Technically it’s just a strip of cloth. A belt that wraps around the waist. In the West, it represents a sense of magical mysticism and extraordinary esoteric power. But to the student and the Sensei, the black belt is an almost sacred symbol of sweat, injury and adversity overcome by sheer perseverance. More than a physical feat, the belt speaks to the student’s discipline, focus, teachability and mental strength – the stuff that only time and courage will mould into the human spirit. The day that the black knot is ceremonially tugged tight marks a tremendous achievement, when the human will has managed to overcome the mind and body.
But it isn’t simply about achieving a set ‘level’ of fitness or competence. A ‘black belt’ is far more symbolic of a process, not just an achievement. The black belt is symbolic of continuous improvement, or ‘Kaizen’ (often called LEAN in the West) – a philosophy deeply steeped in Asian history.
Could business borrow from their ancient forms of martial arts? With so much of the new on our Twitter horizons, could we use the old for fresh inspiration?
In a tumultuous time fraught with the enemies of complacency, the engineer of today would do well to consider the lessons of these ancient forms. ‘Black belt thinking’ may be the distinguishing feature that separates the engineer who rises with poetic motion from the one stuck in yesterday’s mud.
What lessons in leadership can we take from these ancient art forms?
Mastery comes from continuous practice
One’s experience is immeasurably valuable when combined with an attitude of consistent teachability and entrepreneurial curiosity.
Hollywood’s 2010 Karate Kid ends with a dazzling display of airborne implausibility that awards young Dre Parker the champion title and Jackie Chan’s mystic nod of approval. But it had its beginnings in a jacket that, for days and weeks on end, is dropped, picked up, put on, taken off and hung up... all to be repeated again. It is a tedious, unrewarding and nonsensical exercise that is performed under stars or torrential downpours, with no end in sight – until the day when those specific motions are revealed as the foundations of kung fu.
What seemed insignificant and unremarkable at the time ultimately empowered the young student and catalysed his performance from mediocrity to mastery.
Unfortunately, in a fast evolving industry, words like ‘repetition' and ‘faithfulness’ don’t tweet sexy in the same way that ‘innovation’ does. But one’s experience is immeasurably valuable when combined with an attitude of consistent teachability and entrepreneurial curiosity. Fundamental skills such as maximum demand or heat load calculations can become key drivers to new insights and innovation. With these foundations, seasoned engineers are poised to push the perimeters of knowledge and become masters in their respective fields. These areas of expertise are essential when moving into new areas of practice, so that we remain sharp and relevant to leading-edge design.
Practice and plan strategies for success
The best martial artists always have a plan to overcome. Intuitive and acute anticipation of the opponent’s next move safeguards the chance of eventually walking out alive. The artist must actively plan for different scenarios and develop strategies accordingly. When your opponent is coming at you fast, having a well-rehearsed plan can make all the difference between winning and losing.
As an engineer, having the right skills is only part of the imperative. Having a game plan to synthesize these skills is equally indispensable. Increasingly, strategic leaders are moving away from traditional business models driven by product and sales, and harnessing thought leadership and knowledge sharing as an effective corporate growth strategy.
Companies are taking an open-handed approach to fuelling business growth, by putting all their best practices and lessons learned on the table for clients and competitors to assess and apply. Corporations are now rewriting the rules of engagement – sharing their best ideas and talent, rather than tightening the lid on their resources – in order to create collective wins. This type of counter-intuition not only requires pluck and a handful of humility; it demands a certain finesse in strategy setting and vision casting.
Remain humble and never assume mastery
It takes one solid throwdown from a senior student to be reminded – black belts don’t come with force fields. Wearing an emblem of martial art mastery is not so much a statement of superiority, as it is a commitment to continue learning.
Research is proving that humility applies equally to the world outside the dojo. According to a Harvard study: Managers with altruistic behaviour such as self-awareness, honesty and humility are better leaders who produce better results in the long run. Their teams tend to be more innovative and proactive, engaged and supportive of their colleagues, as they feel heard and appreciated in an environment that encourages transparency and appreciation.
Humble leadership sets a standard of continual learning, as young engineers and graduates are given space to complement the innovative process with new insights and perspectives. Collaboration finds scintillating traction, as the resident ‘experts’ are willing to engage on equal standing with tomorrow’s pioneers.
Earning a black belt in engineering is more a statement of character than of prowess. Esoteric knowledge and specialised skills are needed, but they won’t tip the scales over to excellence in and of themselves. A great engineer understands that innovation is not a matter of knowledge alone. Invention is a by-product of passion and perseverance, of servant leadership and critical self-review. Anything less than this is no longer good enough. In a time of volatile and thrilling change, we cannot afford to wear the beginner’s white belt forever.