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Black Belt Leadership


Black beltTo get the skills of a high performing leader it's best to study the masters – even the Karate Kid! Ali Stewart explains.

What do high performing leaders actually do on a day to day, week by week basis? What happens to the team when you are a skilled leader/developer and how do you get these skills? How, as a leader, can you lead with strength and dignity, passion and compassion?

What you do is simple and entertaining... you watch the 'Karate Kid'!

If you're wondering what good that will do, it will show you a perfect example of a leader/developer taking a learner on a journey from anger, blame and doubt to finding more skill, talent and ability than they could ever have dreamed of, as well as a driving will to succeed.

Now imagine that you are taking a team on that same journey, all sharing the same vision, where each member is so motivated and inspired that they surpass all your expectations. That would be good, wouldn't it?

"Getting off to a good start is crucial, but like our young hero in the film, at some point the learner kicks back and wants to give up, thinks he knows better!"

Ali Stewart, Ali Stewart & Co.

What high performing leaders do is exactly what Mr Miyagi in the film did. They start by simply watching and mentally taking note, they identify what needs to be done, which translates into a clear vision. The leader stands up and states this vision in unequivocal terms, with passion; people are in no doubt as to what is expected, and what will happen if they fall short of the mark.

In the case of the Karate Kid the 'contract' was stated very clearly by the leader developer (Mr Miyagi): "I promise I will teach you karate so you can fight in the tournament in two months' time. For your part you promise to do what I say without question – agreed?"

Every small step in the right direction by the learner is rewarded with praise and encouragement, given little by little, every day to maintain momentum. Every deviation is corrected immediately, possibly in the form of reprimands, so that no bad habits are allowed to form. At all times the leader developer holds a picture of the person or team members performing at their very best, so that any such reprimands are given in the spirit of continuous improvement in line with the vision.

Getting off to a good start is crucial, but like our young hero in the film, at some point the learner kicks back and wants to give up, thinks he knows better! As leader you have to be ready for this, assertively guiding the learner through this period. You remind them of the vision, what you are jointly trying to achieve, you re-state the 'contract', you show the learner how much they have learnt so far, commend them on how well they are doing and tell them what the next stage is. This enabled our young karate student to see that all the waxing of cars, sanding the decks, painting the fences (which he'd mistaken for slavery) had in fact been strengthening his wrists and muscles and developing in him natural karate actions. He was willing to continue.

During the ensuing skill building phase, the learner is now consciously participating and although it is very hard work, he trusts in the leader enough to keep going.

With a team, the leader is resolutely 'herding' each member to deliver the appropriate performance, providing constant encouragement and firmly dealing with any performance issues. Team members know that poor performance will not be tolerated, the leader maintains their own sense of purpose, modelling in every sense the attitude and behaviour required. This is where strength and dignity feature. Mr Miyagi told Daniel from the start "Karate comes from within" and Mr Miyagi's very being exuded the desired state.

At this point things take a different turn and the leader again has to be ready. The learner and indeed team has reached a level of proficiency. A little like learning to drive a car; the learners understand what needs to done, and have learnt the skills, but now need to practise. Connecting them to their own internal motivation to do the task then becomes key. Sometimes as leader you have to sit back and see how they get on, see what actions they choose to take. The learners will be offering their own ideas, but your finger is still very much on the pulse, providing encouragement and support, indeed providing the right situation to enable the learner to keep going.

"Finally... you release the learners - they are now the masters, able to make their own decisions. They now have compassion with and share the resources of others, they are fired up with a driving will and the competence to succeed."

If something goes badly wrong, you may have to go resolutely back to the start and work gently to bring the learner back to this point. This is compassion, this is being there at every point in the journey with them.

Finally, and for the leader this can be the most difficult part, where passion, compassion, dignity and most of all strength meet. You release the learners - they are now the masters, able to make their own decisions. They now have compassion with and share the resources of others, they are fired up with a driving will and the competence to succeed.

And so it is in the film. Our young Karate hero, against all odds, going beyond what the leader/developer thought possible, wins the tournament. Spectacularly, with tremendous inner drive, power and grace, he earns the title of champion.

The leader/developer needs equal amounts of power and grace to fully embrace this phase. It can be very difficult to truly 'let go'.

So, to get the skills of the high performing leader it is best to study the masters.

The process has been written up by Dr Derek Biddle, chartered occupational psychologist, who distils the essence of the masters in his book Leading & Developing High Performance. And in his book, Derek uses a beautiful analogy to sum it all up.

Imagine as leader you take your team to the top of a tall building - a skyscraper. It has a flat roof, it is dark, there is no barrier around the edge of the roof and the team members have roller skates on. You ask them to skate around, but they huddle together in the middle and don't do very much - it's scary for them.

If you now illuminate the roof with a light so bright (your vision), and put railings round the edge (the 'contract' - rights, responsibilities, rules, expectations) then the team will skate to the edges, using all the space. They put on a magnificent display, exceeding your expectations.

The Leading & Developing High Performance 3-day programme for managers or accreditation programme for trainers is available via Ali Stewart & Co


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