you can teach them, and if you’re lucky, they’ll learn enough to teach you back. People want to build a god-like image of their leader with folklore to match. We are a culture that loves our idols, but if you allow your students to pretend you are a god they can easily tell themselves that your example is too much to match when what we all really want is for those that come after us to do even more than we’ve done. Don’t allow them an excuse not to surpass you.
Be Experimental - Never stop asking what is working and what is not. What you’re trying to teach may be consistent but the people you serve are ever changing, ever growing, and the world around us is changing faster than ever. We as teachers and leaders are great at cycling through the hundreds of ways to help people learn the curriculum we need them to learn, but not always great at seeing our organization as another student that is seeking perfection. A stagnant organization is going to become less and less adaptable, less and less relevant to the community, and less and less the answer to the new issues that develop around us. How to grow is even more difficult to decide than how to solve problems.
Like with all difficult decisions of leadership you have many factors to weigh besides just what seems best for your students. You have resources to manage including your own time and energy, the use of time and space in your school and the demands of your school and community. Growth is how you blossom, but can destroy what you’ve built if pursued in a way that creates a demand for resources that aren’t there. Everyone has different goals, communities, and resources, but the thing we all have in common is that if we settle down and stop experimenting, we’ll stop inching forward and start sliding back as conditions change under us.
Be Open - Open Mind, Open Heart, Open Arms. These words continue to resonate at all levels. You’re the leader and people drawn to your group naturally mirror some of your values and goals, but they are their own people. They have their own likes, fears, values, strengths, and challenges that will shape their future. If you treat them like they are little clones of yourself that are not yet fully formed, you will isolate them from you and never fully understand their motivations or be able to guide them towards their truest self. When you are faced with a lonesome task like accounting and scheduling, math and statistics are your friends. When you are faced with a challenge that involves people, then your understanding of their personal stories has to be your guide. Do you know what fears, stresses, desires or other drives are behind the conflicts you’re trying to help resolve? Do you know where your dreams of the future branch off from theirs? Open your mind and remember that these people represent a different combination of valid life experiences from you. Open your heart and recognize that their different combination is not only a unique and important part of your group, but that letting it in makes you, personally, more whole. Open your arms and let the strength that your leadership brings carry people through their personal and interpersonal challenges and build a powerful, balanced community that answers their visions as much as your own.
This brings up a final, but most critical topic. Not everyone should try or even desire to be the leader. We’ve come to idolize leaders and have begun regarding our children and each other on a scale of leadership worthiness when, in fact, the leader is just one of many critical functions necessary to succeed in any endeavor. Worshiping the leader is like valuing the screen of the computer above all the other parts when its clear that nothing will happen if any of those parts are left out. We need to stop seeing the other parts of the plan as lesser in the map to success and give people powerful archetypes that match their many strengths and weaknesses instead of defining leadership as an upward path that only the great can climb out of the pool of followers. There are so many parts to play and roles to master that no one should ever feel that they don’t stack up. They should be given a path to master that they are perfectly suited for and the tools to excel at it. When we see leadership as a combination of particular skills and attributes mixed with a touch of hubris about marching into the unknown, we’ll not only locate better leaders, but also be able to appreciate the many other combinations of personality that are critical to the journey.