It’s a bit awkward to admit this to you, but I used to like to fight. I’m not talking about boxing, or about sparring in a structured environment where it would be accepted or even expected. No, I used to fight in the street.
In my late teens, I was quick to jump into a squabble. I’m not entirely sure why I did it. I didn’t have an anger problem; I was composed and knew exactly what I was doing.
Still, I had no difficulty in getting stuck in and throwing a punch. In fact, my record was an impressive.
Now for the embarrassing part: to this day, I look back on my street fighting career with a private fondness. I won all 14 fights I was in, and I won each one with a single punch. How, you might ask. Well, I had a bit of an advantage.
By that time, I had already earned my black belt in Karate, specifically Shotokan, and was well on my way to getting my second degree (dan). Shotokan is a dynamic martial art that develops both speed and powerful anaerobic techniques. Instead of the slow, flowing motions you might associate with some martial arts, Shotokan demonstrates strength and power.
However, despite my skills, my street fighting streak came to a sudden halt following the ultimate humiliation. Did I get a taste of my own medicine and suffer a knockout blow? No. Well, not exactly.
Somehow, my sensei had heard that I was throwing single punches on the streets and he decided it was time to remind me what it meant to be a black belt. So, the next time I stepped into the dojo, he suggested that the two of us spar. There was nothing unusual about that, but what happened next left my head spinning.
The session was intense and, to my utter frustration, I lost without him throwing a punch. The next day when he suggested round two, I was determined to win or at least score a point, but yet again, I left the ring defeated, without so much as a single hit from my sensei. And so it went on, the same scenario playing out for five days.
Each time, we would step into the ring and spar with intensity, sweat dripping and lungs heaving with exhaustion. And, each time, I ended up bruised and battered without ever being punched.
When my sensei finally decided he’d humiliated me enough, he taught me an important lesson: strength isn’t winning a fight with one punch, it’s winning it with no punch at all.
After that, I never got entangled in a street brawl again. Albeit indirectly, my weeklong humiliation had reminded me that the principles of Shotokan allude to the notions of humility, respect, compassion, patience and calmness, inside and out. In fact, so important are these virtues, they are enshrined in the five maxims of Karate: seek perfection of character, be faithful, endeavour to excel, respect others and refrain from violent behaviour.
Karate is not about victory or defeat, but about perfecting your character, and that is what you should strive for too. True leaders aren’t scrappy street fighters who win for a season, they have strength of character that endures over time.
I was reminded of this some years ago when a textbook arrived for one of my doctoral seminars — leadership for creativity. The book was called “Self-Efficacy” by Albert Bandura and it focused on efficacy building in the organisation, as well as the beliefs, attitudes, intentions and behaviours associated with creativity in leadership.
Specifically, it was the book’s sub-title — “The Exercise of Control” — that caught my attention. It reminded me of the lessons my sensei had taught me years before: strength is having the control to win the fight without lashing out.
So, put your gloves down and start believing that you have what it takes to win without throwing a single punch. Only then will you be the true victor.
Tommy Weir is the CEO of the EMLC Leadership Ai Lab and author of “Leadership Dubai Style”. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.