What Can Aikido Teach Us About Effective Leadership?

by | Jan 14, 2019 | Self-Leadership, Strategies and Tips

Wouldn’t it be great if every time we ran into an obstacle in life, instead of getting stressed out and frustrated we got excited, gained energy, and explored creative solutions? It may sound far fetched, but what if I told you it’s not? No snake oil involved, what if I told you there is a martial art that helps you do just that? It’s called Aikido.

I have studied Aikido going on seven years now. I call it my life philosophy in motion. I fell in love with it for many reasons: the encouraging community, the great physical and mental health benefits, the way it makes me feel more alive, energized, and centered after training. But most of all, I have dedicated myself to the art because it helps me better navigate and manage all aspects of my life. When all else fails, Aikido has reliably been a practice that I could turn to for insight, new perspective, and personal growth.

Aikido is a Japanese martial art known as the “art of peace.” Unlike other martial arts, it aims to resolve conflict peacefully. After studying many martial art forms, Morihei Ueshiba founded Aikido in the early 20th Century as a way of cultivating harmony. Today, it is studied around the world. Through its principles, practitioners learn how to transcend instinctual obsessions of “winning” and “losing” and realize a new path — one in which we can blend with an attack to achieve a peaceful resolution. In other words, are we here to win? Or are we here to discover a mutual benefit? This doesn’t mean conflict is avoided, quite the opposite. Conflict is addressed directly with your complete self. Ultimately, practitioners learn how to fully harmonize with their opponents to the point where conflict ceases to exist.

Wait a minute here, martial arts, harmony, peace? You are probably wondering what any of this has to do with effective leadership. These principles are not limited to the physical training of Aikido. Rather, they can be applied in all aspects of our lives- personal relationships, places of work, and communities. If this feels like it is coming out of left field, it’s not. Applying the concepts of Aikido to best leadership practices isn’t new. Numerous books and scholarly articles have been written about the topic. As we continue to look for new ways to approach leadership development, turning to age-old eastern practices has become more common. The now widely accepted incorporation of mindfulness and mindful meditation is a good example.

At the Sanger Leadership Center, we leverage pathbreaking research generated by experts in their fields to develop transformational leaders. Aikido puts similar powerful ideas in action. Here, I will outline four key concepts I have identified from Aikido that parallel effective leadership practices and the research behind them.


  • Be A Lifelong Learner

Aikido is a lifelong study. At no point does someone simply “get it all.” In Aikido we attempt to approach each situation with a beginners mind. Even when practicing the basics, we ask ourselves, “What is new here to explore? What can I go deeper with?” This is opposed to going into autopilot and thinking “I’ve done this one a thousand times; nothing new to learn here.” Each new situation and partner brings something novel to the table. Exploring new possibilities and solutions can be endless. The same goes for leadership. The world is dynamic and so are we. Developing effective leadership skills is not a checkbox one can simply mark complete. With most all experiences, good or bad, there is a lesson to be distilled. Whether in the workplace or the dojo (where Aikido practitioners train), too often we come at a situation with the same approach. We have successfully used it in the past, why not again? The problem is, what has worked in the past may not be the solution today — especially with a new training partner. Experimentation and yes, some failures along the way, may be required to learn new successful techniques.

Learning from experience is an active process that requires a particular mindset. Research from Ross Professor Sue Ashford, shows the importance of adopting a learning orientation in order to capitalize on the lessons life experiences can provide. The hallmarks of a learning orientation include approaching experiences with a focus on developing new skills and a deeper understanding of the task at hand. This mirrors approaching an Aikido attack with a beginners mind. Rather than focusing on trying to prove oneself, something that is seen too often in both the business and martial arts worlds, approaching a challenge with a learning mindset allows us to be open to new information, remain focused on learning, maintain a sustained sense of motivation upon failure, and ultimately achieve greater learning. Our focus should remain on deeper learning instead of proving what we already know.


  • Connection Is Protection

In Aikido, we never block or retreat. Instead, we blend with our opponent, their energy, and their intentions. We do not flee from an attack, we meet it and connect with it. In this way, we always know where our opponent is and can better sense their intentions and next move. While it may seem counterintuitive to come closer to an attack, it is the connection we have with our training partner that actually protects us. Once unified, we use that connection to redirect the energy of an attack to resolve the situation peacefully. We connect in a deep non-verbal way that allows us to speak in a physiological universal language. When training with a partner, once the connection is lost, learning stops. In a way, I see Aikido as an endless pursuit of connection with others, ourselves, and the environment around us.

In leadership literature, this kind of connection is called a high-quality connection. Ross Professor Jane Dutton’s work on the subject explains why I feel so alive and energized during and after Aikido practice. Her research outlines that high-quality connections increase engagement, vitality, and trust. These kinds of connections are equally important to the workplace and our personal lives. Engaging in a high-quality connection generates joy, creativity, and a greater aptitude to learn. Just as we use this type of connection in Aikido to peacefully resolve conflict and learn from our experiences with training partners, high-quality connections are used to foster more effective and motivated individuals, teams, and organizations.


  • Stay Open

Instead of fighting fire with fire, as they say, in Aikido we seek the path of least resistance. If an opponent is dead set on punching us in the face, we wouldn’t meet it straight on and resist. This would require a tremendous amount of energy and wouldn’t be very effective. Alternatively, we adapt ourselves to the situation, pivot, and redirect the energy. This often requires us to remain open and absorb the energy our opponent is generating. In other words, we allow ourselves to be vulnerable with our training partner, blending with their movement so that we can discover an opening to resolve the conflict. This kind of vulnerability and openness is much different than physically being wide open and allowing yourself to get knocked out. Instead, being vulnerable in this sense means being open to allowing the movement of your training partner to move you. This requires much less energy on our part and is much more effective. Is it easier to align with the universe or force the universe to align with us?

In The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle examines the world’s most successful organizations and how they came to be. Among three key skills Coyle finds in the most successful groups in the world, is sharing vulnerability. Vulnerability is often viewed as a weakness — something to be hidden from others. Yet, Coyle illustrates that in order to achieve highly cooperative teams, vulnerability is not only a risk worth taking, it’s a requirement. Sharing vulnerability is a reciprocal endeavor. Once given, it is more likely to be returned. Sharing vulnerability creates a path to unify individuals with seemingly dissimilar goals. In these moments, a form of trust is built that illuminates our commonalities. Whether it’s an actual opponent or a difficult co-worker, having the courage to approach challenges with openness and vulnerability can result in greater cooperation and conflict resolution. As a leader, uncomfortable as it may be, being the first and most frequent one to share vulnerability will help your group foster more cohesion and connection.


  • Shift Your Perspective

Aikido is not merely a physical exercise. Training requires us to develop and unify our mind, body, and spirit. This is important in order to fully grasp the concepts of the art. When an attacker grabs our wrist to restrain us, it is a natural response to tense up and focus on what has been restrained. This is a mistake. Instead of focusing on where we are stuck, we should be focusing on everything else that is still free. Aikido teaches us to not allow perceived obstacles to immobilize us. In fact, they may not be obstacles at all. Instead, it trains us to remain relaxed, adapt, and shift our perspective to see all the possibilities that are available to us. This allows us to use the connection as protection, turning what otherwise would be seen as an obstacle into an opportunity. To transform perceived obstacles into valuable resources for change, requires a mental shift.

In How To Be A Positive Leader, Jane Dutton and Gretchen Spreitzer explain that adopting a “resourceful” perspective in the face of challenges allows leaders to create change even when options appear to be limited. Our natural tendency is to view things as fixed and focus on what is not rather than what is. We may think, “My hand is restrained, therefore I am doomed.” Or in the workplace, “Our shipment will be late, our event will be ruined!” When we think like this, we are unable to see the larger picture and become stuck. If we are instead resourceful and shift our perspective, we will examine what is available to us, reinterpret its value and use, and utilize it to create new options. Redirecting our focus to all the possibilities allows us to see the situation in a new light and context. When we do this, we are better able to see the bigger picture and the opportunities at hand. As leaders, when we approach challenges in this way we set a positive example, inspire others, and create innovative solutions that benefit organizations at large.

In the art of Aikido — as in all arts — the point is to create. Aikido strives to help us understand how we can be more successful lifelong learners who create high-quality connections and more harmonious workplaces, families, and communities. What positive impact can you create using these four concepts?

If you want to learn more about leadership insights through the lens of Aikido, I recommend Forbes’ article, Study Aikido To Become A Better Business Leader.