5 Leadership and Strategy Traits I Learned as a Martial Artist

Tim Knight

Written by Tim Knight
on Thursday, February 4th, 2016
in Culture

Warriorship in Business

If you looked at our staff pictures before you’ll notice I’ve earned the title of GravityFree’s very own ninja. A playful title, though I do hold a second-degree black belt (nidan) in Kasumi-An To-shin Do Ninjutsu, a modernized form of what we know as the ninja martial art. Even before that, studying martial arts in general has been a big part of my life since 1993. As I’ve grown older the training has influenced not only how I interact in my personal life but also in business.

Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

Mike Tyson

Many business executives have a fascination with viewing themselves as warriors. There’s a whole market of books ready to target, “The Art of War for the MBA”. Actually experiencing the stress and communication necessary in a self-defense situation changes a lot about how you think about leadership and strategy that a book can’t teach you. Mike Tyson had it right, because when you’re deep in the middle of a mess, rarely can you benefit by discussing theory.

1. Empower Others

When I started coaching martial arts students I was really excited to share with them what I knew. I wasn’t so much bragging as it was sharing my passion for something I enjoyed. The problem with that however is that I was “over teaching” and providing far too much information. By just showing one or two techniques instead, I’m giving the student an opportunity to learn breathing, body position, or some of the fundamentals in the beginning rather then trying to help them collect a list of “cool techniques” or show them all they’ll be able to learn over the next several years of training.

By just showing them these one or two things they can start to see the power in what they’re learning. They can start building their confidence up and move into learning even more.

The big lesson for me here was to learn to consolidate the information I provide to ensure the message is received while giving the person room to be creative in how they execute the goals of what’s needed. Trust that they’re capable in accomplishing the tasks, provide them what they need to succeed, and use underperforming moments as learning experiences when necessary.

2. Stay Humble and Keep Learning

Anyone who starts off in traditional martial arts always starts with a white belt. It’s the sign that someone is just beginning their journey into the study, that their mind is free and open to learn the skills presented. No matter what you’re doing, everyone starts off at the beginning. Those who have reached higher ranks in martial arts (or their careers) will tell you that there is a level of freedom as a beginner that you don’t have as an advanced practitioner.

Many of those limitations are mental, in terms of a feeling of expectation that your peers may have on you. While others might be because your view of possibilities has narrowed through harsh lessons of experience.

But don’t be tempted to limit yourself to who you are right now, no matter how experienced you are. Continue having that “white belt mentality” and keep your mind open to new possibilities for personal learning and improvement. Be open and humble with others who are just beginning, knowing that we all started somewhere.

I want to grow. I want to be better. You grow. We all grow. We’re made to grow. You either evolve or you disappear.

Tupac Shakur

In Japanese lean manufacturing there is the practice of kaizen (改善) which means “improve” or “make better” though it has been adopted to mean “continuous improvement” within business. How can you adopt small, continuous changes to yourself and your business to grow and continue to provide value for your customers and your team? Much of the process of kaizen comes from deciding on a change, measuring it, and then reviewing that measurement to ensure it was successful. The important part is simple, just be open to improvement that brings greater value.

3. Stay Connected and Move Advantageously

In training for a violent situation we’re taught, “reaction never beats action” meaning if you wait for someone to do something, to move or to strike, you’re going to get caught up in what they’re trying to do and you’re likely going to get hit—or worse.

My teacher can often be heard saying, “if you have time to move, they have time to move.” So while you’re worrying about whether you should step forwards or backwards your opponent just hit you in the face. If you can let go of that need to react, there’s an intuition that arises in a violent situation. You’ve been through so many experiences that you connect with the other person. You’re aware of their movements and intentions. As their body starts to move, you move with them. Every violent act they attempt just further takes them off balance. It’s a weird thing to say as I write it, but it happens. The concept isn’t new and often referred to in film, like in this clip from The Last Samurai. But just like in the clip, just having someone tell you about it won’t make you successful—it takes work, and you’ll need to practice.


Problems can come from anywhere. A new competitor promoting seemingly improved processes, a technology threatening to replace your industry and put you out of business, a problem coworker that stresses you out, or even something as simple as a client with an outstanding balance. Don’t ignore them, but don’t get wrapped up in panic wondering what they’re going to do. Watch them and what they’re attempting to achieve. Find your opportunity to fit into the problem and once you decide to move, keep moving… from each opportunity into the next. Noticing these opportunities will come from experience, but as you gain the experience these once stressful problems won’t even register as a conflict for you anymore. Instead they’ll be the opportunities that help you connect with others in your industry, create new partnerships, and improve how you do your job.

4. Let Go of Failing Moments

A fight goes incredibly fast when you look at it from the outside, but it’s even faster from the inside. In our fear of losing, we often grab for things that aren’t in our best interest. Maybe in the conflict I grab at my attackers hand to attempt a technique, but they switch things up, making my technique ineffective. In the fear of the fight I might consider hanging onto that hand and trying to make that technique happen, but it’s probably going to get me hit.

In business, you have to pick up on market changes among countless other things. While you work to stay connected to the problem (point #3), it’s important to notice when you need to adjust. The change could be anything. Are you still providing customer value? Is your product still in demand? Have you actually reached product-market fit? Are you attracting the right talent? Are you using the right platform to bring you customers the most success?

The purpose of a business is to create and keep a customer.

Peter F. Drucker

We get attached to our ideas because we take ownership of them, so it’s tough to let them go even when they endanger us. Learn which ideas aren’t working and change them. And if necessary let them go entirely. You’ll be free from having to defend a position you no longer have confidence in.

5. At Some Point, You’re Probably Going to Get Hit. Keep Going.

You can’t predict everything, at some point it’s likely that you’re going to take a hit. In the moment when it’s all going to hell, it’s important to remember your fundamentals. Am I in a safe space? Where’s my opponents balance? Are my knees bent? Are my hands up? So even if I have to take a momentary hit I know that I can recover quickly and still be safe.

Markets, consumers, and technology all change. Sometimes you’ll lose a key person on your team to other opportunities or sadly even health issues. Remember to go back to your fundamentals. Am I creating value? Am I providing opportunities for growth in my business or with my team? Am I listening to my customers?

Ups and downs are natural, stick with it, and most importantly 頑張って! (Ganbatte!/Do your best!)