Saotome Sensei in the kitchen of the Aiki Corral Ranch, Myakka City Florida, August 26 2015

This the first of a few articles that Saotome Sensei asked me to help him write on the subject of leadership.

“Leadership” is an important concept for Saotome Sensei, and one that he thinks has critical significance for all teachers of martial arts.  He frequently mentions the term in his seminars, and at recent instructors camps for ASU it was a point he repeated and emphasized at length, often in the context of military history and culture.

The essence of what Sensei tries to convey to ASU dojo cho and teachers is that they are no longer students for themselves, and their training is no longer for their own enjoyment, benefit, education or edification. When he feels his students are not training with a sufficient sense of seriousness, intensity, and appreciation for the life-and-death implications of every instant in the dojo, it becomes upsetting to him.

I once had a conversation with a friend and officer who is responsible for performance and curriculum development at the US military academy, which I feel captures Sensei’s sentiments precisely.  I asked him about the essence of his job, and he replied that it was very simple to define but took all his focus to accomplish.  To him, success was measured in the number of special forces soldiers who came back from deployment alive and uninjured, and the objective of his job was unequivocally to improve that number every year while simultaneously teaching each year’s soldiers more skills than he taught the previous year’s soldiers, in less time.  He made it clear that there was simply no possibility allowed for failing at this objective, and that all of his actions, decisions and efforts were measured in nothing less than human lives.

In the military, the job of instructor is defined as providing new soldiers more measurable skills in less time, every year; success is measured in lives.

It may help to remember that for a number of years, Saotome Sensei was a consultant to the US Pentagon and helped to train the US Special Forces at a location in Northern Virginia, and he was always impressed by the sincerity and determination of the soldiers and officers he encountered to extract as much value from every moment of their encounters with him, because they knew one day their lives may depend on it.  Of course, as martial artists most of us are not soldiers, and we do not pretend to be.  We have no expectations of going into combat, and Sensei is not trying to make us into soldiers.  What he is trying to get us to take into our hearts is the deepest awareness and conviction that everything we do in the dojo as teachers has the same potential for life or death consequences as a military academy instructor.

We are all human, we all crave respect.  But too often, many look at martial teachers who are accorded the highest levels of regard and admiration, and conclude that the respect is accorded to (or generated by) the ranks or titles those teachers bear.  As a result, many push for these external symbols, and feel they are entitled to them because they have students and they have “hung around” long enough.  But Saotome Sensei says that those who truly crave rank, authority and positions of leadership rarely have a proper understanding of what those ranks imply.  A week or two after Saotome Sensei awarded me the Ueshiba Juku designation, we were visiting at his house and he told me,

“Guy, I am giving you Ueshiba Juku.  I apologize, I am sorry, this is not a reward, it is a tremendous burden and serious responsibility. I give this to you because you are already taking this responsibility for ASU, because I think you understand the seriousness of the mission given to me by O Sensei.  Ueshiba Juku means you take O Sensei’s mission into your life too, and like me you cannot rest ever again because our duty is so great.”

When we transition from being students to teachers, we often find our new status exciting and satisfying without realizing that we are crossing a very significant threshold.  Sensei asks, how many martial art teachers are mindful that their every word, every action, every lesson and choice inside the dojo might be measured in the lives of their students some day?  How many teachers never leave their comfort zone, or think of teaching time as time to play or bask in the respect of the students?  How many teachers are prepared in their heart to get a phone call at 2 in the morning to learn that one of their students died in a robbery or a moment of violence?  Will they make excuses to themselves how it wasn’t their responsibility? Will they be able to tell themselves that they did everything possible to prepare that student, that they were a good enough teacher, that they themselves had built their martial wisdom with all their body and soul so they could prepare that student enough?

Several years ago, I had sought counsel from Sensei when one of my students had killed himself.  The student was a Korean War vet, and he had suffered greatly from PTSD and deep childhood psychological problems that made our student-teacher relationship exceedingly complicated, difficult and unpredictable.  He was nonetheless an important part of our dojo family, and the suicide hit us all very, very hard and shook me up on levels I had not prepared for.  Sensei put his hand on my arm and very somberly told me, “this is very hard.  I have known this many times. Until a student dies, you do not truly know what it means to be a martial art teacher.  You understand now.  You must be the strong heart for the dojo so it can heal. Now you will be a better teacher.  Now you will build a stronger dojo.”

Sensei often tells his teachers, “you are not a student, there are many behind you”.  When he says this, he is hoping to convey that accepting the role of teacher means that every time you are teaching a student, you are in a meaningful sense accepting the responsibility of standing beside her in front of a knife or a gun.  That when you are practicing or training at a seminar, you are not doing so for pursuit of some abstract perfection of technique, but with the ever-present conviction that in this instant, your focus and your investment of your entire soul and guts may make the difference of whether or not one of your students dies some day.  When you train as an instructor, the quality and intensity of your training impacts every single student you have taken responsibility for and whether you manage to surpass your limits even briefly or bring home a new insight will define your dojo and all the students in it.  Every opportunity to train with our shihan must be approached with the mindset that it is our last opportunity to make a difference.

When Sensei says “there are many behind you,” he means you must be desperately, determinately committed to prepare and rescue the lives of many people you care about with every drop of sweat, and to drag every bit of insight possible out of every repetition, every technique.  “Students put trust in their teachers, that the teachers are honest in their attempt to lead them to martial wisdom.” It doesn’t mean that we cannot smile and enjoy our training, but it means we can never take our time on the mat lightly, especially our time learning directly from Saotome Sensei.

“This is your duty!
This is your responsibility!

This is the reputation of ASU and your teachers!”

It may seem like a grim philosophy for guiding a lifetime of training, and indeed O Sensei said that Aikido must be joyful.  There is a uniquely Japanese philosophy, mono no aware, which refers to a deep appreciation and aching sadness at the poignancy and transience of beauty and life.  At its heart it recognizes that the falling sakura (cherry blossom) is all the more beautiful and sublime precisely because it is so temporary, so ephemeral, so fleeting.

mono-no-awaremono no aware

The path of Aikido is a martial path, it must be trod with knowledge and appreciation of our fragile mortality so that we can gain the strength and wisdom to understand how to build a path of healing.  Our ability to bring healing to our students, to others, to society will be limited if our appreciation of death is shallow, and if we train ourselves in the words and actions of aikido stripped of the life and death meaning that was the foundation from which O Sensei built the vision… and mission… of our art. To be a leader means that our actions are motivated and guided by our determination, and our knowledge of our responsibilities and the ripples that result from our efforts.

Photo: Saotome Sensei in the kitchen of the Aiki Corral Ranch, Myakka City Florida, August 26 2015