Aikido and What Leadership Means to Me (Republished)

7565675a94188a80cff61c93fd627c36This was a guest article I wrote for PreciousSuccess. I was honoured to have been featured in their series on leadership, in which a range of change management thinkers, business owners, experts, women and men from a range of industries are asked ‘What Does Leadership Mean to You?’ Here is my response.

Leadership, is more than a theory to me, it is a practice. An example of leadership that I have experienced is in aikido, a Japanese Martial Art that I have practiced for 5 years.

From my first class I entered a unique and intense leadership training ground in which this martial art (and practice of peace) is integrated with values that the Isshinkai School of Aikido stands for: Curiosity, Honesty, Generosity, Respect and Gratitude.

In aikido, you practice the infinite subtlety of leading and following in every single move. If you cannot do a move, there is no faking it. Whenever you get overwhelmed, or cannot find a way forward, the enemy that you meet is within yourself.

You then have the option to identify why it will not work by understanding where your mind is. Is it contracted, defensive, judging, projecting fear or is it truly open expansive, and spontaneous and joyful? This relentless direct feedback on how I am being, and how that mirrors what I am doing on the mat, over five years, has enabled me to learn hundreds of lessons that I have then been able to take off the mat into real life.

One visceral example of this was with in an initially difficult relationship with a teenage boy with whom I needed to practice tough love.

There is a move called tenkan in aikido in which when performed, we practice allowing the attacker to take hold of us before we respond to it. We don’t pull away too early, but allow them to take our hand. This is a metaphor for meeting them where they are, with our deepest curiosity. There is no need to shy away from them (their emotion, or intensity), but we also very much extend out, and manage our boundaries. There is a certain point beyond which our personal space is very much protected, without the use of force – mental or physical.

The attack (read – pain expressed) will be transformed once sufficiently heard. In this sense, when you allow them to “take hold” of you – you allow yourself to be touched – to feel their pain, but not be overwhelmed by it. You then turn (deflect the attack), align with their direction and then send the attacker on their way. If we can leave the attacker feeling better after the attack than before, this for me is an act of leadership, every single time.

This is where this martial art becomes a practice of peace, in every day relationships in which so many difficult moments are commonly experienced as an attack.

Throughout the time that I was responsible for this teenager, I had at the back of the mind, the feeling of the tenkan move. In every single engagement I would imagine that I was performing this move. I would thus meet his reality where he was, and in the best way I could, would not contract (project fear), or add to problems (projecting aggression). We would turn the mood from anger to humour. It was not easy and not perfect, but in a few months I achieved what had not been achieved in years with this teenager.

“To injure an opponent is to injure yourself” Morihei Ueshiba, founder of aikido

In this world where words and relationships make or break projects, leadership can be practiced by anyone, as a sacred act where you continuously transform relationships by eliminating the enemy within, spontaneously in a real setting.

This will cultivate a sense that you can deal with any kind of challenge, from any direction at any time. This is vital for people’s ability to make things happen through people. Hence, I would say that aikido is one of the best training grounds for leadership in the world.

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