Leadership Lessons from Kung Fu

In my martial arts class recently, it occurred to me that being uncomfortable can be a good thing.  Somewhere between push-ups, jumping jacks and my own exhaustion-induced nausea the thought crept into my mind:  “This is really hard.  This feels really bad.  I don’t actually want to be doing this anymore.  I’m not having fun.  And yet…this exactly what I need to do to get my black belt.  And if I want to reach that goal, this is how it’s going to feel some of the time.  It’s supposed to be this hard.  I just need to keep going.”

Many of us grew up thinking that discomfort is the enemy.  If something is really, really hard, maybe you should stop!  Why would you want to put yourself through that?  Looking back I can see many times where I had an important goal that I eventually turned away from because I thought the challenges on the path were somehow a sign that I was headed the wrong way.  Or, the the goal sounded wonderful but the day-to-day activities needed to get there were just too hard.

The idea that discomfort can be good and necessary goes against human nature.  Most of us have a strong drive to seek out comfort.  And our society is geared completely in that direction.  Think about how many products and services—from luxury cars to skin lotions–are designed simply to increase our comfort and ease.  We like to feel comfortable, because it’s easier than the alternative.

The reality though is that most meaningful human growth and endeavor involves both discomfort and inconvenience.  Sometimes a great deal of it.  Some people fantasize about becoming CEO of a big company or achieving fame as a professional athlete, but they rarely consider the enormous amount of very real discomfort and challenge involved in getting there.  There may be joy and satisfaction as well, certainly.  But there is discomfort every step of the way.

A willingness to embrace discomfort, then, is one of the hallmarks of the most successful leaders.  Successful leadership demands constant growth, and this growth is usually not easy.  It requires that we reframe our understanding of discomfort, and take pro-active measures to keep us moving forward in the face of daunting challenges.  Here are a few suggestions for reframing and moving through the discomfort of facing tough leadership challenges:

Reframe the discomfort.  From a brain science perspective, reframing or “repraisal” is one of the most powerful ways of shifting your state and calming you down so that your rational mind is functioning well and your immediate emotions don’t control your choices.  Reframing is simply changing your interpretation of your experience, so you see it in a whole new way, and so you have more choices.

In my kung fu class, when I started feeling like I might pass out, what I did was to reframe my experience.  I moved from “This is awful, why would I want to do this?” to “Actually this is how this is supposed to feel some of the time, to get where I am going.  This feeling is a sign that I am headed the right way.”  That reframe allowed me to push through the temporary feeling.

Other reframes:

Ask yourself what sorts of challenges your role models needed to go through in order to develop into who they became.  How does your current challenge compare with theirs?  How will this challenge help you become like them?

Think of the discomfort as very temporary.  “This is really hard right now.  But this is temporary.  The gains I’m getting will be more permanent.”  In other words, move your thinking away from the current difficulty and focus more on the positive long-term outcome you are moving towards.

Acknowledge that you have options.  “I could stop right now if I chose to.  I have that freedom.  I could walk away from this any time.  It’s up to me totally.  But I choose to keep going.”

Be in community.  Whenever you undertake something difficult, build a community of relationships around it.  Whether these are several 1-1 relationships, or a group that meets together on a regular basis, when things get tough you need other people you can lean on for support.  And when they lean on you, you’ll learn by helping them.

Have a mentor, or several.  When I told my kung fu instructor after class that a prior wrist injury was starting to act up, he said, “You should go buy a wrap for that.  You can get them at a Sportmart or Big Five.  And I can show you how to put it on.”  What he was offering was a way forward through an obstacle, so that I could stay on the path.  Without this suggestion, a growing wrist injury might be too big an obstacle to work through.  In leadership, a few choice words from a mentor can make all the difference in the world at a critical moment.

Do your homework.  Read books about what you are striving to do.  Talk to people who have done it.  Learn as much as you can from other people who have walked down the path before you.  You aren’t alone–someone has already faced something like what you are facing.  Even if it’s something that seems unusually unique and complicated.  Learn from their experience so that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you encounter an obstacle.  Put yourself on a steady diet of reading and learning about the most important things you are trying to achieve.

Stay inspired.  Give some thought to what keeps you fresh and inspired, and include these things in your plans.  A very generous man in our martial arts dojo keeps giving me videos.  “This is a great one–I thought it would be some inspiration for you.  The plot isn’t that good, but the kung fu is great.  Keep it as long as you want.”  He knows that giving me movies is a way to motivate me to keep practicing.  Think about what keeps you inspired to do what you do.  Maybe it’s staying more connected with your customers or front-line employees.  Maybe it’s going to a leadership workshop once a quarter.  Whatever it is, schedule it.

Take breaks.  Etch into your mind the difference between giving up, and taking a break.  When you feel overwhelmed, when you feel like giving up and walking away completely, take a half-day off.  Go do something fun.  Sleep in.  Go to the movies.  Colin Powell liked to say, “Things always look better in the morning.”  Don’t make any big decisions when you are in a state of low resourcefulness.  Catch your breath and take another look at things in the morning.

Reward yourself for milestones.  Don’t ever let a significant success go uncelebrated.  Find ways to acknowledge your successes.  Even if your rewards are small, get in the habit of marking milestones so that they stand out more in your memory.  Buy a little something special for yourself.  Get that new piece of technology you’ve been ogling.  Or go out for a special meal.  Provide yourself with ongoing rewards.  It’s not so much what the reward is, but the act of marking your successes along the way that matters.  It will help you realize just how far you have come.

Value persistence over perfection.  In the end, you’ll work through whatever you are facing by keeping at it.  You might flail around along the way, but you can’t get down on yourself about that.  You won’t always be brilliant, you won’t always feel your best, and you won’t always be at your most productive.  Even musicians have good practice days and bad ones.  But the best musicians are the ones who spent the most minutes, the most days, and the most years practicing and improving.  The same is true for leaders.