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Leadership in the Martial Arts

by | Dec 16, 2020 | News

by Master Michael Munyon

During my lifetime I’ve been exposed to various types of leaders and leadership styles.  This began at childhood watching how leadership dynamics worked within my own household.  My parents created a hierarchy within our own home.  My father was the “Leader” of the home and my mother was the “Manager” of the home.  Both roles are different but required.  Later, I got a job working at a fast-food restaurant and got to see different methods of leadership in a fast-paced environment working customer service.  Shift managers would lead their employees so that there was minimal to zero mission delay or interruption.  When I turned 18, I joined the United States Air Force and then I REALLY got to see leadership in action.  I’m going to talk a little about leadership, leadership styles and more.  This article is simply sharing some of my personal experiences with leadership and leaders in the martial arts and how some people gravitate towards it or try to escape from leaders within the martial arts.

When I began my martial arts career in 1979. I didn’t know much about leadership or hierarchy found within the martial arts.  All I knew was that there was one guy who was the “boss” of everyone, and it was he who taught everyone their techniques.  I recall seeing other belt colors, but I didn’t know what they meant at that point.  Later, I was taught or mentored what the belts symbolized.  Also, with time I got to learn my martial arts from other people delegated by the Master.  Though I did not see it at that time, that was a sign of a good leader.  DELEGATION is the art of giving people some level of authority or power to complete a task.  All good leaders know that you can not do everything yourself.  The “art” of delegation is important.  So, from a young age I learned that everyone has a boss, subordinates, and people they trust to delegate responsibilities to.  A good leader knows their people, their strengths, and weaknesses.

When I see leaders or leadership memes on social media, they have minimal examples, and they ask you which leader or leadership is “more” correct.  Many people have their views on leadership based off their education, experiences, and training.  One group might believe that leaders MUST always lead from the front, take charge, assume all risks, and assume no rewards for their leadership.  Others believe that leaders should allow their juniors to be given opportunities to sharpen their leadership skills.  This allowing them to lead from the front while leaders sit behind and watch from a distance.  Leaders should only insert themselves when they see juniors struggling or when asked to do so.  Micro-managing can be effective as well as ineffective depending on how and when it is used.  Leaders should not micro-manage the small tasks.  Example:  Asking a lower ranking student to lead warmups.  If the student leading warmups is counting in English but you do it in Korean, this isn’t the time to interrupt the leader in training.  However, if the leader in training is a red belt and attempting to teach a fellow classmate a red belt pattern, this might be a time and place to step in and get involved.  So, I guess the question is, “When is it ok to micro-manage or get involved when you’re allowing others to exercise their leadership skills?”  The answer is simple.  If it causes injury or harm, requires people to have to reteach something because of numerous critical errors and if doing so doesn’t hurt morale or confidence of the leader in training.

~It’s not about getting people on the bus, it’s not about getting people off the bus, it’s about getting the right people in the right seats on the bus~

In 1992 I joined the United States Air Force.  This was my personal experience of watching leadership in action in soft and extreme delivery methods.  Right away I learned the art of Consequences.  Your words and actions or lack thereof earned a response from different types of leaders.  Many people watch TV and see some military leaders yelling at their troops to get a desired response.  When you see that, what do you think initially?  I’m sure many of you think that the leader is being mean.  Military life is not like civilian life.  This is obvious.  A leadership trait in communication must entail 4 areas.  They are as followed:  1.  Sender 2.  Message 3.  Receiver 4.  Fight for Feedback.  In the military we don’t always have time to repeat orders.  Also, orders must be easily understood, delivered so there’s no false interpretation and timeliness of orders are followed.  Something leaders should do is attempt to learn what values their students have.  Naturally, this takes time and hosting events outside of normal classes and creating a less formal environment will allow communication to flow more freely.  Why is it important to consider the values of your subordinates?  Well, knowing their values allows you as a leader to do the following.  Increase the leader’s ability to effectively communicate with subordinates.  It helps the leader to know what motivates subordinates.  Also assists the leader in interpreting and explaining the martial arts organizational goals.

Most people have different levels of resiliency.  There are those who respect and encourage strict discipline and firmness.  Others fall to the ground, assume the fetal position, suck their thumb and cry if their feelings are hurt.  People must understand that it takes time to figure out what leadership style to take with EVERY individual who is their subordinate.  When I was going through the NCO (Non-commissioned Officer) Academy a young Senior Airman came to our Academy because he was going through a first line supervisor course called the Airman Leadership Academy (ALS).  He stated the following, “We (Airmen) need and want leadership”.  Meaning, they know and expected us to hold them responsible and held the path for their career growth.  There’s a thing leaders must think about when employing their leadership style.  Not everyone grows or appreciates the same leadership style.  We must find the right leadership style for all our people.  The wrong delivery system of leadership could cause many issues.

One thing that leaders in the martial arts can do is learn about reward systems.  Learning award systems and using them correctly isn’t always easy.  Common awards can be in the form of non-verbal, verbal or gifts.  Another word for awards is called strokes.  I’m going to cover a little about these types of awards.  Positive strokes build self-esteem and confidence in students.  It encourages repeated good behavior and build morale in times of crisis.  Another version of awards or strokes is called “conditional”.  This is GIVEN when doing and is aimed at the behavior or activity of the student.  These strokes seem positive because it helps get a desired result.  However, there are other methods of getting results but aren’t necessarily classified as being positive, at least from the student’s point of view.

Negative strokes cause some form of pain or discomfort.  It can come in the form of a put down, physical punishment (knuckle push-ups), scolding and at times public admonition.  The military has taught me that sometimes, in rare occasions, public humiliation is a good way to correct sub-standard performance and behavior.  Another stroke is called Unconditional.  This is given simply for being.  It’s unfortunately like the instructor who promotes a student for simply coming to class regardless if the student meets standards.  The final stroke I’m going to introduce is called Plastic.  Plastic strokes uses positive strokes when they are NOT earned.  This makes the optics of these strokes hollow, meaningless and doesn’t seem sincere or genuine.  Leaders must master the art of awards and strokes to motivate their students appropriately.  Failure to lead is leading to fail.  In the martial arts we offer awards such as student of the week/month, belt promotions and annual awards.  These can be healthy ways to create an environment of traditions, core values and more.

The next subject I think is vital for a leader is developing a leadership team.  As the president of a national martial arts organization with international ties, it’s vital that I designate people to fill certain positions and roles that help grow and strengthen the organization.  In our national organization, we utilize a volunteer force to help get things accomplished.  The primary importance in utilize the right people for the right job is simply a matter of organization and logistics.  Team building is how we begin.  This concept requires a lot of thought and we must also look at the idea that not everyone will always do as you wish.  So, let’s look at organizational team building.  There are two popular models that describe the stages teams go through as they work to become more productive.  They are Forming/Storming and COG’s Ladder.  Let’s look at the Forming/Storm concept.  Forming is a period of uncertainty with members trying to determine their place and how they fit in with others.  Storming is when conflicts arise as members resist team influence and rebel against task accomplishment.  Norming is when the team establishes commitment to the task and discovers ways to work together.  Production is at its earliest phase but is still satisfactory.  Performing is when the team is now proficient at achieving its goals.  Simply put, the forming, storming, norming and performing has to do with most group dynamics.  This changes when someone leaves or enters a new organization or team.  When this happens the process to some extent repeats itself.

Another method of organizational and team building/development is a concept called COG’s Ladder.  This concept show explains how some organizations and their members operate in a group setting.  The first state is what’s called the Polite Stage.  Members are new and just trying to get to know each other.  Next comes the Why We are Here Stage.  Designated members need to know the team’s goal or objective.  Team members also need to know any constraints.  In this case, it is outlined in our association’s web and appointment letter which describes duties and responsibilities.  Due to people’s individual goals, traits, values etc., the next stage is known as the Bid for Power Stage.  Individual differences emerge and conflicting points of view may me voiced.  If the leader does not control this, it could slow progress.  The leader should take charge and ensure a line in the sand is established.  Once this is accomplished the next stage known as Constructive Stage can begin.  As attitudes change slightly and team members start to focus more on the goal they move out of the Bid for Power stage and become more productive.  The final stage is called the Espirit Stage.  This is when the team has strong group identity and high morale.  Not all teams will reach this step on the ladder.

~Some people want to be leaders and some want to be KNOWN as leaders~

How does one go about selecting team members?  Well, sometimes it’s a matter of picking whomever volunteers regardless of experience simply to fill the position.  However, motivation isn’t always enough.  Team members must possess attributes to ensure they can continuously perform on the team.  Here are six examples for selecting team members.

  1. A good team member possesses and shares technical expertise. They must have something to contribute and be willing to share it.
  2. A good team member assumes responsibility.
  3. A good team member is willing to commit to team goals. If they are in it for personal gain they will cause problems and conflict.
  4. A good team member is able to see the big picture. Think conceptually and don’t get bogged down with details. You want a powerful motivator.
  5. A good team member is willing to ask tough questions. Do not select a yes man.
  6. A good team member is willing to try something new. If someone is resistant to change, they will be resistant to thinking outside the box or will be unable to generate new ideas. Team members must be able to accept and embrace change.

Many martial art organizations have leaders holding positions such as state director, regional director, chairman of tournament operations and more.  A concept we must all embrace is the W.A.R. concept.  This stands for We Are Recruiters.  We are always looking to grow our organization and recruit people to help grow and strengthen positions of leadership.

Now that you’ve got your team working together, leaders must find a way to sustain an effective team.  Doing this can be as easy or as hard as you make it.  Let’s look at some ways you can help sustain your team.  First, focus on the goal or mission.  If problems arise you need to decide if another team needs to address the issue or to table it for another time.  Next, monitor the teams development as people change.  We must understand that the team can move backwards when new members arrive or the team returns from extended breaks such as tragedies or vacations.  New members must be introduced and informed of the teams goals and made productive as soon as possible.  Another thing to consider if the concept we call Always Monitor Healthy Team Spirit (HTS).  Understanding that Healthy Team Spirit is not permanent.  Stress, new members and organizational changes can all affect HTS.  Ask team members for feedback and always monitor HTS.

Here are some signs of a Healthy Team Spirit:

Ethical Behavior- Trust, honesty integrity, (Open w/team)

– A need to win may become so great the team will disregard any sense of fair play to achieve its goals

Sharing- Open Communication, inside and out, encourage feedback

– The team doesn’t keep info or resources just to themselves

Trust- Show trust in team, leadership, and Communication (In each other)

– The team members can rely on each other and depend on each other

Critical Judgment- Team is open to criticism; seek outside feedback (Willing to learn)

– When lacking, the team fails to accept constructive criticism

Cooperation- Uses everyone’s ideas, strengths and contributions

– Team members are willing to help each other and support each other

~Attitudes are Contagious~

A leader should also “Walk the Talk”.  Being a leader means being an ambassador of whatever martial arts organization you belong to.  How you talk and act in and out of the dojang makes a big impact on those who agree we live a life unlike many others.  Martial artists are part of a sub-culture in our society.  We must practice what we preach.  Staying technically proficient and physically fit (or at least capable) are traits our students will always admire about us as leaders in the martial arts.  Regardless of your rank, we are all students.  Black Belts, Masters and Grandmasters a like MUST keep the White Belt mindset for learning always in their hearts and mind.  You see, there can not be leadership without love.  We just love what we do and love our students.  It is with clarity in our hearts and knowledge in our minds that we can better service our students.  When you have doubts about your decisions, keep mind something we teach all white belts in Taekwon-Do.  They are the Tenets of Taekwon-Do and the Student Oath.  These will always be your compass and give you direction.

At this time, I will conclude on some leadership topics found within the martial arts.  Leadership is the art of influencing others to complete the mission.  We discussed various topics such as communication, leadership styles, optics of leadership, delegation, team building and more.  Learning to inspire, educate, motivate and at time reprimand your team is part of being a leader.  Good leaders always hold themselves accountable.  Leaders know when to step up and when to step down.  This is a strength and trait leaders will learn with time.  Nobody is a perfect leader.  Leadership training takes time, but with a good team supporting your efforts, mission and organization you will find success or a learning experience.

~Some people are born to be Black Belts and there are those who are born to be Black Belt Leaders~