To Lead or Not to Lead


Ugh, sorry, this is going to be a post full of corporate speak, in which I am unfortunately fluent. Consider yourself warned…

When I’m not moonlighting as a ninja I am an organizational development consultant. Lately a big part of my job has been dedicated to a program geared to develop high potential leaders for greater responsibilities and higher roles in the organization. It made me think about one’s potential to lead as well as one’s desire to lead. The opportunity to lead doesn’t and shouldn’t have to only reside in the workplace. In fact, those of us who don’t want to be leaders in our day jobs are sometimes surprised to find we have the potential to lead elsewhere.

During a casual conversation with my director a few weeks ago he asked me if I was still not interested in going into leadership. I’d made that comment during a team meeting a few years ago, and he wondered if I still had the same feelings. He and I are about the same age but have very different ambitions and chosen career paths.  Leadership suits him. For me it’s a different story.

“Yes I feel the same way,” I replied. “I’m very happy doing exactly what I’m doing—helping people learn and improve. I don’t want to be a manager, but I do want to be a black belt. That’s where I’m a leader.” I gave him a big confident smile as I rested the flat of my palms against the table.

Oh, I can hear you ask while wringing your hands, don’t I want to even try a leadership role? Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do after following the lifescript of going to college then graduate school then joining the corporate ranks? Isn’t becoming a manager the only way to advance my career and do fulfilling work? As an educated, financially independent woman with good career history is it not my duty to America’s girls everywhere to lean in??

BIG OLE NOPE. It’s not like I’m some spring chicken fresh out of college who doesn’t know what they want yet. I know exactly what I want—I want to help people learn and develop and improve their lives and their happiness.  That’s it. I did that in my last career, I’m doing it in my current career, and I want to do the same thing in the future even if it’s an entirely different profession…just don’t make me be the manager. I don’t want to deal with budgets, managing people, or setting the company’s strategy. I’m not interested. Leadership isn’t for everyone, and I know I don’t have the talents, skills, or desire necessary to be successful in that role…and that’s perfectly okay. Having a leadership role is not and should not be the only marker of success in one’s professional life. Some people want to be the CEO. I would rather coach the CEO.

While I don’t want to be a leader in the corporate world it turns out my desires are different in the dojang.

From an OD perspective (and the very limited eyes of a color belt) I’ve observed how leaders are developed through the taekwondo ranks. It’s a mix of expectation and opportunity, and unlike some organizations that spring leadership on unsuspecting employees, our instructors start grooming us very early so by the time we reach higher ranks we’re not overwhelmed the first time we’re asked to lead drills or teach a form. Too often top performing individual contributors in the corporate world are “rewarded” with management jobs that they have had no preparation for, lack the propensity for it, and sometimes have no desire to be in that role but feel obligated to take it on since it may be (in their minds) the only way to advance.

In our taekwondo school it’s expected that you help out your fellow students, and the expectation becomes greater the higher you go in rank. Even if you’re only an orange or yellow belt you can help a white belt. I haven’t even reached first degree black belt and already I’ve been asked to take on little snippets of leadership: leading warm-ups and drills, coaching individuals or small groups, teaching techniques that I learned several belt ranks ago (with the underlying expectation that I remember EVERYTHING from white belt up), holding pads and coaching during kicking practice, refereeing during sparring, plus the everyday role of setting a good example by showing respect, being quiet and attentive, and working hard. I can just as easily be a positive influence to the young girls in my class when I confidently and aggressively kick the crap out of a focus pad (or another person, which is even more fun) as much as I could by climbing the corporate ladder.

As for the desire and potential to lead in the dojang, I don’t think it lies in every student, but it can be cultivated….as long as they’re willing to do the work. When leadership is forced upon someone unwilling or just not ready (in the corporate world, dojang, or anywhere else), the result can be disastrous.

I’m not sure why the inherent leadership in being an advanced color belt student and eventually a black belt is so appealing. I’m certainly not getting paid for it. It’s not an ego trip. I don’t feel a surge of power when I shush little kids waiting in line during drills. I can’t speak for my classmates, but once I got a taste of how good it feels to help another student I wanted more and more opportunities. Sometimes they’re given to me, and sometimes I look for them myself. The expectation of advanced students to help lower ranking students is so set in our little dojang culture that the instructors will get onto us if we don’t say anything helpful to lower ranking students during practice.

Just last night I found an opportunity to coach and lead. We were doing breaking practice, and I noticed one little boy who didn’t have anyone to hold a pad for him so he could practice. This little seven-year-old is typically sullen and never seems to want to do any work much less be in class. He looked listless and bored, so I grabbed a practice pad and had some one-on-one time with him. We spent a good ten to fifteen minutes working on his breaking technique, and the kid has a knack for flying snap kick. Who would have known? I coached him, praised him, gave him feedback, and even made him laugh a little. He got braver and wanted to try a jump spin kick, which is a very difficult kick for anyone at any age. By the end of the class he was beaming and out of breath from his hard work. That boy’s smile meant just as much to me as my successes and accolades in the workplace.

It’s never about showing off how smart or talented I think I am. I just love what I do and want to help others get better. My job as a black belt won’t necessarily be to have the highest kicks or to beat everyone at sparring. I will be expected to bring out the potential in others. Perhaps that is the essence of the cheesy corporate buzzword “servant leader.” In the case of taekwondo, it actually means something.


Operation Fix My Hip Begins

kitten massage
So yeah this kind of has something to do with the post. I just used it mostly because it has cute kitties.

It felt appropriate that Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” was playing as I drove to my first physical therapy session. After all, most of the pain I’ve been experiencing for the last two months has been “in the back of my Honda,” and I don’t mean my 2014 Accord. I was both excited and a little nervous. While I was ready to put a lot of effort into healing I wondered if I’d have to go through even more pain and discomfort to get there, and I also wondered how much I would have to modify my taekwondo practice.

Short answer…yeah, all of that, kinda. After the thumping beats of the rap song died down I arrived at the sports medicine clinic. I filled out the forms about where it hurts and what makes it feel worse or better and waited for my appointment.

“I’m back!” I cackled, and grabbed my PT Cody* into a back-slapping hug. I first met Cody about eight years ago to treat debilitating anterior hip pain that made sitting, driving, and doing just about anything else extremely painful. Even running was out of the question. He treated me mostly with core strengthening exercises and minor spine and pelvis adjustments, and after that I ran my first half-marathon. I knew if anyone could fix my hip it was Cody.

We were joined in the exam room by a shy PT student who was shadowing Cody for the day. Cody got right down to business and began running his fingers up and down my spine, poking my sacrum, and having me lie on an exam table while he twisted my legs around to check the alignment and see when the impingement was starting to really hurt in the right hip. He hummed the names of the muscles and tendons he was poking as if he were reciting a prayer. Finally he found a spot that was apparently asking for his attention and began to gently massage it and apply pressure.

“I’m going to work on her psoas muscle,” Cody said calmly as he eyed the shy student. “The art of therapy is knowing when to stop and work on something. As a student you might tend to compartmentalize–first take the history, then the objectives…no, there needs to be a flow to it.” He sank his fingers deeper into the side of my hip, which made me wince and inhale sharply. I felt shocked, curious, and disgusted at the same time. When he did a little fishhook move with his finger towards the ilium (that big bone in the front of the pelvis) I felt like he could have disemboweled me.

“Just keep breathing,” Cody said soothingly as he continued to do what I imagine a splenectomy must feel like. Thankfully it was over in a minute or two and he twisted my legs around again. As if by magic the pinching in the front of my hip was less severe.

I ended up on my stomach while Cody continued his lesson.

“See? Here’s the piriformis,” Cody said to the student as he poked the left side of my bottom. (You guys, I was wearing pants, don’t even go there!) “It’s a LOT stronger on this leg, one of the strongest I’ve ever seen. There’s a big difference between the left and the right.”  Hmm, interesting. I knew I was getting more junk in my trunk throughout my training, especially in the last few months. Skirts cling tighter in that area, and I’ve started to look like a little T-Rex, but apparently it’s lopsided. Not sure if Sir Mix-A-Lot would approve.

“Wait a minute!” I said, my voice half-muffled by the pillow. “How can that be? I’m so right-leg dominant! I’m right-handed. My kicks are better on the right. I thought I was stronger on my right leg.”

“You KICK a lot with your right leg,” Cody answered, “but you’re standing on your left leg while you’re doing all of that. If you favor kicking on your right then that builds up your standing leg and you have a really strong foundation. Your right leg is a lot weaker, maybe because you’re overcompensating for the long-time hip pain with the left leg, so you have nothing to hold you up when you kick with the left leg.”

THAT’S why my left leg kicks suck so much…” I mused and rested the side of my face back down on the pillow.Then I twisted my head around to face the student, who by this time looked a little green.
“I’m glad you’re here,” I chirped. “He’s explaining everything, and you’re asking all the questions I don’t know how to ask. We’re learning at the same time!” The student nodded his head politely and looked like he was trying not to think too hard about the fact that for the past twenty minutes he had been staring directly at my derrierre while Cody poked and prodded me.

After doing a few warm up and strengthening exercises I returned to the table where Cody sank his fingers back into my hip flexor.

“Ewww, I feel like your finger is going to go through to the table,” I meweled, trying not to let myself be overcome by nausea or worse, a hysterical fit of laughter if I dared let myself think about how much it tickled.
“It might go through all the way to the floor,” Cody murmured quietly and dug his fingers in even deeper.

I went to sparring class later in the evening and after getting the green light from Grandmaster and my instructor, I hung back. My hip ached with just the fast-paced warmups we did, so I knew I’d better take my doctor’s and therapist’s warnings to take it easy seriously.  I focused more on coaching rather than fighting although I did chase around a few kids and them punch me in the stomach. I enjoy coaching and teaching quite a bit, so I was happy to shift gears. It gives me that nurturing fix that I need, plus it helps me improve my own taekwondo skills by giving me a different and more intellectual perspective of the sport.

“You don’t have the body you had at eighteen anymore,” one of the masters teased after class, reminding me that I needed to go slow for a while and care for my injury.
“But in my head I am!” I joked before stumbling out into the darkness.

So that’s how my life will be for the next two months: that balance between staying active and playing it safe. My yoga teacher always says smart yogis modify; they listen carefully to their bodies. I’d like to think that’s what smart black belts do too.

*Name changed