How to Be a ‘Black-Belt Leader’

 We're hearing a drumbeat of calls for a new kind of leader, one who can navigate the constant changes that define business today.

One of the most compelling calls came in the Global Leadership Forecast 2018, from  DDI, The Conference Board, and EY. Based on data from 28,000 leaders and HR professionals worldwide, the report reveals deep worries about whether organizations will have the leaders they need to meet the challenges of the future.

In an interview about the report with Forbes, Dr. Even Sinar of DDI stressed that leaders must become better able to respond to disruption. To grow this kind of leader, organizations can look to an unexpected place for inspiration: martial arts.

We tend to think of those with black belts in karate or other disciplines as masters of their craft who have learned everything there is to be learned about it. But that's not quite so. Yes, a black belt does represent great experience and learning. However, according to the World Martial Arts Center, earning the black belt is “a never-ending process of self-growth, knowledge, and enlightenment.”

Black-belt holders keep learning and evolving. And that's exactly the kind of leader we need to keep pace with today's disruption-filled business world. So how can we become “black-belt leaders”?


Embrace Learning Over Comfort

For longtime leaders, saying “I have something to learn in this situation” can feel like admitting failure, leaving us feeling vulnerable.

That's because we have some misconceptions about what leadership evolution really means. You may have spent years accruing expertise and knowledge with the notion that one day you'd be “done” and could then just enjoy being at the top of your game.

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Black-belt holders, on the other hand, take a different approach. Even if they are teachers or mentors themselves, they still cross-train with martial arts students of every level. They firmly believe that wisdom and insights may come from unlikely sources — even novices in the sport.

Like them, you are never done with learning. Even if you were to achieve perfect mastery of your role as it is now, the nature of your job, or of your industry as a whole, can change in the blink of an eye. Organizations now need leaders who can stay in “perpetual beta mode.” These leaders understand that they will always be confronted by new things to learn. And they see this as an opportunity instead of a failure. They seek out new experiences, new knowledge and new perspectives.


Embrace Experimentation Over Safety

Just like individuals, organizations can get stuck in their comfort zone. In my book Leadership Unchained: Defy Conventional Wisdom for Breakthrough Performance, I share a story about that an executive with Dell Technologies told me a few years ago.

The executive asked employees in his division to send him a list of best practices that had run their course. This wasn't your standard call for “what needs improving around here.” Instead, he was specifically looking for practices that had once worked well but that had outlived their usefulness. Initially, he got very little response. Employees had not considered that best practices could wear out and become less effective over time.

In a way, this is human nature. We cling to what works. But today we also have to remember that best practices are going stale faster than ever. In the 20th century, we could feel more assured that a winning tactic might continue to work for decades. But in 2019, what worked only a couple of years ago might be obsolete now.

This is a truth that martial arts practitioners have long known. Black-belt holders have the discipline to set aside their vast accomplishments and toss out the mental baggage that comes with them. Instead of relying on their usual patterns or old habits, they look at new chal­lenges with a beginner’s eyes. They hold every option worthy of consideration, despite knowing what worked in the past. Essentially, they remove their experience bias and allow their minds to become a clean slate.

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Leaders who can thrive even amid disruption are committed to metaphorically resigning their roles as experts and approaching tasks with the spirit of a beginner. Just like the black belts in martial arts think of their journeys as a never-ending road, these leaders are opening the door to broad, continuous learning — without any mental constraints about where or how that might happen.


Sara Canaday

Guest post courtesy of Sara Canaday. Sara is a leadership expert, keynote speaker, and author. She works with leaders and high-potential professionals from organizations around the world to expand their capacity to innovate, influence, engage, and perform.  Her new book, Leadership Unchained: Defy Conventional Wisdom for Breakthrough Performance, is now available on Amazon. For more information, please visit  

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