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  • A Lesson From Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu on Leadership

    Aaron Moncur

    Let me be clear, I'm not very good at Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ), but I love it. One might even say I have an addiction to it (this is not part of the leadership lesson). One of the reasons I love it so much is the life lessons I learn from the sport.

    Last week I was rolling (BJJ speak for "sparring") with a partner when my foot started to cramp. Eventually the pain was so sever that I had to pause and stretch it out. During this pause coach Steve (who is awesome, despite how you may feel after reading the next few paragraphs) walks over and starts barking at me: "let's go, let's go, this isn't an aerobics class - get back to rolling!". I respect coach Steve a lot, so I do so.

    My partner and I start rolling again only this time coach Steve is standing over us watching and asserting commands: "come on, Aaron, don't just lie there, escape, escape! Pull your arm in! Don't leave your leg out there like that!" My foot is cramping again and it's all I can do not to tap out just to relieve my deeply cramped foot. "Move, Aaron, let's go!" Steve yells. Finally I can't take it anymore, the cramp in my foot is so severe I can't even flex my foot as we tumble on the mat. I tap my partner, signaling to him I need to stop. As my partner moves away coach Steve comes barreling towards me: "what are you doing? Get back in there, you can finish this!". "Nope", I say, "I need a break", and hobble away trying desperately to stretch my foot out.


    At this moment I'm half convinced coach Steve is going to shoot me to the ground himself and finish me, all the while telling me how I gave up too easily and I shouldn't have wussed out. Then something surprising happens: "is it a cramp?" coach Steve asks. "Yeah, it's a pretty bad one", I respond as I try to stretch it out. "I hate those, they can get really painful, I know. Here, let me show you a trick to stretch it out." Coach Steve walks me over to some kind of foot roller with little spikes on it. "Step on this with your body weight and roll it back and forth. That should help." I do so and yes, it helps a lot. 

    "Hey princess, you give up for the night?" another guys yells over at me playfully (I love these guys, seriously, ha). Before I can think of something smart with which to quip back coach Steve jumps in: "he's got a bad cramp. These are no joke, I've had them myself and all you can do is stop and stretch them out until they go away. They're awful." I think to myself, "holy cow, not only is coach not berating me, he's actually sticking up for me". A minute later my foot is thoroughly stretched out and I feel up to another roll. I jump back in with a partner and finish the night several rolls later with no further cramp issues.

    It is the job of a leader to push his team (or in this case, the job of a coach to push his student). It's this push that leads to real growth in the individual. I've experienced growth I never would have otherwise thanks to coaches pushing me to do things that I didn't think I could do. This is what good leaders do. However, there comes a point beyond which pushing is no longer useful, and can even be harmful. At this point, the role of a leader changes from pushing to protecting. And remember, leaders can't read minds, it's important for team members and individual contributors to communicate with their leaders when they really truly can't go any further. 

    When I stood up and said I couldn't continue, I meant it. I physically couldn't go on. A less experienced leader may have rejected that and pushed me to keep going, anyway. Coach Steve knew better, and instantly changed his position from pushing me to supporting and protecting me. He empathized with me ("I hate those, they can get really painful, I know"). He helped me and facilitated my recovery ("Step on this with your full body weight and roll it back and forth"). And he protected me ("he's got a bad cramp. These are no joke..."). I tell you what, I had huge respect for coach Steve even before this happened, but afterwards he was king of the world in my eyes. 

    What does this look like in a work setting? Perhaps the team is working on an intensely schedule-aggressive project. Team members are having to work nights and weekends to get it done on time. Certainly, it is the job of the team leader to (among other things) push his or her team to stay on schedule, even if that means working long hours or other uncomfortable circumstances. At a certain point, though, leaders need to be keenly aware of signs that a breaking point is on the horizon. Some team members may feel comfortable being assertive with their leaders and telling them outright when that point has arrived, but many others will not, making it even more critical for the leader to closely observe and interact with team members.

    If you lead people, push them to foster their growth. Ultimately they will thank you for it. However, the line between helping and hurting can be a thin one, and you must be vigilant in discerning the point beyond which one turns into the other. 

    Also, BJJ is awesome. Why else would one dude pay to roll around with a bunch of other sweaty dudes?


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