We all have our signature victory moves. The happy dance when a new sale comes in, the double high-fives when a launch goes exactly as planned, the fist pump we make when we conquer a goal.
Clenching my fist and pulling it towards my core, as I used to do in karate —that’s my victory move.
When you first meet me, it may not be immediately apparent that I was Belgian National Champion and black belt in karate. In my work life, my connection to this martial art reveals itself in fleeting moments, sometimes in office chit-chat and other times when I display my victory move when I feel a true sense of accomplishment.
I started karate when I was fourteen, upon the advice of one of my school teachers, as a way to channel my excess energy and combat shyness. I never expected karate to give me so much more than that. Over the years, it’s become more to me than being able to execute the perfect mawashi geri or fastest gyakuzuki. Since I started, karate has inspired a deep appreciation for the art and skill of the sport, as well as the rich history and culture it represents.
When I learned that karate, with its origins in the Okinawa Islands of Japan, would be making its Olympic debut at the Tokyo 2020 games, I was overcome with a rush of pride.
As I get ready to witness the amazing feats celebrated during the Olympics, I can’t help but reflect on the beauty of this global camaraderie. In these next few weeks, we come together across nations – sadly not in person this edition due to Covid, but possibly even stronger in spirit than other years – to share in the love of sport, and how our respective athletic practices inform our life stories and the way we show up in the world.
I know for myself, my karate practice has made one of its most lasting imprints on my leadership and entrepreneurship.
Here are 5 Unexpected Leadership Skills I Learned from Karate
1. Aggression is ok. As long as you engage it ethically.
The first time I hit my sparring partner, it was awkward because I didn’t want to hurt anyone. At the same time, it was a powerful experience. I learned that aggression isn’t necessarily a bad thing and can generate a lot of energy. Karate taught me to engage aggression ethically and with self-control: face attacks are limited to a “skin touch” and intentional hits below the belt disqualify you from competition.
In business and work, I find a similar dance between playing offense and defense. Karate helped me see that engaging the bolder, warrior side of me can be a positive experience, as long as I did so fairly and in alignment with the goals of the team and greater organization.
2. Energy is a precious commodity.
Once, at a Brussels workshop, I looked on as an old, petite-framed Japanese sensei walked onto the tatami to face a young, tall, muscular guy. I thought, this is not going to end well. But, while the young fighter used all his power to attack, the sensei controlled the fight like a chess game, moving so quickly that he was behind his opponent before he even finished throwing the punch. The sensei tapped him on the back of his head, smiling, to prove that power isn’t everything.
Brute force doesn’t always work, and it is rarely the best strategy. We must learn to be receptive to what is coming towards us, and work with that rather than just initiating moves. Karate favors the patient and the strategic—the ones that do not waste energy on things outside of their control. The same goes for running a business and managing a team.
3. Leadership requires embodiment.
During my training, I used to get so frustrated when my sensei would repeatedly correct me to “Punch from your hip.” It wasn’t that I was being lazy or inattentive, but my attempts at copying his example kept failing. To improve my technique, imitation wasn’t enough. I had to be conscious of my body and internalize the critique.
To lead, we must embody the lessons, habits, and mindsets that we seek to instill in others and create our intended impact. If you want your team to be on time and prepared, be on time and prepared yourself. If you want your team to pick up the candy wrapper laying on the floor, you yourself must model impeccable care for your environment.
4. Resilience is the truest sign of strength.
On the walls of many dojos, you’ll often find this quote: “A black belt is a white belt that never quit.” Each fall (or punch) left its unique mark during my training, and, in teaching the sport, I witnessed how every body has its limitations and its advantages and that no one is perfect.
These experiences have made me empathetic towards others who are fighting their own battles. We all have our differences, but our resilience unites us in our pursuits—both at the office and in the dojo. At the end of the day, the commitment to keep getting back up stronger and more capable than before, leaves the strongest impression of all.
5. Accolades are never the end goal.
Within three years of starting my karate training, I was a Belgian National Champion and a DAN-certified black belt, setting a European record. My accomplishment was featured in newspapers, but in the dojo nothing changed. Belt color brings not privilege, but responsibility: the duty to share the principles of the art and to teach students of lower ranks.
Prestige signals mastery of your past, and it raises the bar for your future. As you achieve more as a leader, it is up to you to follow through on your reputation in the work to come.
Through the years, karate has stayed with me through the growth, the learning, the challenges, and the ultimate victories of my life. I can’t wait for the world to see this art take the spotlight during the Tokyo 2021 Olympic games the coming weeks. I hope karate – through this newfound global audience – may bring new insights to many more, just like it did for me.