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  • Writer's pictureGirish Karnad

Live To Lead Another Day

The tension at the martial arts dojo was palpable. The sensei had put an end to the sparring midway. I had taken a hit to my face. There was a trickle of blood coming down from a cut on the corner of my lips. As the cheek started to swell, I was finding it difficult to keep my left eye open. From my right eye I could see the stunned faces of the rest of the class. The sensei signaled my opponent to move to the corner of the room. His voice was low and menacing, “One hundred knuckle push-ups. You will also not participate in any fights without my permission”. It was supposed to be a practice session and not a full contact fight. Frustrated that his attack was thwarted repeatedly, my opponent decided to use force, against the rules of the game. My block was not strong enough to stop the full blown punch of a big fighter.

The sensei indicated that the class was dismissed. As I started moving out along with the others, he stopped me. “Had enough action for the day?” There was a hint of smile on his face. He rubbed his palms gently. His fingers clasped my hand which had attempted to block the punch. His other palm closed over my cheek. I could feel a sensation of warmth, and a sense of relief started flooding my disturbed mind. After a couple of minutes the pain and swelling started receding. “Come. Let us go for a walk.” He led the way to the river side. The water seemed to be flowing faster today.

“Look at that big rock. See how the water is flowing around it? Let’s see what you can learn from this. Now let’s practice. You attack.”

As my hand moved in with a punch, I could see him step aside. There was a gentle push on my leading arm and foot, which sent me stumbling a few feet. This time I planted myself in the most stable stance and attacked fast. I knew that speed was the only way to make an impact. The sensei moved faster – his feet seemed to be everywhere, smoothly gliding as if performing a dance. His hands barely touched me, gently deflecting my blows.

“Now I will attack. Remember the katas that we practiced in the class? They are meant to get you into the flow. In an actual fight, your opponent will not use any sequence or form. You have to use a combination of techniques to defend and attack.”

We spoke as we sparred, even as I tried to match the agility and pace of the sensei’s attack.

“But Sensei, how do I reach that stage where my movements become effortless and smooth?”

“Practice, practice and more practice. Knowing is not enough, we must apply. Make your movements as smooth as the running water.”

On several occasions he was able to breach my defence, yet his punch or kick would just fall short of touching me. Such was his level of control and mastery of this fighting art.

“Can these techniques work against big opponents?”

“Become like water, my friend; shapeless and formless.” He continued, “Just like water changes shape according to its container, do not restrict to a particular style. Adapt and build your own style, and let it grow. Imbibe the very nature of water – soft one second and thunderously powerful the next. Be flexible in your tactics, yet resolute in your goals.”

“What about fighting many at a time?”

“You will learn as you progress. It is not yet time. But remember one thing my friend, your mind is limitless. As you think, so shall you become.”

“They teach so many styles. How can one learn so many things? That way I will keep learning forever and never become a sensei.”

“Learning never stops. Learning bit by bit every day results in large impact over a period of time; build your own unique style and master it – that way you become a sensei.”

There was silence for a while, broken only by the shuffling of our feet, my breathing and occasional grunts as we practiced.

He continued, “Life is simple, like the water. We tend to make it complicated.”

“Hack away at the unessential. Keep your style simple, practice brevity in your movements. Simplify!”

We stopped our practice to catch a few beautiful moments of the setting sun.

“It is getting late now. We will meet at the dojo tomorrow. Come an hour earlier.”

The next day when I reached the dojo, there was a big surprise in store for me. My big sparring opponent was already there. He came up to me, bowed as was customary, and then apologized for the previous day’s mishap. The sensei nodded and smiled. “You both have completely different styles of fighting. One has a lot of power and strength, but lacks grace and nimbleness. The other has agility and grit, but needs more aggression. You have a lot to learn from each other. Together, you can be a deadly team. Now practice.”

Over the next few days, we became sparring partners and good friends. We would come early and practice, learning from our sensei and from each other. Over time I saw myself progressing from the beginner’s white belt to the more advanced belts, as my mastery over the art increased.

The days at the dojo and the time spent with the sensei and my sparring partner remain etched in my memory. There are some lessons which we learn the hard way. They are also the ones which we retain over our lifetime.

A few years after that eventful day at the dojo, I unconsciously started applying the lessons learnt from the sensei into my corporate life. I had the good fortune of leading a small team, barely into my second year at work. I did not have a formal management degree at that time. I realized that advancing through the levels of a corporate career is no different from earning my belts in the martial arts training. One always looks forward to the next goal as we move from a beginner to nurturing individual ability, translating experience into capability in others, and ultimately influencing organisational performance.

If I could best describe my leadership style, it was “to lead by example, with integrity, with empathy and strong relationships”. I believed in creating a bold vision of the future and developing a shared vision with my team. We all learn from each other as each one of us grows in our personal development goals. Over the years, there were several changes in my style - from being assertive and decisive to a listening, supportive and democratic style. As plans and strategies changed, I moved to a more flexible and adaptive style. Sometimes the changes were too fast, forcing me to slow down. Be like water - soft one moment and powerful the next. In a dynamic world, professionals and leaders must learn to apply contradictory and opposing strategies interchangeably, if they want to survive and thrive.

“There is no secret ingredient. It’s just you.” Discover what is important. Recognize what energizes and what depletes, focus on what matters. Simplify. Notice inefficient habits, realize where to ask for help and learn to say no. Experiment with new and more effective behaviors.

“Knowledge and willpower cannot substitute action.” Leaders must not only coach and train their teams, they must also inspire action. The best strategies are of no use, if they are not executed effectively. If a team is trained and has the right attitude, but is not able to deliver good performance, it reflects poorly on the leadership.

“No matter what you do, that seed will grow into a peach tree. You may wish for an apple or an orange, but you will get a peach.” In the professional world, we usually don’t get to choose the people we want to work with. Team leaders should not try to ‘fix’ employees who do not excel in certain areas. Instead, identify their strengths and align with matching roles and tasks. This would boost overall team productivity and morale. But this requires understanding ourselves and others, learning to collaborate, accepting people as they are and seeing their needs more clearly.

Leaders should lead with trust and influence. They should be aware when there is insufficient trust and bring authentic connection to relationships. All workplaces have difficult people. Leaders must be aware when there is insufficient trust, take ownership and bring authentic connection to relationships, by shifting their perspective of people who are not liked at the workplace. Leaders must be prepared for difficult conversations. They must acknowledge what is uncomfortable and derive courage to do what is right.

Leaders should develop an inclusive and agile mindset. They should see their own and others perspectives, learn quickly from others and broaden their thinking. Another hallmark of an effective leader is humility. It is not about thinking less of yourself, but thinking yourself less; it is not about valuing others less, but valuing others fully. Leaders take accountability for things going wrong and point to the contribution of others when things work right.

Leaders face their biggest challenges during moments of adversity. My training in martial arts taught me several lessons and helped build the resilience required to face difficult times.

“Your mind is like this water, my friend. When it is agitated, it becomes difficult to see. But if you allow it to settle, the answer becomes clear.” Leaders have too many things going through their mind. When facing challenges, there is a tendency to let panic set in. Accept the circumstances, while acknowledging they may be difficult. Once we relax, prioritize and focus, finding the solution becomes much easier. It helps to lower the resistance to change and become more agile. Take a break, read, go for a run, talk it out with someone, or do something entirely unrelated. A little bit of mindfulness practice can work wonders.

“When facing adversity, rediscover and recalibrate yourself so you can be your best, no matter what.” Learn to use whatever resources are available with you, even when hit by blocks and limitations. Make yourself useful – leaders have to think on their feet and become creative. Be grounded in change and ambiguity. When obstacles come your way, look for ways by which you can circumvent them, like the water. Know your own mindset regarding failure; notice without judgement. Accepting failure, learn from it. Manage emotional triggers – emotional intelligence is one of the most valued skills and a key driver of success. Develop compassion towards others, create teams that take risks, learn quickly and create success.

“You are only defeated when you accept it. Defeat is a state of mind; no one is ever defeated until defeat has been accepted as a reality.” Face fear and grow courage. Courage is not the absence of fear. We can have our fears but not let our fears have us. Label fearful thoughts and shift attention to what matters. When your team stumbles, show them the unwavering path towards the goals and focus on building positivism.

“Learning is never cumulative; it is a movement of knowing which has no beginning and no end.” When we acquire new knowledge, it replaces the old. It causes a rewiring of our brain and changes our consciousness and outlook on things. Whether it is business success, self-improvement, spirituality or any other subject, new knowledge causes us to reinterpret reality in a way that shifts our actions slightly or profoundly. At all times, new knowledge helps to redefine us.

After years of experience and learning, I have come to appreciate the many miles which remain on my journey to mastery – in my professional and personal life. Some days I find myself trapped under the weight of my own predictable patterns of imperfection. In the development of any skill there are plateaus and moments of lull. And then there are those breakthroughs - those moments of mastery that make the day-to-day discipline worthwhile. It’s these transcendent moments that get me out of bed, ready to continue the journey of endless learning for another day.

What experiences and learnings have shaped you as a leader? What makes you get out of bed and live to lead another day?

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