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.