Leadership & Professional Development

Want to Be a More Effective Leader? Be the Sensei

December 18, 2018 10:02 am

The following eight strategies can help anyone become a master in the discipline of leadership.

Note: The author (pictured at right) will be presenting on this topic at HFMA’s 2019 Region V Dixie Institute, which takes place Feb. 24-27 in Mobile, Ala.

Most people know the word sensei as a title for a martial arts teacher. Thanks to the “Karate Kid” and the “Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles,” the word has become part of our culture. 

The literal translation of sensei, however, is: “One who went before.”

What a perfect word to describe a true leader. 

Becoming a sensei requires moments of deep introspection and the discipline of self-awareness. It involves a commitment to continual learning, growth, development, and transformation—for yourself and the organization you serve.

Too many people have dumped these ideas into the “soft skills” bucket. Current research clearly shows what the ancient masters have been teaching for thousands of years:

  • People work harder when they know their leaders care.
  • People follow examples much more enthusiastically than orders.
  • The best leaders are those who understand and can connect deeply with people.
  • The very best cultivate the ability to inspire people by calling them to a collective purpose. 

This is what we call “human-centric” leadership. The mission of the sensei-leader movement is to support and develop human-centric leaders around the world—leaders who care deeply about the people they serve and who inspire, empower, and guide people to be their very best.

Of course, these ideas are useful only when we can put them to work. Contemporary terms associated with this leadership philosophy include emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills. Sadly, too many leadership development programs fall short in translating these concepts into daily practice. 

Eight Key Strategies

The bridge between ideas and application is strategy. Here, then, are strategies to help us become effective leaders—sensei leaders.

1. Never limit yourself to one leadership style. Most experts agree that all leadership is to some extent situational. An effective leader needs to adapt to any number of circumstances and conditions. Even in a small organization, you serve a diverse group of individuals with different backgrounds, beliefs, experiences, needs, concerns, and ambitions. And all of those are subject to change at any moment.

We must continually learn and adopt new leadership styles and learn to adjust these styles to ever-changing circumstances and conditions––and opportunities.

2. Be toughyet compassionate. Compassion is not weakness. And it’s not always about being kind or even polite.

True compassion entails sincere empathy and caring, but with the strength to do what is right even when it’s not comfortable, convenient, or expedient—or even sometimes profitable.

3. Commit yourself to personal and professional mastery. The mindset of a true master can be described as a beginner’s mind. That means we approach each new day, every challenge and opportunity, with a sense of wonder and curiosity. We always seek to learn, grow, and improve. 

It means fully embracing the idea that “perfection is not a destination—it’s a never-ending process.”

If we expect others to commit themselves to excellence, to continual improvement, we need to walk the walk.

4. Be confident, yet humble, and lead by example. There is nothing more inspiring to others than our example. On the other hand, there is nothing more demoralizing than a leader who preaches one thing and does another. We must model the behaviors we expect from others.

This strategy also speaks to the idea of authentic strength tempered by humility. The goal is to be authoritative without being authoritarian. 

5. Be flexible, adaptable, and comfortable with uncertainty. With life and business moving at an ever-accelerating pace, we must train ourselves to respond to the unexpected. This means continual training, development, and preparation. 

We can’t predict the future with certainty, but we can do our best to prepare for every imaginable possibility. More than that, we can train ourselves to respond quickly to unanticipated situations, challenges, and opportunities.

6. Be a skilled communicator. It always fascinates me that in an age when we can communicate instantly with nearly anyone in the world, our ability to understand others and make ourselves understood is deteriorating. 

Part of the challenge is that in this global society, we are trying to communicate across a diverse range of languages, traditions, protocols, and cultures. Regardless, it is the responsibility of a leader to communicate clearly and effectively. In addition to necessary information, we must communicate our vision, our mission, and our purpose if we hope to attract willing followers to our efforts. We must continually develop and practice our communication skills. 

7. Be a dedicated teacher, coach, and mentor. There is nothing more in keeping with the concept of the sensei leader than embracing the responsibility of empowering and guiding others. 

Know when to encourage and when to correct. Share your time, knowledge, experience, and wisdom. Inspire, empower, and guide people, knowing they in turn will make you and your organization more powerful and effective. 

8. Lead by sharing. Power is your ability or capacity to act or perform effectively. That’s it.

As a leader, if you want to be more powerful—to get more done—then you have to empower others. You do that by sharing.

In addition to time, knowledge, experience, and wisdom, we must be willing to share power and authority. We must give others the opportunity to build their leadership muscles through experience and be willing to support them in that effort, in failure as well as success.

It’s simple, although not always easy.

Implementing the Strategies

Once we understand these strategies, the next step is to make them real. The solution is to develop disciplines that you can and will embed in your daily behaviors and in your organizational culture.

To a martial artist, discipline is simply the cultivation and practice of meaningful and purposeful habits—actions you will practice regularly to achieve your goals and keep your skills sharp. 

For each strategy, develop one discipline that you can and will put into practice—today.

For example, you might “commit yourself to personal and professional mastery” (Strategy No. 3) by enrolling in a course or workshop. You might commit to receiving personal coaching or set aside time each day to study, read, or watch educational videos. 

Too often, people create huge goals only to realize they just don’t have what they need to sustain their efforts. Design each discipline as something you know you can do. If you’re in over your head, dial it back and break it into smaller, more realistic objectives. 

Long ago, the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “Every journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” After more than 30 years in martial arts and leadership study, I can say without reservation that the rest of the trip is just one single step after another.

The best leaders are happy in their work but never quite satisfied. They are always looking in the mirror—not to revel in their good looks but to see what can be groomed. They are committed to service and to empowering others.

This is what it means to be a sensei leader.

Jim Bouchard is a global leadership activist, speaker, and author of The Sensei Leader. Learn more at TheSenseiLeader.com and get more information about HFMA’s 2019 Region V Dixie Institute.


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