Leadership Toolbox: the Power of Practice

Leadership Concept

[Warning: I was in a really corporate-y mood when I wrote this, so you’re getting a taste of Work Melanie’s voice rather than my usual silly, contemplative, self-deprecating Black Belt voice.]

I’m a learning and leadership development consultant, which in a very tiny abstract nutshell means that I listen, diagnose problems or needs, and help people make decisions and take actions that improve their performance on the job. As a bonus they very often end up happier too, which is my favorite part.

Since I’ve become a black belt and am nearing my test for second dan, I’ve seen many parallels between how leadership is managed where I work versus in the dojang. One positive point for the dojang (and an example I often use in the workplace) is how my chief instructor began grooming me for a leadership role before I even tested for black belt. That way I was prepared to adapt quickly to the new expectations and responsibilities of a black belt. That doesn’t always happen in the workplace, which results in leaders who feel overwhelmed and unsupported.

Another difference I’ve noticed is that in the workplace change or improvement is expected to happen with one shot: one meeting, one email, one workshop, one team building event. This year on two separate occasions I’ve had executives come to me after I’d already worked with their leadership teams to help address ongoing challenges. I was actually glad this happened, because it proved that you can’t expect change to happen overnight, no matter how fun or interesting or engaging the workshop/team building event was. My learning events didn’t “fail.” They were just a set up for longer term work, the beginning. So now I’m digging into their ongoing challenges and helping them better apply and practice the skills and concepts they learned earlier. It’s time to get real.

In the dojang, learning, practice, and application are blended seamlessly and are ongoing. Sh-t’s real all the time. If we are presented with a new concept that promises an improvement in skills or change in behavior, we can’t leave it at one demonstration and expect to see change. It takes ongoing practical application, feedback, and refinement. I still practice technique I learned as a white belt, and I am always looking for ways to improve my teaching and leadership skills. My instructors provide constant feedback, so I know where I stand in my performance. Just as a manager shouldn’t look at their new role as a stopping point, they should continue to learn, practice, and encourage their staff to do the same, just as a black belt does.

If you are a leader in the workplace (or your martial arts school of choice), you are responsible for implementing and supporting change, whether it’s a new process or a new standard of behavior. It requires not only daily practice from your team to develop a new habit, but it also requires you to practice your influential and strategic skills to ensure the change is successful.

Here are some ways to practice those leadership skills and be a black belt in your chosen field:

Support
Are you providing support for behavioral change? Have you set clear expectations? Do your staff or students have the resources they need to do what you’re asking them to do? Are you thinking ahead to the finished product or event? Are you helping them overcome barriers? And are you seeking support from your own leader? (Unless you’re self-employed, ha.) I ask my instructors for help fairly often, especially with teaching. I’ve developed my own style of teaching and coaching, but sometimes I just pointedly ask how to teach something that I find confusing or difficult. Leaders need support too to improve their daily practice.

Rewards and Recognition

While you don’t want to reward an employee just for showing up and doing the tasks that are on their job description, make the time to point out when they’ve gone above and beyond. “Catch them in the act of doing it right,” as one of my coworkers can say. So often on teams leaders focus on the low performers and don’t give feedback to those who are doing well or far exceeding expectations. If we black belts chose to focus all our energy singling out the kid who’s doing it “wrong,” it would be discouraging and frustrating to us and that student, but also other students who would benefit from positive feedback.

Be specific with your positive feedback. Depending on the age of the student I’ll point out exactly what they changed and improved to reinforce the behavior.

Leaders like recognition too, whether it’s public or private. The other day my grandmaster corralled the black belts (who all happened to be first dans) together to work on our forms. Right after we finished Keumgang, he told us to turn and face one of the black belts. He had been spending extra time over the past few weeks with this black belt, chipping away at habits that needed to go and encouraging skills that were improving. Grandmaster praised that black belt for hard work and told us to applaud—literally. That was a nice feeling. I’m looking forward to a reward (that I will hopefully earn fair and square) after my second dan test.

Continuous Improvement

Once you’re in a leadership position you don’t have to learn anything new, right? You don’t have to teach anything new because people should know how to do their jobs (or manage their own martial arts practice), right?
Nope.
While you’re helping the people around you, look for ways to improve your own skills. Read, research, ask mentors, and above all practice. Practice will help you make your knowledge a habit and an integral part of who you are as a leader.

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How Martial Arts Can Help You Succeed in the Working World

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It’s either this or punch a hole through the monitor.

I’ve been in the corporate world for roughly 15 years, and much of that time has been spent in healthcare. Taekwondo has been a major influence in how I carry myself, how I handle stress, how I communicate, and how I prioritize.

You don’t need to be in martial arts to reap its benefits and kick ass at work because I’ve done the work for you! I’ve compiled a list of articles that can help you successfully handle the ups, downs, challenges, and changes of the working world. Enjoy!

Communication and Teamwork
Learning to Be Human
How Punching People Made Me More Empathetic
Teaching Means You’re Learning for Two
How I Would Teach a Taekwondo Class: a Parody

Change
The Poomsae Series: Koryo, or, Managing Change Like a Black Belt
Closed Door, Open Window: How Adversity Can Hone Adaptability
Can We Pause for a Change?
What’s Your Span of Control? The Answer May Surprise You!

Conflict and Stress
Sparring Multiple Partners
Guest Post: How Martial Arts Can Help Reduce Work-Related Stress
When Life Takes a Swing at You
Don’t Be So Defensive—Unless Somebody is Trying to Punch You in the Face

Leadership
To Lead or Not to Lead
What I’ve Learned from Coaching Children and Business Leaders
True North
The Jyo Kyo Neem’s On You: First Days as a Black Belt

Prioritization
It’s All Cookies and Crackers
In Defense of Complacency
Defending Your Work-Life Balance
Why I Chose to Pursue a Black Belt Instead of a PhD

In Defense of Complacency: When Good Enough Is Good Enough

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Good enough. Let’s move on!

In new employee orientation at my workplace we play this video with alarming statistics of what could go wrong when 99.9% is “good enough.” Newspapers are missing front pages, shoes are shipped in mismatched pairs, newborns go home from the hospital with the wrong parents, planes crash…you know, fun uplifting stuff. We ask the new employees their opinion and of course they say, no, 99.9% is not acceptable. I work for a healthcare organization, so understandably excellence, use of best practices, and an aim for zero mistakes has a heightened sense of urgency.

(This is the part where I lean in conspiratorially)

…Caring for hospital patients and landing planes aside…Don’t you think there are times when good enough is good enough? Right now you want to say, “No, that’s not true! We should always strive for perfection! We have to always try our absolute best!” But I also know you’re fighting the urge to admit that I’m right…just a little bit, at least in certain circumstances. Ladies and gentlemen, I now take the role of the little devil on your shoulder and will present my argument for why complacency is sometimes the best approach, or why good enough is indeed, good enough.

There are times in taekwondo class that I do revel in the mechanical minutiae and the persistent pursuit of perfection, most often in forms. Forms are my moving meditation and give me the chance to really immerse myself into my practice. Whenever I’m leading a group of students through their form I encourage them to try just one little thing differently the next time they do it. That staves off the boredom that can accompany repetition (I remember those seemingly endless form practices as a child). Compared to fast-paced sparring, practicing forms is a downright luxurious, dare I say decadent (and delicious) deep dive into technique.

And then there’s sparring. I don’t have time to worry about the minutiae during a fight. Hopefully all my training outside of sparring have programmed certain skills, minutiae and all, into my body so it reacts subconsciously anyway. I try my best in each fight, but I don’t necessarily do my best. I’m okay with that. As long as I’m defending myself effectively (for the most part), getting in a few good hits on my opponent (for the most part), and most importantly having fun, that’s good enough for me.

And then there’s jump spin kick…and 360 roundhouse (tornado kick)…and 540 spin kick….yeah, y’all gettin’ good enough from me and that’s it. I’d like to think a sign of maturity is not only a healthy awareness of one’s strengths but also of one’s limitations. I’m petite, pushing forty years old, and have a messed up back, hips, and right hamstring. I push myself hard during workouts, but I’m also well aware of my physical limitations. With these types of complicated airborne kicks I just think, “F-ck it,” do my best, and put my energy into activities I can master with both feet on the ground. The kids can jump all they want, and I enjoy watching them fly around in the air. I’d rather play with knives, hand strikes, our hapkido-inspired self-defense techniques, and my trusty forms. Good enough for me.

The question is, “What’s the best use of my energy and my time?”

I naturally do better and more effortlessly reach that 100% of excellence when I’m doing something I enjoy, I feel confident, and I’m being creative. I can get that 100% with things that are more difficult or less enjoyable if I approach things piece by piece, rather than take on the entire burden at once. And sometimes I just call it good enough and move on.

Sometimes it’s okay to accept “good enough.” When time is limited or resources or limited (or capabilities are limited), it’s perfectly fine to give your best version of good enough and move on. That’s a smarter and healthier approach than running yourself into the ground trying to do something that for you is too frustrating, too difficult to be worth the trouble, or infringes on more important priorities. If you’re running in circles, trapped in analysis paralysis, going down a rabbit hole, or in the throes of any other metaphor I see way too often in the corporate world all in the pursuit of absolute perfection I suggest you stop wasting your time, stop stressing yourself out, and accept “good enough.”

Perhaps there’s a fine line between giving your all and picking and choosing your battles. One of my coaching clients compares his approach to his career development and his work as hospital leader to how he approaches woodworking, his favorite hobby.

“I want to make sure I get the measurement just right before I put the pieces together,” he told me. “If you’re careless and you cut a piece too short then it’s too late. You can’t put the piece of wood back together.” I suppose that’s true for major decisions about his career or choices he must make that would have a major impact on employees and patients….but there are other times when you can just slap shit together and call it done.

Complacency, at least in the context of this article, is not giving up. Perhaps a better word would be “Contentment.” You do what you can, and at the same time you also let go and accept what is.

And that’s good enough for me.

Keeping Your Guard Up

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Someone hasn’t learned high block yet!

“Hands up! Hands UP!!”

Pop into our dojang on any given night and you’ll probably hear my instructor, me, or another black belt yelling at students to keep their hands up, ready to block or strike at a moment’s notice. We keep our hands up most importantly to block blows to the body or head, plus, keeping our hands up is also very useful for maintaining balance during fast-moving drills. (And we’re not doing Riverdance because we like looking cool.)

Learning a martial art has taught me to always be a little bit on guard–ready to move, dodge, or simply keep a keen side eye on someone who might be at threat to my safety. I’m not paranoid; I’m just smarter about my surroundings than I used to be.

I’ve also unfortunately learned I have to be on guard with more people in my life than I thought, including people I genuinely liked and trusted. Recently something happened that, while not a big deal in the large scheme of things, still bothered me deeply and made me question whether I can ever fully trust that certain person. I felt vulnerable, exposed, and embarrassed. I don’t think this person even realized they hurt me, but their actions showed they didn’t have much foresight into how it might have affected me. I have seen them do something similar in the past, so maybe it’s my own fault for not being more guarded in the first place

A larger situation I’ve been facing has shown me who I can truly rely on and trust. It’s shown me who I can go to for comfort and who I need to be more careful around. I have to see this particular person on a semi-regular basis although I’ve gotten pretty good at keeping my distance. They mean me no harm, but this is not the first time this person has crossed the line. We both need things from each other, and I am more than happy to play nice…and my guard is up. My hands are up, I’m on the balls of my feet, and I’m ready to move quickly to protect myself.

Thankfully my taekwondo family are just about on par with my blood family–I trust them completely. Maybe beating the crap out of each other brings a certain intimacy to the relationship, but more likely it’s our deeply rooted bond over something we love to do. The desire to help, serve, and lift others up is implicit. In other non-taekwondo/non-family areas of my life I’m looking out for Number One. Although I’m interacting with, helping, and serving others, my ultimate priority is protecting my well-being, interests, goals, and plans. My guard is up, and incidents like these show me (the hard way) that I need to keep it up at all times. Sometimes you have to get hit to learn how to defend. Just like in a fight, it’s a necessary and sad truth.

It’s All Cookies and Crackers (or, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff)

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I’ll take them with peanut butter please! ALL the peanut butter!

One of my coworkers used to work for Keebler. When people would get all bent out of shape over not-so-significant things as people are wont to do in the corporate world, she would remind them, “Guys, we make cookies and crackers. That’s it.” That was her reminder to them that they were not dealing with life or death situations, regardless of how big (or expensive) the problem seemingly  was.

Working in healthcare for over a decade has helped me develop somewhat of the same perspective. I’ve always been in a non-clinical supportive role–first as a hospital librarian, then as a consultant in the learning and development department. My years at the hospital reminded me that whatever we were worrying about in my department ultimately wasn’t that big of a deal. We could leave what we were doing at 5pm and forget about it. It wasn’t brain surgery or fighting cancer or running the emergency department. I work with people who do that and leave the life-saving to them. No one ever died because of a so-so team building session…at least I hope not!

Taekwondo has also given me a great perspective too. I had a two-and-a-half hour team meeting yesterday. We are dealing with a number of stressful situations, and emotions are high. We’re trying to stick together, but it’s easy to ruffle feathers when everyone’s a little on edge. I was able to quickly put it out of my mind because I had other things to worry about–namely, filling in for my instructor for three back-to-back taekwondo classes. Luckily I had some good black belt partners to tag-team with me, and I think we did a good job. The best part was how much fun we had. Do you think I really cared about a PowerPoint presentation when I was busy chasing around two teenage boys and yelling directions at them during a sparring match? Nothing else really matters when you’re trying to not fall over or get hit in the face.

“It’s all cookies and crackers” has become one of our favorite catchphrases around the office. We’re doing good things, important things, but ultimately, we’re not doing anything worth losing sleep over. As I said in my more recent and more nihilistic post, nothing really matters–not really, not in the grand scheme of things. “Cookies and crackers” is also a reminder to myself to just enjoy life and not worry about it being perfect or working out to the outcome I expect or demand. It will all work out as soon as I release my vise-like death grip on it. Usually when I let go things work out even better than I could have imagined.

And yet, here I find myself stress-eating gummy bears and drinking hastily chilled Chardonnay over–in the big scheme of things–a really insignificant and dumb work-related issue. It’s not even worth explaining, but it’s left me upset, embarrassed, and worried that someone’s feelings were hurt. Of course no one else thinks it’s a big deal, and I’ve already been reassured as much by a few trusted people. I know it won’t matter in six months. It won’t even matter in six days. It won’t even matter in six hours.

I’m not sure what bothers me more–this tiny, stupid little incident that I’m already starting to forget or the fact that my detached, too-cool-for-school attitude towards work had a weak spot. I don’t mean I’m detached in the sense that I don’t care. I really like my job. It’s fun, fulfilling, and I’m good at it. I’m just less emotionally attached to work than I am to other aspects of my life. I think it’s a healthy outlook to have and one I wish I could apply to things in my personal life that get under my skin (and insecurities) much faster.

But it’s true…it’s all just cookies and crackers, even the things that I think are a big deal. The failed relationships I agonized over–cookies and crackers. The current struggles I’m having around body image and food control and weight–cookies and crackers, no pun intended. Annoying or upsetting things that happen at work–cookies and crackers. I’m sure our upcoming taekwondo tournament will be filled with stressful incidents–cookies and crackers too. None of this bullshit is worth losing sleep over although I will have to remind myself of that every time I obsessively weigh myself or get angry at a referee’s decision or if I ever decide to date again. Cookies and crackers, all of it.

The moral of the story: Just have fun, try to be nice to people, and especially be nice to yourself. At then end of all of this I’m still me, and I’m awesome whether I succeed or fail. So are you.

Guest Post: How Martial Arts Can Reduce Work-Related Stress

Dreading going back to the office on Monday? Counting down the minutes until Friday? Then consider taking up a martial art to help you ease work-related stress. Check out how in September’s guest post for BookMartialArts.com: How Martial Arts Can Reduce Work-Related Stress.

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Some knife-hand blocks would serve him well right now.

Looking for a great way to lower your stress levels? Why not sign up for an affordable martial arts training camp? From Taekwondo to Krav Maga, BookMartialArts.com has camps on various types of martial arts disciplines to choose from!

A New Normal

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What do we do when our reality is traded for a new one? How do we let go of what we can’t control, influence what we can, and embrace our new normal?

I can’t seem to jump very well anymore. For a while my strength was improving, but recently it seems that I haven’t so much hit a plateau as much as my body has decided to take a different path. I first noticed it when I had to exert a lot more effort to spring myself into the air for box jumps in physical therapy. (At least I can do them. About this time last year when my physical therapist tried to introduce them I was in tears with anxiety.)

I’m noticing it quite a bit in taekwondo. It’s harder to get off the ground, hike my knees up, and heaven forbid if I have to add a kick (or even worse, a twist) at the apex of that jump. It’s exhausting, and I feel like my legs are made of lead. My thoughts alternate between, “Come on, Black Belt, you’ve got this!” and “What’s wrong with you, Black Belt? Kids can do this. Maybe you don’t deserve your belt.” I feel like I should apologize to my instructors for being a disappointment.

I suppose I am entering a phase of a new normal. Maybe I just haven’t quite accepted the fact that I am not the kickass gazelle bouncing around that I see in my head when I’m in taekwondo class. I’m almost 40 years old, and in reality I’m lamely spazzing around in a too-big uniform that feels like a soaking wet king size bedsheet when I sweat. Despite my brain yelling “GO! GO! GO!” I’m slow in sparring matches and am finding the more gravity-defying aspects of my martial art increasingly difficult.

It’s frustrating that when I’ve reached the age, maturity level, and belt rank to understand the nuanced mechanics of taekwondo, my body can’t do them either at all or not very well. Although I sincerely believe I had to leave taekwondo as a child and go through a bunch of stupid shit for the next 20 years to find myself and find my way back to the dojang, it makes me wonder. Had I continued taekwondo into my teens or even stopped and taken it up again in my twenties rather than my thirties, would my muscles, nerves, bones, and brain would be more finely tuned to and more adeptly able to execute the movements that are becoming harder and harder for me to pull off?

Perhaps I’m not as hopeless as I think. Perhaps this is a new “normal” state of fitness for me: I easily swam for an hour this morning. Despite having to really haul ass in physical therapy to do my exercises, my jumps were pretty good today (I DID get my knees up and clear my boxes and land softly like a kitty ninja), my balance had improved, and I did nearly 9 continuous minutes of holding planks. And y’all, I can do a form like nobody’s business. Not bad, Black Belt.

Plus, I’ve noticed improvement in the more advanced aspects of taekwondo, notably around self-defense. In the end that’s rather what I’d be good at anyway. I can probably go my whole life without ever needing to do a 540 kick–good because I can’t do it anyway. Some of my kicks–the ones on the ground anyway–have become more solid and make more of an impact, which serves me better in a fight than more complicated kicks.

For my fellow martial artists reading this, I’m not discounting more complicated airborne kicks. This is not sour grapes because I can’t do them. Many people not only do them beautifully but do them effectively . When you’ve been whomped in the chest by someone slamming into you with a 360 roundhouse you appreciate that kick very much.

On the upside I’ve gotten pretty good at teaching and coaching. I might not be able to do a jump spin kick or a 360 roundhouse, but I can help someone else do them, and that is honestly more satisfying than being able to do them myself. If I can be one of those aging ladies who punches wood, slams guys on the floor, and inspires students to work hard and believe in themselves then I’m good. If this is my new normal I’m okay with that…but it’s hard to let go and it’s hard to embrace my new normal.

So how does this translate to “real life?” As I hinted at in my last post, my reality has been shaken up quite a bit. A new reality is being presented to me, and I have to choose how I will interact with it. Will I spend all my time mourning what I can no longer do and what I have to give up? Will I fight myself into a futile corner? Or will I take advantage of the opportunities lining the new path in front of me? Will I embrace a new reality and a new identity? I think I know what I will do.