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When is a punch more than a punch?
I spent a good part of my early life studying and teaching martial arts (Kenpo). For me this is was a time of great development and learning. In fact, some of the lessons I learned during this time have helped to inform my development as a leader when I moved into various roles as a corporate manager, executive, and ultimately the owner of my own company.
One of the most important lessons that I learned from martial arts is the necessity to adapt to changing circumstances.
When I received my Brown Belt I thought I had attained a high level of achievement. Shortly after that I had the opportunity to spar (a training fight) with my instructor who was a 4th Degree Black Belt. During the match, I landed a solid counter punch to his ribs. Apparently, I was proud of myself for a second too long. He quickly pivoted and swept my legs. Before I knew it I was on my back staring up at his fist which he stopped about an inch from my face, which was not only a display of his self-control, but also an indication that he could have finished me.
After the match, he asked me “What did you do wrong?” Sheepishly I replied, “Clearly I got my butt kicked.” He smiled and said, “No. You landed a good hit and then you stopped.
Understand that the difference between a Black Belt and White Belt isn’t that the Black Belt doesn’t get hit. It’s what happens when you get hit that distinguishes the expert from the beginner.”
Those words and the memory of being on my back with his fist in front of my face have served as an embodied lesson about the power of pivoting.
What are the leadership lessons here?
1. "If the plan changes, change the plan, not the goal."
A plan is just a collection of assumptions and anticipated tasks to achieve a desired outcome. Most leaders assume that the work is the execution of the plan. However, the real work comes from navigating through changing circumstances and adapting the actions you coordinate for the sake of achieving that same outcome. This is the ability to pivot and it is a critical leadership skill. In my experience with my Black Belt instructor, he was able to pivot when I landed a good punch. He adapted to what I did and used my own actions against me to his benefit.
2. Because you’re a Black Belt doesn't mean you don't get hit. It's what you do when you get hit that makes a difference.
Quite often the leaders that I coach ask me to help them keep from making "leadership mistakes." It's a natural desire. Unfortunately, it's also unrealistic. You will make mistakes. You will do things one day that you will question the next. You will get "hit." It's what you do when you get hit that matters. How quickly do you accept the fact that you just got "hit"? As a leader, things will go wrong. Things will happen that you didn't anticipate. Circumstances will change. (Did anyone see the magnitude of the financial crisis of 2008 coming?) How do you respond to what is happening around you?
3. "Denial" is more than a river in Egypt.
It's been said that all of human suffering comes from resistance. Primarily, it comes from people resisting reality. Reality is simply what is happening. From the perspective of leadership, I've seen this manifest itself in various ways. For example, often senior leaders convince themselves that the culture in their organization is healthy when turnover is holding steady at 60% and employee engagement is minimal at best, and half of the managers are taking vacation days so they can interview for jobs somewhere else.
How well do you pivot?