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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Teaching Means You’re Learning for Two

tkd-teaching-baby

You’re never too young to learn a good palm heel strike to the face.

A few weeks ago my Grandmaster presented me with a small patch for my uniform. In bold yellow letters it read, “INSTRUCTOR.” Technically as a first dan black belt I’m an “assistant instructor,” but Grandmaster and the other instructors decided to give me a little promotion since I always helped out in my own classes and classes for lower ranking students. Or maybe they just figured they’d better give me something to do since I hang out at the dojang so much. Either way I was pleased and very humbled.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned a year into my black belt tenure is that learning has intensified in a way I didn’t experience as a color belt. Other than occasionally refereeing sparring matches and yelling at students to turn their hips more during kicking drills I was mostly focused on my own practice as I edged closer to testing for black belt. Things changed after I earned my new rank. While I have learned more advanced techniques as a black belt, just as much if not more of my time has been devoted to helping lower ranking students.

Teaching and practicing with color belt students as a black belt has given me a greater appreciation and deeper understanding of the foundational techniques of taekwondo. It’s like when I took AP English as a senior in high school. As a native English speaker I considered myself fairly adept at the language and a pretty decent writer…but after ten months of analyzing and dissecting poetry and prose and writing essay after essay I realized how much I had grown. I was almost embarrassed to read the first essay I had written when the school year began.

I often find myself reminding color belt students that they can’t just learn something and then forget it after they pass their next belt test. Taekwondo like any other martial art is comprehensive. The same basic techniques we learned as white belts pop up in advanced self-defense, complicated forms, and sparring matches. We’re developing subconscious reactions and muscle memory. We never stop learning. Even my Grandmaster, a ninth degree black belt and very highly respected in the taekwondo community, often reminds us that he never stops learning.

I had a chance to pass along the importance of continuous learning and practice when I was tasked with teaching side kick to two freshly minted orange belts, which at our school is the rank just above white belt. Side kick, at least the way we do it, is surprisingly difficult to master. It requires precision, balance, and force. It has taken me years to improve my side kick, and I still have room to grow. Side kick is incredibly powerful but also so delicate in its mechanical intricacy that it’s easy to mess up.

“How long do we have to keep practicing this?” asked a tiny five-year-old orange belt. He and an older student were perched at the barre along the wall of the training room and had been painstakingly going through the individual pieces of a broken down side kick. I had bribed them to keep going with the promise that some day they would break a board with a side kick, but eventually they were getting bored.

“Well, class is almost over, but remember, you always have to practice side kick. Even black belts have to practice it,” I said, crouching down to his level. His eyes widened and he gaped in surprise.

“BLACK BELTS have to practice?” He shook his head in awe. Mind. Blown.

This past Friday I found myself once again teaching side kick to lower ranking students. This time I had the same ten-year-old girl orange belt, a different little five year old who quickly abandoned us to use the bathroom (you have to let them go at that age or you’ll be sorry), and a teenage yellow belt. I had been instructed to practice a low side kick so they’d get the hang of chambering their feet and shooting them out, heel pointed downward, into a strong kick.

“But I’ve been doing side kick at mid-level,” protested the teenager.

“I know, but now you’re the example. You have to help lower ranking students too. That’s why I put you in the middle so they can watch you,” I explained. “Now do it again, by my count.” I barked out a command and then glanced over at the girl and glared.

“Is this how we break a board with side kick?” I asked, raising my eyebrows and pointing my toes like a dancer. She smiled shyly, shook her head, and flexed her foot. I turned back to the teenager to continue my lecture.

“Low side kick can be just as powerful as a higher kick. If you break someone’s knee they’re done. That’s what I want you to work on–power and locking out the kick. Besides, when you’re a black belt you have to do a form that has double side kicks, and that’s not easy.” I demonstrated a low side kick immediately followed by a higher kick. He perked up at the prospect of becoming a black belt, nodded his head in understanding, and crouched into a back stance, ready to try the next low kick.

I learn something new in taekwondo class every day, whether it’s something I can improve in my own practice, or reminding myself I need to practice what I preach and do what I tell the students to do. I file away in my brain the tips I give for later use. There’s more pressure as an instructor now. The students’ eyes are on me, as well as those of my instructors and the students’ parents. I have to earn the trust of all of them. It’s not a bad pressure, though; it’s more of a healthy challenge. And what a wonderful opportunity this is–I get to share what I love doing with other people, and I get back what I give tenfold.

How I Would Teach a Taekwondo Class – A Parody

teambuilding
By day I am an organizational development consultant for a large healthcare system. That means that among other things, I practice the art and science of adult learning. Meanwhile as I advance in my taekwondo career I am asked to help with warm-up exercises, teaching forms, and coaching lower ranking belts. At times my two worlds of facilitation and instruction collide. I’ve learned that asking seven-year-olds about the finer points of blocking usually results in blank stares. I do however find that threatening my professional adult learners with push-ups fills me with sadistic glee.

So if I followed the rules of adult learning what would a taekwondo class look like?

Opening – Icebreaker and Introductions
After bowing to the flags and a quick meditation each student introduces himself or herself and state one thing they’d like to get out of today’s class. I tell some self-deprecating joke and a little bit about my background and the overall purpose of today’s class. I assure the one student grumbling that she’s just there because her mom made her come that she too will get something out of the class and ask her to approach it with an open mind. The other students nod sanctimoniously and are secretly relieved that I didn’t single them out. After five reminders and passing the sign-in sheet around twice all students are accounted for.

Conditioning
I show a funny video on all the silly (and incorrect) ways people try to do push-ups. The students partner up and discuss for 2 minutes all the mistakes they saw in the video that they’ve seen in previous classes. I capture the information on a flip chart. After reluctance and a joke on my part that if an introvert like myself can get up and talk anyone can a student timidly offers to demonstrate the proper way to do a push-up. I lay on the praise as if he had cured cancer.

Kicks and Strikes
We discuss the mechanics of a front snap kick. Students are put into teams to discuss the pros and cons of using front snap kick in sparring and list them on a flip chart.
The teams then choreograph a 2 minute sparring sequence using all kicks, strikes, and blocks learned up to this point.

Break
Everyone buries their faces in their smartphones and comes back from break 5 minutes later than I asked them to.

Poomsae
Half the class performs their current form. The other half does a SWOT analysis of the group’s performance and coaches them using the GROW model. Are you satisfied with your knife-hand strike? What have you tried so far? So in a perfect world with no restrictions how would you execute that strike? Students will set a SMART goal regarding what they’d like to see in their future form performance. Switch roles.

Closing
I giddily promise a follow-up email that I don’t send. Everyone is enthusiastic until the following day when they revert to the passive routine of their busy lives and don’t make any changes based on what they learned. Their moms continue to make them go to class. I buy more flip chart paper.