The Martial Art of Safety Leadership
- By Robert Pater
- May 01, 2010
Safety is the ultimate self-defense. While a leader might
never be physically attacked, he will likely be sometimes
swarmed by multiple problems, probed for
weaknesses by seeming adversaries, or off-balanced by
forces of swirling change. Even confronted with situations that
can result in accidents and injury.
Despite technological advances, I'm frequently reminded how
fruitless it is to attempt to directly overcome the power of nature
-- devastating earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, tsunamis,
snowstorms, winds, floods, and more. Just cleaning up aft er such
extreme events is costly and overwhelming.
Similarly, it's fruitless to attempt to overpower human nature
long term, though many would-be leaders still try
to block or repress others. In contrast, master leaders
jujitsu resistance into openmindedness, cultivate
internal motivation, and redirect workers' natural
motivation toward safety and organizational
For the past 25+ years, we've applied select martial
arts principles to preventing injuries in a wide
array of companies worldwide. Experience has
shown all quickly can learn to maximize their leverage
and strength to elevate soft -tissue safety, solidify
their balance to prevent slips/trips/falls, and
meld attention and eye-hand coordination skills to
heighten hand safety.
We've also found that certain martial arts methods
also charge up leadership power. Think of the
similarities between a master martial artist and
a high-level leader: Both exhibit similar qualities
of calmness under pressure, relaxed self-control,
the ability to make positive results occur with minimal effort, a
strong focus, and radiating presence.
Here are some martial arts principles that, when well applied,
can transform a leader into a Black Belt in Safety Leadership:
1. Develop power efficiently. Martial artists acquire skills by:
- First, controlling themselves (honing their balance and ability
to efficiently deliver force, free of unnecessary tension)
- Second, understanding and then influencing others' balance
- Third, utilizing the interaction between others and themselves
When an opponent targets me, moving slightly to one side
will affect his balance and usable strength, to my advantage.
Similarly, would-be Black-Belt Leaders first control their own
attention, motivation, physical energy, and ability to modulate
stress. Next, they hone their skills at motivating others toward a
common goal, harness conflict toward creativity and excitement,
and strengthen others as deputized leaders. At a third level, they
master change — making positive use of events that unexpectedly
come their way, planning change toward strategic ends, and
implementing changes with maximum acceptance and interest
and minimum pushback.
2. Enlist Proximity. All martial arts are based on physics; Newton's
Law of Universal Gravitation states the closer two objects
are to each other, the greater the force they exert. Understanding
this, a judo expert can has to move in close to her opponent to effectively
throw him. In the same vein, adept leaders strategically
employ communication proximity to enhance their operational
influence. For example, face-to-face messages (whether individually
or in groups) are most likely to generate desired critical
changes, followed by live phone contact, personal e-mail, and
then general postings. And taking time to get closer
to underperforming units or individuals is one key
to initiating positive change.
3. Harness Empty-Full. This Wing Chun principle
entails working with, not trying to force, openings.
When you encounter stiff resistance, don't blindly
resort to an overpowering mode or try to shove
unwanted changes down people's throats (these
actions are both difficult and exhausting). Instead,
take a different angle — you can either go along
with strong resistors as much as possible by incorporating
their point of view or bypass them; just
don't perpendicularly block them.
4. Heighten force awareness. Strongest leaders —
and martial artists — deal with energies at low levels
rather than trying to move mountains. Both are
comfortable with handling and rewiring currents of
power. But in order to redirect organizational energies
toward safety and effectiveness, you first have
to know where these now are. Best leaders develop a below-the-radar
sense of current state of morale. Additionally, they actively
elicit criticism on their timing — allowing them to take this info
into consideration and also redirect resistance — rather than trying
to squelch or ignore this energy. And they proactively set layered
levels of leading indicators to monitor even slight changes
toward critical objectives.
5. Affect perceptions. Many "internal" martial arts (such as Aikijujitsu and certain styles of Gungfu) study and make use of others'
perceptions. These employ Secondary Pressure — sourcing their
force where others can't readily feel and therefore can't counter
it. For example, when choked, they might respond by originating
force from their legs, rather than directly trying to fight hand
pressure at the throat. Effective training allows them to make
their first reactions the best ones.
This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.