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Resources for the Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) student, with a particular focus on the ars gladiatoris of Paulus Hector Mair.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

On Leadership in Martial Arts

The perception in many martial arts schools is that the most skilled fighter should be both the leader and the instructor. This is especially common in traditional Asian martial arts schools, where only those who have obtained a certain rank are authorized by their federations to open their own dojos. While a skill-based hierarchy may work well in some instances, it has failed miserably in others. In the wrong hands, leadership based solely on fighting prowess can (and has) lead to abuses of authority and cult-like organizations. One article succinctly states the problem:

[T]he required attitude to "trust without question" a leader or central authority is readily accepted behavior in many Martial Arts. Simply put, the instructor knows what he's talking about, so you should listen to what he says even if you do not understand why. Most often this is a safety or training issue. The experienced instructor knows that a certain way is safest or most likely to produce results. That alone is no more proof that a certain Martial Art is a cult than the requirement to follow orders instantly and without question is evidence that the Army is a cult. However, it does place an instructor in a position of power to abuse emotionally vulnerable people.
In sum, technical and tactical ability do not always a good leader make. There is more to leadership than mastering technique; it requires a broad range of qualities, including:

  • Mental toughness, physical strength and emotional control
  • Strong conceptual, interpersonal, technical and tactical skills
  • Ability to communicate effectively, make good decisions and motivate others
  • Ability to plan classes, execute them and evaluate their success (or failure)
  • Ability to develop not just the group as a whole, but also individuals (note that I chose the word "develop," not "teach;" a good leader may delegate the task of teaching to a specialist in the subject)
  • Desire for constant self-improvement

Those readers who have earned their commissions as U.S. Army officers will recognize that I borrowed this list from the "16 Leadership Dimensions" rubric used to evaluate cadets and officer candidates. Given what is at stake when the Army uses these standards to select leaders of men in combat, I trust that a person who meets them will excel in a recreational civilian leadership position.

Some people possess all of the above qualities, and thus make both excellent leaders and excellent instructors. Unfortunately, such people are hard to find, forcing many groups to settle for either a talented tyrant or a charismatic fumbler.

It need not be that way. A talented martial artist who lacks interpersonal skills, or who lets his emotions cloud his judgment, or who cannot admit his own shortcomings, has no business in a leadership position. He may, however, make a very good instructor. Likewise, a mediocre martial artist with excellent "people" skills has no business teaching a class, but his management ability should not be wasted. With proper checks and balances, the talented would-be tyrant and the charismatic fumbler can compliment each other tremendously.