Sunday, 2 March 2014

My Tenets of Leadership (and Life)

I studied and trained in the Korean martial art of Tae Kwon Do for about 13 years, gaining a 2nd dan Black Belt along he way. Unfortunately a recurring knee injury alongside training times that are incompatible with my current job has basically stopped me doing this for the last few years. However there is an aspect of Tae Kwon Do that stays with me.

"What are your values?"
A reasonably common interview question. Or perhaps "what are the important qualities of a leader?"

When first contemplating a management interview in my engineering career I needed to think about these questions, and after a while (probably as part of a Tae Kwon Do training session) it occurred to me that I already knew 5 key terms that just about summed up my thoughts and key values. They are taught as the 5 tenets of Tae Kwon Do...

Courtesy, Integrity, Perseverance, Self control, Indomitable spirit.

No matter how much I think about it I have never been able to beat this as a set of 5 values for a leader, or for day to day life for that matter. I'd like to break them down and explain how I think this applies to leadership (though I'll admit that in many ways they're fairly self explanatory).

At all levels, in all contexts, treating people as I would like to be treated. Giving people the chance to do the right thing. This means allowing time for them to come round to proposals, not just writing them off if they don't respond positively straight away. Making sure I don't shoot the messenger if something goes wrong. It also means giving people a voice in shaping changes that involve them, and being polite, saying please and thank you. I try hard to avoid making unreasonable requests and try to remember that others may have different pressures and priorities in their lives than I do. Delegate genuinely, if I pass on responsibility then let them get on with it without interfering.

Being true to myself. Never asking others to do something that I wouldn't be willing to do. Uphold high standards in all aspects of professional life. Don't compromise on my principles to get an easy ride. End each day knowing that I have tried my best, even if I've not achieved what I set out to do. Basically make sure I can look myself in the eye when I do up my tie in the morning.

Work hard, particularly when things are difficult. Mistakes will be made and problems will occur, but it's more about how I deal with these challenges than debating the causes of them. When faced with a setback I try to be the first to start planning for recovery. If that doesn't work, I have to try again, and again.

Self control
Don't micro manage, I need to be willing to step back and allow others to lead where they have greater knowledge or skill. I need to make sure I don't over estimate my own abilities, and not over commit myself or my team. Even when things get frantic I try to keep a level head. At least give the outward impression of remaining calm when under pressure - a team will use the responses of their leader as a cue. When all are under stress (e.g. Observations/inspections) a good leader needs to set the tone for the department - if I'm clearly massively stressed then the team will be too. Conversely if at these times I can be outwardly calm and take time to offer help/support others it is a real sign of strength and the team will perform better as a result.

Indomitable spirit
Being brave! Taking on a challenge. Not being intimidated by reputations or titles, or even by expectations or normal modes of working. Remembering that my views are just as valid as everyone else's. Take risks by following my instincts and arguing my case when I need to.

Overall I struggle to beat these 5 core values. I have come back to them at various points in my life and have always found it useful to consider whether a particular course of action fits with them - best fit is always the best decision. They might seem a bit cheesy or contrived, but this really is how I see it. Feel free to ignore or comment as you see fit...


  1. I thought this was a great post, Kev - many thanks for sharing it.

    1. Much appreciated Jill :-) thanks for the comment.

  2. Those tenets can indeed be learned from martial arts. Courtesy and perseverance are vital values for leadership, as well as in martial arts. I also think that the most important value is self control. As Spiderman once said: "With great power comes great responsibility."
    Ari Maccabi