Doing Martial Arts Today Can Make You a Better Manager

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It was late on a Friday when an employee came by my office to check in before he left for the weekend.  It had been a busy week and we had hardly crossed paths over the previous five days.  This employee was one of my best – hardworking, trustworthy, dedicated.

My team had been under tremendous pressure to finish a large project.  And despite the nearing deadline, our customer continued to change their mind on what they wanted.

“Need anything else before I go?” After a few minutes, he took a seat at my conference table. We sat, exasperated after the long week, and discussed what the team had accomplished as well as many new issues that popped up.

I had recently given this employee more responsibility to enable him to gain some leadership experience.  I asked him how he was handling the pressure and workload.  He calmly said he was hanging in there and that he was quickly learning the challenges of being a leader.  I asked him to explain.  His response drew upon his passion for training in martial arts.

“In martial arts, there is a term called ‘ukemi,’ which is essentially the art of falling – falling safely.  We have so much going on right now and have little chance of meeting the deadline. I’m learning that when we’re going to fall, we need to do so in a controlled way in order to minimize the pain.  Ukemi is all about how you absorb the fall.”

It reminded me of a similar conversation I had years before with another manager who described the same reality simply as “you can’t juggle eight balls as once.  You need to pick one or two to fall so you can keep the six most important ones going.”

One of the most difficult challenges I’ve had to manage in the current business environment is the continuing increase in expectations and demands, coupled with either fixed or decreasing resources.  It’s unfortunately far too frequent, but it is the reality for many firms.  Under normal conditions, effective managers are able to get a lot done and find creative solutions to overcome resource gaps.  But occasionally, it just gets to be too much and we have to make the decision to let 20% of the work fall to preserve the integrity of the remaining 80%.

Ukemi, the art of falling.  It was a profound observation from my employee because it so perfectly described what managers go through when it just gets to be too much.  There are times when managers must simply shift focus towards protecting the business and the team. Under the principle of ukemi, managers must choose to abandon those activities that will minimally impact the business if set aside. After all, our role is not only to lead and guide towards success, but also to control the fall when success is unlikely.

The next time the undercurrents of business make it difficult to succeed, remember the principle of ukemi.  Critically evaluate the activities within your business or department.  Which ones are mission critical?  Which ones, if tabled or deferred, are the most easily absorbed and will allow recovery?  It’s a difficult position to be in, but by thinking about which items you can allow to fall will help you more effectively manage your team and business in times of adversity.

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