Thursday, August 23, 2018

Leadership Lessons from Taekwondo

Since becoming a ‘solopreneuer‘, I’ve doubled down on my taekwondo practice.  In fact, I’ll be spending the next ten days in Italy at a training camp practicing 3-5 hours per day in the hot sun, followed by my green belt test.  My family is coming along and my kids, as you can imagine, are delighted to spend their summer vacation watching me break boards.

Breaking a board in one shot feels great but if you had to hit the board over and over without ever breaking it you’d probably give up, which you can compare to some workplace situations.  Patty Azzarello wrote a great article (here) about becoming one’s better self – with way better hair - when work doesn’t go your way.  She’s one of the best at navigating difficult workplace situations, but it’s also worth exploring why leaders have to expend so much energy navigating instead of leading. 

You could argue that’s part of what leaders get paid to do.  Given that businesses need to run profitably, some competition for attention, mindshare and resources is inevitable.  Besides, friction can be a positive creative force, up to a point.

However, past that point it’s just wasteful and erodes trust.  How do you know where that point is?  Oh, you'll know. 

After that ‘People don’t leave jobs, they leave bosses,’ meme went around for about the ten thousandth time, Christie Lindor resoundingly qualified that statement in a blog post that has received over 30K likes and more than 1000 comments, so I guess it struck a chord.  Here are the crib notes, but I recommend the entire article (and Patty’s):

Yes, people leave bad bosses but what they really leave is an entire organization.  Symptoms of the kind of culture people want to get away from include stagnant processes, increased toxicity in interactions, frustration with wasted time in meetings, lack of support from leadership during difficult times, gossip and bad mouthing, favouritism, and pockets of motivation being drowned in organizational inertia.

Wow, who knew?

Even a good boss in this kind of environment will lose people.  In fact, they may lose more than average because they are the ones coaching and developing people to be strong external candidates. In other words, if people are leaving in one part of the business, you may have a problem with a particular leader, but if people are leaving across the business, chances are you have a bigger problem. 

What can a healthy Taekwondo practice teach us about trust and motivation? Taekwondo is based on a martial arts discipline that is thousands of years old, when they never heard of new-fangled organizational models or open offices.  It’s strictly hierarchical and based on mutual respect between masters and students.  Advancement is merit-based but open to all.  New students are welcome and masters help and mentor beginners – it’s expected.  There are rules and forms and you follow them, period.  You work at your own pace but those who show up and work the hardest advance the fastest. 

And yet, although it’s very structured it’s also very creative.  You have to think and move fast, innovate by combining movements your muscles know by heart in new ways, and anticipate your opponent’s moves.  It’s a one stop shop for autonomy, progress, mastery, flow, and purpose.

There are real workplaces that follow a similar model.  My first job at one of the leading management consulting companies, for example.  The partners were responsive and generous with their time, project leads were expected to mentor, performance standards were applied fairly, and advancement was both merit and time-based.  In other words, there weren’t organizational limits on how many folks could advance so good people didn’t get stuck in career limbo, which creates unhealthy competition at many companies.  New hires were made to feel welcome with a proper orientation and a regular influx of new staff kept the organization fresh.  

I’m not going to say it was perfect - and believe me when I say the hours were long – but notice the similarities to a well-run martial arts practice. I’ve had many great jobs and work experiences since, but each time I break a board I wonder why more companies don’t put real effort into mentoring, recognizing contributions and creating opportunities for more individuals to grow professionally.  It costs money but it creates abundance.

Great leaders know you don’t engage people with surveys, performance evaluations or 2.3% merit increases.  You engage them by taking a genuine interest in their development; recognizing a job well done - or a board well broken; enabling them to master the moves; empowering them to try new moves; and helping them advance to the next level.

Here's me breaking a board.  As you can see, it's a team effort.

You may also like: How to Find, Hire and Lead Great Talent

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