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Applying Aikido Principles to Leadership
by SGI Coach, Andrew Cohn

“Foster peace in your own life and then apply it to all that you encounter.”
“To injure your adversary is to injure yourself. To control aggression without inflicting injury is the art of peace.”
“If someone comes against you, they should not feel defeated— they should feel it is useless.”
“Life is growth. If we stop growing, technically and spiritually, we are as good as dead.” 

These are impressive and important aspirational principles that can help us stay ‘centered’ and focused on what’s most important, as well as help manage the conflicts we face. They are also some of the core tenets of Aikido. Aikido is a modern Japanese martial art developed by Morihei Ueshiba, whose quotations are listed above. It is characterized by flowing movements, entering and turning so as to use an attacker’s energy against them. It is powerful and beautiful— both to watch and to practice. I’ve been fortunate to be a student of Aikido for over 15 years.

Actually, the term Aikido is comprised of three words: Ai, meaning harmony (I’ve also seen it defined as love); Ki, meaning universal energy (you may be more familiar with the Chinese word Chi); and Do, meaning the path or the way (similar to the Chines Tao).  Again, these are lofty words, but in Aikido it’s really about these principles. The martial art doesn’t work very well without Ki. In practicality, this means that if we are not centered, relaxed, and connected to the peace inside ourselves, we are simply not nearly as effective at responding to what comes our way. We are not as able to tune in to what is happening and what are options are. We can’t move smoothly if we’re out of balance.

That’s why Aikido is such a powerful tool and metaphor in leadership. In the ever-more-complex world of work, leaders at all levels need to maintain their center, to stay balanced and peaceful. If we get rattled, the people who depend upon us feel it, and our results can suffer. 

One aspect of the martial art that I think is particularly important is taking care of our ‘opponents’. On the Aikido mat that means when we’re attacked we neutralize the attack, often throwing the attacker, but with care for them so they are least likely to be injured. And at work that principle is critically important for two reasons. First, the principle of ‘you get what you give’ is in action— I’d suggest that we don’t want to practice conquest and defeating other people. What comes around goes around. And second, for purely practical reasons we can rarely afford to defeat people outright, because we’re likely to see them again. A peer, manager, employee, customer will likely cross our path again in the future; do we want to have to watch our back when we see their name on the org chart? Or worry about how they’ll treat our business if they move to another organization? Of course, we cannot control people and they will do what they do. But we can influence through our actions— so do we want to act to defeat or act in a way that optimizes the chances of maintaining a positive relationship?

The concepts of Aikido have migrated into the literature about leadership in a number of ways. For example, my colleagues and I often talk about “verbal aikido” in a number of settings, and I know of many Aikido-related leadership retreats. I invite you to read about, and more importantly to practice, some of what this wonderful art can teach us.

written by SGI Executive Coach, Andrew Cohn