What three years of martial arts training taught me about corporate governance.
Updated: Apr 2, 2021
Within the past 36 months, I have broken my nose, cracked my elbow, fractured my shins, crushed my windpipe, and nearly broken my neck - all while training in the martial arts of Jeet Kune Do. Each of these injuries, and the lessons learned from and in between them, has made me a better leader and executive.
I have loved combatives since I was a boy. More accurately, until 2016 I loved the idea of combatives. In 2016, as I approached 30 and began to feel the onset of physical limitations, I decided to try martial arts training instead of trying to see myself in the typical male action heroes whose names always seem to start with a ‘J’ (James Bond, Jason Bourne, Jack Bauer, John Wick). I enrolled in a local Jeet Kune Do academy.
Over the 18 months that followed, I trained for 3-hours two nights per week after work. To my surprise, by the time I graduated into the intermediate program, I had competed in a contact-based tournament, fought through countless injuries, and found peace through combat. What had started as a mere curiosity-based hobby turned out to be some of the best executive coaching I may ever receive. What follows is just three of the lessons my now 3-years of martial arts training has taught me about Corporate Governance.
Lesson 1. Grow at ‘the Staying Speed’
Jeet Kune Do is just one of the legacies of Sijo Bruce Lee. It is the style and philosophy developed by the legendary martial artist, taking the best elements of Wing Chun Kung Fu, American Boxing, French Fencing, and Grappling, to bring them together as the ultimate combat art. One of the creeds residing therein is the notion that each student should “Grow at the ‘Staying Speed.’”
I can’t begin to tell you the number of times during my 18-month completion of the Beginner program where I felt like I had plateaued. I wasn’t improving. My footwork was wrong, my left cross was weak, and I had a bad habit of keeping my head up when I threw punches. Week after week, month after month, these weaknesses in my technique haunted me. They made me want to quit. However, my Sifu constantly reminded me that whatever our goal, we should “Grow at the Staying Speed”.
The ‘Staying Speed’ is the speed of growth which one can maintain. Try to grow too fast, and you risk burning out or failing to master the correct form of any technique. Grow too slowly, and you may get bored or discouraged by a lack of progress, and decide to change course too soon.
The parallels I saw between some of my peers in the academy and the workplace were remarkable. So often have I seen new students join the academy, full of excitement and eagerness to become great fighters, only to lose that enthusiasm and quit because their development was too slow. Too many times have I seen new employees - particularly Millennials - excitedly start their new job only to leave within a few months because they weren’t advancing quickly enough. Of the former sparring partners and employees with which I’ve kept in touch, none of them have found the techniques, advancement, or workplace fulfillment they’re so eager to find. How could they? They’ve never had the patience or fortitude to stick to something long enough to find it. In opting to grow at full speed instead of the ‘Staying Speed’, they failed to grow at all.
One of the responsibilities of an Executive is long-term planning. Often we are required to cast our vision into the future - 12 months, 5 years, 10 years - and chart the course. Over my years of Executive Governance, I have planned and overseen the creation and development of entirely new divisions, new advertising campaigns and growth strategies, and curated corporate culture. At times, the growth towards these eventual goals seemed imperceptible for long periods of time. However, we didn’t alter the course because we knew we were on the right track, even if the results weren’t yet entirely visible. By growing into these goals at the ‘Staying Speed’, the realization of those initial, long-term visions have always been a matter of inevitability, and not a mere pipe-dream.
Lesson 2: Trauma Teaches
The beginning of this article lists just a few of the many, many injuries I have enjoyed during my study of the martial arts. I say I “enjoyed” each of those injuries (despite their seriousness) as each one taught me a valuable lesson about myself.
Whenever someone got hurt during training - a near inevitability if you train for long and hard enough - my Sifu would tell us, “Trauma teaches.” I didn’t understand the truth and wisdom of this advice until I enjoyed my own injuries. Just days before my first competition, my sparring partner broke my nose with a perfectly-delivered counter cross. The explosive pain of that punch (and those that followed), the forced reset days later, and the shame of loss in my competition taught me to get my face offline when I throw my punches.
Similarly, my fractured shins taught me that my fighter’s stance was too splayed, the fractured elbow taught me to keep my hands up, and my crushed windpipe taught me to tap-out instead of honoring my pride.
‘Trauma teaches’ is as much an axiom in the corporate world as it is in combat. Losing a long-tenured client hurts, and receiving surprise resignations from key personnel can be a punch to the gut. However, Jeet Kune Do has taught me to find the lesson in every trauma. Losing a cherished client taught me to consider my clients’ experience from their perspective, and has improved our quality of service. Similarly, a resignation in 2019 taught me to speak more personably to my team, to engage with every team member every day, and to find out what’s going on in their lives - not just their workplace.
Don’t get me wrong, like a broken nose, the hits we take running a business still hurt. But knowing that there is a lesson in every trauma makes the next one hurt a little less. And if we find that lesson, we might learn to dodge or parry the next hit altogether.
Lesson 3: How to Find Peace Within the Fight
“Be water, my friend” is one of Bruce Lee’s more oft-quoted creeds. Indeed, the related Taoist philosophy of formlesses and emptiness are incorporated into Jeet Kune Do’s very symbol. Bruce Lee’s instruction to “be water” is an invitation to formlessness, fluidity, and peace. Somewhat similarly, before each bout, combatants place a fist against the palm of their other, open hand, and bow. Here, the fist symbolizes the coming combat, and the open palm, peace.
The idea of formlessness may seem as antithetical to combat as combat is to peace. Certainly, it wasn’t until over a year into my training that I began to understand. In my first year of training, I was so intentional that it hurt my development. Everything I practiced was mechanical and rigid. My stance was heavy and my arms were stiff. Not only did this make my strikes slower and more predictable, but it made me more prone to injury. It took me over a year to learn how to remain relaxed and fluid - like water - during the fight.
Remaining relaxed amid the heat of combat made me more nimble; lighter on my feet. It made my strikes quick and impactful. Most importantly, it removed the stress from every fight, making every encounter fun and safe. It is perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned from Jeet Kune Do, and one I now take into my every second at the office. I used to arrive at training after work tense and stressed; the wages of spending my workday rushing from fire to fire and trying to prepare for everything. However, after accepting Sijo Bruce Lee’s invitation to ‘be water’, I learned to find peace within the fight.
Now more ‘water’-like, I absorb the hits that come without risking injury. I am more nimble in my response, and I hit back harder and faster, able to overcome them with relative ease. I no longer leave the office feeling stressed or tense, but calm, accomplished, and with a sense that I am stronger than I was in the morning. I have found peace through combat, and learned to embrace formlessness so that I am ready for anything; instead of preparing for everything.
Why We Fight
Whenever I’d talk to someone about my training - or when they’d see my injuries - the question that inevitably followed was: “Why?”
“Why do this to yourself?”
“Why won’t you stop?”
The answer is the same reason I’m an executive: Because I love it! The stomach butterflies that take flight before a fight are the same that fly before I sit at the negotiating table. The thrill that comes from dodging an incoming punch and delivering a counter-kick is eerily similar to the thrill that comes with extinguishing the latest fire. As executives, we’re always in ‘the fight.’ The office arena is a little different, but we nonetheless face-off against new challenges every day - and not always one at a time.
Regularly placing myself in the combative arena has taught me to be better prepared for tomorrow’s challenges, to respect and honor my opponents, and to love the battle scars I’ve earned in business.
Maryland Jeet Kune Do is an exceptional self-defense and fitness training academy owned and operated by JB MuSsang Jaeger. JB has trained law enforcement agents and military personnel from around the world, worked with at-risk youth and victims of sexual assault, and coached world champion fighters.
Find out more by visiting https://marylandjeetkunedo.com/
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