A Journey of Leadership: Foundations as Excellence

It is often said that leadership is about inspiring others. Leaders lead others because of who they are. Their successes are not only what they have done, but what they have become through their leadership journey. I would like to outline a framework for leadership. I hope the principles contributes to the journey you have embarked upon.

The progression I will touch on comes from martial arts. Beyond the media image, there is universal agreement that martial arts is about development of character and it is the belt system in karate that is most interesting. The various junior colours culminate in the black belt, or 1st Dan, after which you attain higher rankings of black belts or Dan grades. Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1931) who popularised and developed karate in Japan outlined the characteristics of these steps. We will go through this journey together, arriving at 5th Dan.

Up to 1st Dan you learn the different elements of the art. You prepare yourself for the discipline of deeper study and practise. During this induction phase there is a lot of practice and you begin to understand the scope of the art, how to move, generate power, apply technique, work with different partners. This is not so different to teacher training in principle. You begin to understand the scope of teaching, how to manage students, what impacts on children, appreciate the diversity of individuals and try out different pedagogic approaches. You look at the world more carefully and begin to see. Your beliefs about yourself and others begin to be tested.

First Dan then consolidates this. You begin to develop clarity to your individual actions. A horizon appears in the distance as you look far and you realise that this journey leads somewhere very special. The individual elements of your practice suddenly have more to them than you thought. As well as seeing the challenge of looking far it is important to examine more deeply what is close. We study how more experienced people go about their work. How a teacher manages behaviour without seemingly doing very much at all suddenly begins to become visible because you recognise the different elements of your own practise. You begin to develop that reliability and consistency with different classes and subjects. You practice combining the different elements of teaching. It does not always work. Aiming too high is sometimes as unproductive as not aiming high enough. Complacency is as dangerous as doubt and caution. You then have to go back and ensure the quality of your ‘basics’ has not degraded. Each time you are forced to revisit the foundations of your art, you realise it can be better and you adjust it. You can see a teacher change when they move from planning the order of a lesson to planning ways to excite and build that desire to learn This revisiting of what we thought had moved beyond is the leader laying foundations for humility and learning.

As with all journeys, we see the next stage when you understand where you have arrived. You have seen the glimpse of that horizon where your pupils become excellence. So you ask yourself, to paraphrase Benjamin Zander, what was I being, that some of my students’ eyes were not shining?

Such is the move into 2nd Dan. Everything has rhythm, flow, fluency. There is no formula, and we can develop fluency as we wish. I might be writing about martial arts. You might be reading this and thinking about calligraphy. The cup might be different but we are both thirsty. Teachers then see that actions are not enough. There is a strategic element to teaching and learning.

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