In the Dojo of Life, the Leader Goes First

Lead from the front, don't boss from the back.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

There are two approaches to teaching a kid's martial arts class: I can tell them what to do, or I can show them what to do then do it with them. Through enough trial and error, you come to realize only the latter works. Remove all the overthinking of business school and management classes; in its purest form, this is what separates a leader from a boss. The difference is not in the title; it is in the behavior. Both are expected to influence actions in others, but how they choose to create those actions is what defines their role. Leaders give you something to follow, bosses give you orders to follow.

The power dynamics among kids and adults (and animals) are the same. Thinking it is not can overcomplicate things. But adults, unlike children, often are less direct and more deceptive. So let's keep it simple. Every pack needs a leader, and if you can't lead, you will be devoured. If you are weak, you will be devoured. If you talk and can't do, you will be devoured. (Sometimes physically, sometimes financially.)

Do as I Say vs. Do as I Do

I have heard many parents lament over their child's inconsistent martial arts practice. Knowing how useful martial arts can be in developing motor skills and honing character, they want their child to enjoy the art and stick with it. Often the parents are themselves inactive, and their concern is their child will follow their path. There is the rub, children learn by imitating, yet here we want children not to follow what naturally comes to them: imitating their parents. Rather than following the example of whom they see as their authority figures, they are instructed to follow the authority figures' orders instead — the parents become bosses rather than leaders. Eventually, nature wins — children follow the behaviors of their parents rather than listening to their orders. This is what many parents did themselves as kids. For you to change these outcomes, you must recognize the patterns.

The parents want their children to finish what they the parents started. The parents as children were "sent" to martial arts but never stuck with it. It's something they have come to regret, so they want their kids to have a different experience. They do not want them to see it as a chore as they once did. The parents then ask the teachers: "How do we encourage our children's martial arts practice without burning their experience and have them make the same mistake we did?"

And here we get to the universal leadership obstacle, "How do I get someone to do something I will not?" You don't. (Not well anyway.) No amount of intellectual knowledge will satisfy the need for shared experience. There are many tasks a leader neither has the time nor knowledge to do, let alone would the task be best served in his or her hands. (Imagine how badly things would go if the general were on the front lines.) But knowing the leader has done it, does it on occasion, or is willing to try (shared experience) makes all the difference. (So if it comes down to it, a respected general will hold his weapon and fight if need be. You're confident of that.) We love leaders and despise bosses and when we lose confidence in our leaders is when they become our bosses.

Put your skin in the game. If a parent takes martial arts classes, or if nothing else has their own physical fitness activity, the child is more likely to stay engaged in the activity. If the parent is sedentary, don't expect the child to be different. If no one in the house reads, why expect different from the child? Children follow what they know.

Some parents are not comfortable playing on the same level playing field as their children, to meet them eye to eye. They would rather look down at them than sit on the floor where they are. (Though sitting on the floor would be much better on your back than always bending over to play with kids.) In our work life, we can be the same way with our subordinates. This is insecurity and ego.

But if we do not set this example and meet people where they are, we leave many important aspects of culture (and in the case of children, personal development) to chance — to default to whatever is most convenient and comfortable. As that is what we are showing them. And left to chance, a utopia doesn't rise (read Lord of the Flies), it's usually the opposite — anger and resentment (look at politics).

In a position of authority, you want people underneath you to be groomed to handle most situations without having to be continually managed. This is not only easier for you, but it's also easier on them. You want them to be autonomous and adaptable. Rather than your one mind, you want a collection of minds actively problem solving. For that to happen, you must set the example and not just expectations.

Being Genuine and Authentic

Bosses are annoying. They tell you to do things they are unwilling to do. They may think: Why should I? I'm the boss. Why wouldn't this annoy you? So why do this to others? We only do it because we think we can. This causes a ripple effect of poor productivity, toxic culture, and inefficiency. For example, if you are a manager who constantly has to tell your employees everything to do, you will end up with an inferior workforce. If the leader ends up having to do everything, it will be apparent who she needs to talk to and who she needs to let go. If all the ideas are your ideas, you've got a problem. Best ideas should have a chance to rise to the top, as a leader, you don't always have to lead (that would make you the single point of failure), encourage others to run with their ideas because a good leader knows how to follow another's lead and support them so you as a team can succeed.

A boss will be their own worst bottleneck. Everything starts and stops with them. A boss will keep incompetent workers employed for longer, and rather than taking steps to improve their performance, they may give them a raise — leaving the good employees to be poached by other companies. Because to a boss, the differences between good and bad employees are not apparent. A leader knows her team from top to bottom. To a boss, from his 30,000-foot view, everything will look the same. To the leader, it is visceral.


A leader does it first, then we follow along. A leader is the person who consistently takes the lead. There are even times when the real leader of a team is not the boss. Either the company rewards them with a promotion, or when they leave, many of the employees leave with them. (I've seen martial arts schools part with an assistant instructor and have 90% of the school, to the surprise of the owner, leave with him.) The boss gets devoured.

What this boils down to is respect. That is what this is all about. Respect is earned, it can't be taken or demanded (and it must run both ways). In the absence of respect, you will demand fear and everyone will hate you for it (and they will plot against you). That's when bosses get paranoid, demand more fear, which causes more hate in an infinite loop.

Good leaders will repeatedly demonstrate why they should be respected and respect others as fellow travelers on the same journey. Good leaders become our teachers, and for our part, we learn from them and follow their instructions. The leaders then must always improve their skills and expand their knowledge.

Entrepreneurs often know every job function of their business. Since they did the job first, they set the expectations. This creates the eventual work culture. It starts from the top down.

In a game or new activity, my friends and I would flip a coin, and the loser had to go first. A school presentation? Loser goes first. But in leadership, where you are not only the chief executive but also the team life coach, the leader goes first. A boss talks the part while a leader lives it.

People Crave Human Connection

It is not about the particular task; it is about the relationship that builds from having done the same task. It is not that you had to, it is that as a leader, you voluntarily chose to understand the journey of others. Creating connections and having empathy through experience. You give your team a reason to work, to work with you, and not for you. Working for you feeds your ego, but working with you gets more done.

If the leader never tries anything new, how will she get others to innovate? Adapt their roles? Take on new tasks? Creating actions from cipher is a tall order, but mimicry is at the very heart of our DNA.

Do It First, Then Do It Together

(A performance by the Tagou Martial Arts School | Reuters)

(A performance by the Tagou Martial Arts School | Reuters)

Parents tell me how they were "sent" to karate, then they dropped out. They don't know why they dropped out; however, they don't want their kids to do the same. Think about that because the answer is in what they said. When kids are "sent" somewhere, somewhere the parents themselves do not go, it becomes punishment. When we gain weight, we "send" ourselves to the gym. And what do we do? Talk about food as reward and exercise as punishment and cycle between the two, all the while hating ourselves. In avoiding the gym or the dojo, we are avoiding the rod.

"Sent" to your room, "sent" to detention, "sent" to boarding school, and worst of all is when we are "sent" away. "Sent" is disconnection; it is being pushed away from the person we wish to follow. A leader clearly demonstrates and sets a path, making it easy for others to follow. Give them something to follow.

Serial entrepreneur and speaker Derek Sivers gave a now famous explanation of leadership. He begins with a video of a lone dancer at an outdoor concert:

Now comes the first follower with a crucial role: he publicly shows everyone how to follow. Notice the leader embraces him as an equal, so it’s not about the leader anymore — it’s about them, plural. Notice he’s calling to his friends to join in. It takes guts to be a first follower! You stand out and brave ridicule yourself. Being a first follower is an under-appreciated form of leadership. The first follower transforms a lone nut into a leader. If the leader is the flint, the first follower is the spark that makes the fire... The best way to make a movement, if you really care, is to courageously follow and show others how to follow.

Sivers' words resonate with the Taoist doctrine of wu-wei. On this Bruce Lee said:

The rivers and seas are lords of a hundred valleys. This is because their strength is in lowliness; they are kings of them all. So it is that the perfect master wishing to lead them, he follows. Thus, though he is above them, he follows. Thus, though he is above them, men do not feel him to be an injury.

We fear we will lose our power if we mingle with the lower ranks. We should fear more what will happen if we do not.

Do Not Force What Can Come Natural

Follow others if that is what it takes to keep the ball rolling. The leader's job is not to hold the ball but to pass it to those who will keep it moving (delegate). Put yourself out there. Clear a path. That's what a leader's supposed to do. Setting the example is leadership. Willingness to be taught, showing others you can learn, that is leadership. Showing others you can embrace discomfort is leadership. Showing that you are all in this together is leadership.

My favorite way of teaching a kids class is having the students teach me. In teaching, they get to know the material better, and I get to see their strengths and weaknesses. Bosses are loud but leaders know when to be silent.

When I take on the role of the student, I show them that there is joy in learning. They feel comfortable enough to put their guards down and engage their own beginner's minds. It works better and with more conviction if they decide on their own rather than under duress. (When forced, the natural tendency is to defy and assert their free will to do the opposite.) It takes a little longer but the results are long-term and far better.


We follow people's leads. Lead from the front, don't boss from the back. Put yourself out there, connect, and relate. Do not fear losing your authority by taking action, fear losing your authority by not taking action. Don't boss, go out there and do.

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