Martial Perspectives on Business: Office as Dojo

This post was originally published in the personal blog of Chief Instructor Corey Guilbault who also serves as a professional marketing strategist.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve spent half my life in the martial arts (specifically Aikido) and now run a school of my own with students of my own. To bring relevance to the martial discipline they are learning I often try to draw connections to their lives outside of their martial arts training. After all, most of us don’t get into physical confrontations and the martial arts can have significant relevance on other aspects of life.

Aikido is commonly practiced in a dojo (literally ‘place of the Way’). Dojo have a number of common elements and then nuanced differences from place to place. At our dojo there is a piece of calligraphy immediately opposite the entrance that says ‘True Victory, Self Victory’. This statement is something akin to our school’s mission statement. It is placed at the front door so that every student remembers why they are here.

Office spaces don’t often work this way, but I wonder if they should. Are your employees aware each day of why they are coming to the office? Do they know the company’s goals and their role in the larger operation?

Leading by demonstration.

At the beginning of class students line up in a particular way. The highest ranking student sits at the far right and the others line up, in descending rank order, to that senior person’s left. The instructor sits in front of the whole group. In this way, even a novice knows from day one that they can always look to their right for an example of how to conduct themselves. Questions of etiquette and posture – foundational training in Aikido – can be answered by observation.

This puts increasing responsibility on the students as they take on rank in the school. With seniority comes an obligation to conduct yourself in a manner appropriate to teaching those junior to you.

This too is less common in the work place. Often times senior managers are separated from their junior co-workers. Training in some industries is almost nonexistent and new recruits are often expected to ‘hit the ground running’ with little or no background. This is done in the name of efficiency but often achieves just the opposite. Without proper training and a sense of their place in an organization, companies risk not using employees to their full potential or worse, a revolving door because employees feel no sense of belonging at the company. Managers are meant to manage the processes through which employees use their skills. Often though, managers behave more like doers than the facilitators they’re supposed to be.

Taking ownership.

In the dojo, everyone helps maintain the place. These chores are called Samu, a topic I wrote about in detail earlier. When everyone sweeps the floors and cleans the toilets, everyone takes ownership in the school. Students come to see this as membership in a community rather than tedious work they are forced to do. (Those that can’t often leave the school and in that sense the place self-selects the most appropriate students in this subtle way.)

The corrosive quality of entitlement is well known in corporations. Managers in ivory towers both lose touch with their employees and incur their resentment. Employees who are not given a sense of ownership in the company (and I don’t mean by emptying trashcans at night) do not develop a loyalty to the company. Without loyalty they are easily poached or work below their potential.

It is important, I think, that everyone in a company pitch in toward the well-being of that company. When executives and employees do this side-by-side it builds community which provides resilience and a cooperative spirit during the inevitable hard times every business goes through.

Appreciating Experience.

The instructor in Aikido is called Sensei (literally ‘one who was born before’). This is of course a reference to experiential age, not chronological. Inherent in Aikido is a respect for seniority and tenure. While instructors in their 60′s will not be as strong or fast as students in their 20′s they have witnessed far more and have a different understanding of Aikido.

This reverence for experience seems in decline in corporate America. More and more we hear people being forced into retirement earlier while jobs are handed out to younger, cheaper employees. This helps keep a company’s numbers down, but and adverse impact on the business might come alongside it. Expertise is necessarily linked to experience. Experts become experts by making mistakes. Someone who has had 40 years to watch deals and products come and go, who has had decades to send the wrong email, blurt out the wrong comment in a meeting or make the wrong choice in an employee, brings important expertise to a business. This is something no 20-something MBA, not matter how smart, can deliver. Academic experience is not to be undervalued, but the critical ‘gut’ decisions and intuitive sensibility of someone with decades of industry experience is far more valuable in today’s business environment. There is also the matter of true expertise and what is required to legitimately claim this. But I covered that in a previous post which you can read here.

Service over self.

Another aspect of the dojo Sensei is his/her role in the school. The Sensei’s job is to serve the well-being of the students. His skill is measured by the skill of his students. If his students have poor etiquette or sloppy technique, then it reflects poorly on him. Therefore, the Sensei will put incredible effort into his students. By making them the best they can be, he is demonstrating his own expertise. Conversely, a Sensei more consumed with personal reputation, flashy demonstrations and showing students who the boss is, will be looked down upon by enlightened practitioners and ultimately find it hard to attract students of good character.

CEOs might consider themselves the Sensei’s of their companies. Their job is to serve the employees and shareholders. Their worth should be measured in the output of the company which is in turn a reflection of the process and skills brought to bear by managers and employees. When an employee fails at the company, the CEO should reflect on his/her role in that failure. When the products of a company become uncompetitive, the CEO should look within to see if there is some remedy to be made.

As we watch executive pay skyrocket, with incredible exit packages even for CEO’s that drive a company toward failure, the importance of a executives sense of obligation to the company (and not themselves) becomes obvious. It is no less shameful to bilk a company of millions of dollars after driving it into the ground than it is for a martial arts Sensei to brutalize a student as a means of demonstrating their power and skill.

Obligation and structure.

Obligation and structure are central themes in an Aikido dojo. Structure is provided so that each student is given a clear sense of their place  and a sense of the direction they are moving in. There is a clear idea, even sitting before class, as to what the novice is working for. Employees need this as well. In Aikido, a sense of obligation is important in helping students take ownership of the dojo and instructors take ownership of the students. In this same way employees must take ownership of their company and managers must be obligated to empowering employees to reach their full potential.

Martial arts, on the surface, seems focused on defending against or overcoming enemies in combat. The corporate marketplace, on the surface, also seems focused on defending market share and overcoming competitors in market combat. But the martial arts in reality is about overcoming the enemies within ourselves so that we may reach our greatest potential. In this sense we seek True Victory through Self Victory.

It might be interesting to see what victory (and great potential) a company might achieve if the senior leadership of that company looked at the business through a similar lens.