5 key leadership principles to learn from Karate Do

Karate is a big part of my life, something I have practiced consistently since 1971. Having lived in many countries over the course of my life meant starting all over, from white belt, every time I changed dōjōs. I have practiced competitive Karate, Shotokan, Wado-ryu, Taekwondo and now Shotokai Karate. I have also practiced Judo. (I might hold the world record in brown belts.) Finally, I was in one place long enough to stick to one dōjō, and a few years later was awarded the grade of black belt with the congratulations of the jury, a team of federal judges. 

As my current Sensei, Nicolas Moulin, from Valence, France, congratulated me on succeeding my exam, he said, “Now is the beginning of learning the art of Karate Do.” I was humbled. So far, I had been practicing only the basics for decades, I guess.

Here are 5 invaluable lessons I want to share that apply to the corporate world:

1. Make your competition irrelevant instantly

Karate is not about fighting; it is about eliminating your opponent instantly. It is not about applying the maximum force; it is about applying the necessary power extremely efficiently—quickly and precisely. Your opponent needs to be annihilated within two seconds. Any well-trained person, man or woman, can achieve that. Call it swordsmanship with bare hands. There is no second chance.

In business, practicing Karate means that you are positioning yourself to deliver your services in a way that competition quickly becomes irrelevant. It requires that you learn to execute with this type of mindset: unique differentiation, incredible value and positive impact. You create a WOW effect.

2. Improving your leadership is a lifelong foundational commitment

Karatekas (those who practice Karate) practice several times a week and understand that it takes decades to approach mastery. They learn about the numerous stances, hand and foot movements, kicks, breathing techniques, and they practice highly coded katas, a series of precisely choreographed moves that take years to execute well. It becomes creative and artful when, as a master, you add your own interpretation, rhythm and personality.

In many corporations, managers feel fortunate to get basic management training. Leadership is taught once in a blue moon, in short workshops. You get one single communication class, one single feedback method, and that’s it. You are declared trained, knowledgeable and ready to tackle today’s managerial complexity. 

Would it make equal sense to take a Karate class once a year and declare yourself ready for competition? I encourage you to think about shifting from a once-in-a-while training mindset to a full-blown leadership development strategy where everyone is evaluated, coached and aware of the new skills to practice. Your HR department may be too small and/or busy to tackle this; it is a strategic pillar that should be owned by all.

3. Search for perfection but focus on progress

A Karate teacher is inherently exceedingly patient and accepting. Although they encourage the quest for perfection, they focus on constant repetition. As students struggle to improve their skills, the teacher focuses on progress, not on how far the student is from their own expectations of themself. Progress is rewarded by moving the students to another belt color after a codified and ritualized evaluation. Thus, respect and appreciation are created at all levels, no matter the skill level. Focusing on progress lies at the heart of keeping practitioners motivated, with a feeling of belonging.

Unfortunately, bosses often resort to exerting more control when mistakes are made and a separation is then self-created from the subordinate. This undermines the employee’s self-confidence. Incessant control and negative judgment lead to the famous set-to-fail syndrome. The employee ends up feeling demotivated, even harassed, and often leaves the company.

4. Nailing the basics is sine qua non

Practicing the basic stands, kicks, hand gestures and displacements is fundamental in order to progress. A Karate Sensei pays attention to every single detail and gently reprimands those students who are too eager to advance beyond their capabilities and pursue advanced practices. Nailing the basics ensures the creation of a solid base for a lifelong practice.

A client of mine, head of sales in an insurance company, made the huge mistake of focusing solely on strategic initiatives and overlooking the day-to-day basics. An analysis revealed that his organization of 900 sales professionals was missing its targets because the basics (regular phone calls to customers, simple thank-you cards, etc.) were simply not encouraged, practiced or evaluated. Thus, the deeper problem was a managerial culture of laxity and sloppiness.

5. Leadership is assessed and taught from the very top

A dōjō reflects the spirit of its master. You will find that grand masters are old, kind, respectful, mindful, and are cherished by their students years after they pass away.

True leaders make sure they own the development of their people—making them feel capable, trained and prepared for top roles. They model the way people should communicate, run meetings, address conflicts or handle customers. They focus on human connections, as they know these lie at the very heart of creating a time-tested culture. They walk the talk, serve as a role model, and care about the learning of every single person in their organization. 

What kind of CEO, leader, manager do you want to be remembered as? 

Welcome to the Leadership Dōjō.


Are you facing serious transformational challenges in your company? If you are, why not take a look at this case study, or contact me to arrange a quick, no-cost, no-obligation chat about how we can team up. Simply drop me a line at [email protected].