Leadership Insights from the Martial Arts – Part 1

Leadership Lessons from the Martial Arts – Part 1

Kyoshi Rahul Agarwal

The author is an MBA HR from Delhi School of Economics with over 18 years of experience in corporate and consulting. He is also a 5th Degree Black Belt in Karate with over 16 years of teaching experience and 25 years of practicing the art. The thoughts shared below are from his own experiences and, although the author has never broken anyone’s bones nor had his own broken, readers are welcome to adopt what they like completely at their own risk. If the writeup gives you a kick, please feel free to reach out to rahul@vyaktitva.net for the punchline (puns intended).


Talk about martial arts and one typically conjures up the images of Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan with their flying kicks and swift actions bringing down the toughest of the goons with broken bones and a few missing teeth. Hardly a scenario that one can connect with leadership in the corporate world. You may be excused if you too are wondering what martial arts have to do with leadership? For someone who has been on both sides of the world for roughly two decades each, the connection is hardly a surprise. The journey has been fascinating and deeply satisfying to say the least. While a debate here on the meaning of leadership itself may do some good but it may distract us from the core agenda. So, let us assume that we understand leadership fundamentally. The narrative here will be around a few key aspects that emerge from my close personal experiences.


“Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.”

― Lao TzuTao Te Ching

Knowing Oneself – I have had students, pilots, businessmen/ entrepreneurs and professionals in my classes over the years. One thing that they unanimously agree with is that the moment they step inside the class, the outside world is left outside. The mind gets channelized to focus completely on their actions in the class. Such quietening of the mind enables them to observe what is really happening inside themselves. One professional in the class realised years after separating from his spouse that it had happened due to drifting apart given their own individual pursuits of careers and meaning. A clear mind helped him see that he still loved his wife and when he reached out to her, she reciprocated that feeling. The two got back together and continue to create meaning together in their lives.

A quiet mind enables the spirit to see through the layers of self-description we put over it. What we are or are not is neither fixed in time nor in space. It is how the mind likes to see it moment by moment. It is taught in most leadership programs that leaders must reflect. But this self-reflection requires space in the mind which is difficult to have given the multiple demands and distractions that leaders face daily. The practice of such an art form that can quieten the mind and enable a clearer ground for self-reflection can be of immense value to any leader.

“Do you have the patience to wait Till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving Till the right action arises by itself?”

Lao Tzu

Patience, Perseverance and the pursuit for Perfection – the grandmasters of martial arts say that it takes 3 years to make a fist properly, another 3 to know how to stand right and then another 3 before we can land the punch in the right way. More than the conditioning of the body, it is about how our mind works. Establishing the neural networks takes time and hence repetition of the tasks is critical. It is only through thousands of times of doing the same action that one moves towards perfection. Yet it remains a journey as perfection is never final. This requires immense patience with self and the learning process.

Many of my adult students join the classes at mid age and have also not been too active in life due to career and personal life pressures. As a result, the minds are not so attuned, and the bodies are slower to respond. While children in the class are much more agile, the adults take more time to learn. It so true with leadership as well. We are not born with all the skills and many of the required ones would be picked up at a certain stage in life. We need to be patient with ourselves and those we are leading to not be frustrated too soon and keep trying to master some of those skills that appear to be tough. One of my senior students, a lawyer at the supreme court, shares the following insight based on his experience in the class. When he saw that while he was almost 40 and slower than most others and that I was still as patient with him as a teacher, he realised that he needs to be more patient with his own juniors when they are slow to learn and make mistakes.


When the Student is Ready, the Master Appears!

Buddhist Saying

It is another of those sayings that are attributed to different philosophers – from the Buddha to many others. Nevertheless, it is a very interesting one with myriad interpretations. On the practice floor, a technique may have been practiced countless times by an individual, but it may still not ‘fit’ into their mind. There will then be one fine day where the student tries something slightly differently and it just ‘clicks’. The teacher may have been telling that for ages. It is the student’s mind that needs to be ready to receive. The master in the above quote happens to be the lesson, the learning.

In leadership, we may tell our teams about something over and over, yet it doesn’t click because their mind is not ready. One fine day they will come up themselves to say, “oh! I now realize the significance of what you were saying to me”. Knowing that everyone takes their own time, we need to provide that space to people. Pushing them before then will only frustrate us and create negative energy for them.


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