Orange is the new black (belt)

 How leaders can be more like Sensei’s rather than just good managers


In a world that is changing at a rapid rate and the gulf between consumer trust and organisations is at an all-time low, a new leadership approach is required.  

In these challenging times – strong morals and strength of character is of utmost importance.

Enter the dragon… or the Sensei!!

A brief history lesson

Before delving into who a Sensei is, let’s take a step back. If a new means of leading is required, why not encompass different philosophies than those which are currently in place? In recent times the increasing use of Japanese terms as part of normal business vocabulary is clearly evident, particularly in the area of continuous improvement e.g. kaizen, kanban, JIRA. Why can’t leadership borrow some of the Eastern leadership philosophies?

Where Western culture tends to be based on individual, materialistic drivers, Eastern philosophy is heavily centred on team/group/community orientation.

The most famous Japanese warriors were the highly respected samurai. The Japanese samurai lived by a code called bushido[i] which emphasised the following moral principles:

  • Loyalty
  • Self-discipline
  • Valour
  • Courage
  • Honour
  • Benevolence
  • Politeness[ii]

The honour of doing what was right (sometimes giving their own life) was more important than their own individual pleasure[iii]. As these were highly valued personal traits they were quickly emulated in martial arts such as karate.

Martial arts became more than just the physical application of self-defence techniques, with the student’s mental and spiritual development viewed as equally significant.  

What is a Sensei?

When one thinks of the world of martial arts immediately you think of – weird uniforms that look like pyjamas, lots of kicking, funny rituals. The term sensei is known by most but not greatly understood by many, with opinions varying from a sensei being an old Japanese man (Mr Miyagi), to a rat like Sensei Splinter in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to some mythical ancient warlord. None of this would be entirely correct!!

Quite simply a sensei is a teacher of martial arts. Or, in actual fact, a sensei is more than a teacher. In Japanese the term sensei literally means ‘those that came before’[.

A sensei takes a holistic view to training. Clearly they need to be competent in the actual fighting arts but the sensei is equally focused on character and values. As shown with the samurai, a sensei lives the values of honour, discipline, trust and integrity. Sensei sets the standards, aspirations and values of their dojo.

The sensei emphasises the mental aspects of the fighting arts with particular attention on character development, moral principles and growth. How the students conduct themselves is more important than their physical prowess, however by concentrating on the mental aspects in turn actually improves ones physical capabilities. Inner strength comes before outward strength.

A sensei focuses a lot on developing emotional intelligence (empathy, social skills, esteem, self-awareness) and spiritual growth (values, conscience, inner spirit {tenacity, desire, will power and resilience})[v].

The sensei wears many masks: teacher, counsellor, drill sergeant, adviser, judge, organiser, friend, parent!! The role of sensei is to be a giver rather than a taker. The driving force of a sensei is to invest, guide and support all students without the need for recognition (although it’s always welcomed).

Moral compass

The sensei is the upholder of the dojo’s values, setting the tone, atmosphere and vision for their particular dojo. The sensei is the moral standard-bearer in their own dojo. Ethics is everything!

A vital characteristic of being a sensei is role modelling integrity and strength of character in everything he/she does, not just in the dojo. Appropriate behaviour, sound judgement, strong principles and core values are all equally important outside the training environment as much as they are within.

Sensei’s carry a lot of responsibility, especially when training children or working with different sexes. A sensei needs to be sensitive to these individual circumstances taking into consideration different maturity levels and physiques[vi].

Martial arts often attracts people from those from disadvantaged, underprivileged backgrounds. Martial arts can be a terrific outlet to help break the vicious cycle; to build self-esteem and confidence, teach discipline and respect- traits that may otherwise be lacking in their immediate environment. These attributes can flow through all parts of life.

This is a heavy responsibility for a sensei to carry and is always front of mind. Duty of care is a core responsibility.

A sensei needs to demonstrate control and discipline in the way he/she conducts themselves. This includes modelling the correct behaviour or (as the cliché states) ‘practicing what they preach’.

Trust and honour is of paramount importance as the sensei must always be impartial, never showing favouritism or inequality to any student. Sensei always has the best interest of all students at heart.

On a personal note the sensei also gains tremendously from developing students. Through the process of teaching, the sensei profits from imparting knowledge and wisdom to others – “the best way to get people to learn is to turn them into teachers”[vii]. When sharing learning’s with others, the sensei is in effect embedding these learnings into their own subconscious. By publicly communicating thoughts and ideas, they are deeply committing to the lesson at hand.


Now relating this to the modern day corporate world, it’s important to understand the difference between a leader and a manager. Typically Managers/Leaders fail to see that there is indeed a difference between the two styles.


Managers are task orientated. Their effort is based on efficiency, structure, speed, systems, and ensuring tasks are performed correctly.

Managers get things done.

Quite often they are technically strong, proficient in their chosen field, providing experience and competence[i] to team members. They understand the basic fundamentals and are able to explain the basic principles and functions of a given task.

This is similar to a martial arts instructor who helps the student understand key principles e.g. the arm will only bend one way, a leg in the air comprises an opponent’s balance, maximising the use of kinetic energy.

What makes a good instructor (or manager) is their ability to explain and communicate to others, reducing the complicated down to the easy, making it simple for others to understand.

Knowing and showing are two separate things. There is a difference in telling a team member what to do, compared against how to do it.

In the initial stages of a new role team members will rely heavily on managers to direct them.


Leaders set the direction. They focus on purpose, effectiveness, investment[i]. Leaders inspire greatness and motivate.

Leaders focus on vision. They always have the end in mind and drive their people towards these goals.

Over time, with greater competency, the relationship between team member and leader will transition from manager support toward leadership, focused more on the soft skills such as self-awareness, continuous improvement, and accountability. The leader’s role centres on coaching through supporting, encouraging and acknowledging. Eventually that team member will become independent and the leader role will evolve into that of a mentor who influences rather than direct/teaches (refer Appendix 1).

Part of being a good leader is striving to be respected ahead of being loved (though relationships at a bare minimum should be friendly and personable). Respect should be the top of the wish list – without respect nothing else matters!


It’s important for leaders to recognise good performance as well as providing constructive feedback as required.

Many leaders find providing feedback challenging and, although it’s not always easy, it’s a fundamental requirement for any leader. Those that are parents know all too well the importance of providing constructive feedback to their children.

Standards need to be high and if they are not being met, the leader must act, holding team members accountable. If done correctly and with the right intentions, a leader is guaranteed to gain respect.

In martial arts recognition is very public with the awarding of coloured belts (a visible example of competency). At other times tough love needs to be delivered e.g. extra push-ups. It is important to remember that love is the key word here. Lessons are given with the intention of helping students, with the clear distinction of not hurting them (physically, mentally or emotionally).

While no one loves doing a 100 sit-ups every time they’ve done something wrong, there needs to be an understanding and awareness of consequences for actions – in martial arts the consequence can be physical pain, in a business sense it’s unhappy customers, cost to the business or even creating extra work.

Professor Warren Bennis best sums up what is most required “Successful leadership is not about being tough, soft, sensitive or assertive, but a set of attributes. First and foremost is character[ii]

 Difference between managers and leaders

A duality exists between management and leadership. To be an effective leader you need both skillsets.

On occasions managers/leaders may be guilty of taking a ‘win at all costs’ mentality which may result in taking shortcuts, however this approach is short-sighted. Using the martial arts analogy if you have taken shortcuts along the way, one day you may face an opponent that is bigger/stronger/faster and be ill-equipped to handle the situation.

A sensei’s role is to support each individual to achieve their own personal goals. These goals will differ from person to person. A sensei is responsible for a broad range of individuals from kids to adults, males and females of different skills, sizes, and capabilities. Training such a diverse group of unique skillsets creates quite a dynamic learning environment.

Helping team members develop

Clearly an important responsibility of any leader is the development of their people. In order to understand and get the best out of each team member, it’s critical that leaders understand how individuals learn, grow and development. While it’s outside the realm of this particular article, it’s worth digressing for a moment.

To be a highly effective leader, it’s important to understand the key concepts of learning and developing -refer to appendix 1.

Each team member is unique, no two people are the same. They have different capabilities (physically, mentally and emotionally), personalities, and drivers. They will be at different stages of life, and will develop at different speeds from different learning styles. Each individual will have their own unique career journey, a sensei lives the values of honour, discipline, trust and integrity’ is the leader’s role to support and encourage them on that journey.

“Good leaders are good listeners”[iii] as well as good observers. They have a good understanding of their teams, the individuals that make up the team, as well as having a good feel for the team dynamics.

The fundamental issue for organisations and their leaders??

While in recent times there has been a move towards improving leadership skills, leadership development alone is not enough. The values and morals of the leaders underpins everything the business stands for.

And if indeed everything a business stands for is based on values, morals and character – then why wouldn’t this be the number one focus of any organisation???

Currently training, coaching and development is predominately focused on the top level or even the middle level of management/leadership skills. This is not enough.

To create an organisation with strong principles and values, it needs to be built from the bottom up. Focus must be based on character and the nucleus of all development should be based on adhering and enhancing core values and morals cross the organisation. This needs to driven by every leader.

Leaders need to have a sensei mindset.

How does one employ a sensei mindset??

Focusing on character is, in effect, focusing on the core of the individual. When a gap exists between who a person is and who they desire to be, this is where attention must be directed to develop the individual to enable them to reach their optimal performance.

While in principle this sounds relatively easy, in practice it takes a concentrated effort with regular monitoring, constant refinement and honest accountability.

For individual development there is real power in self-reflection. A sensei’s core training philosophy centres around self-awareness True learnings come from introspection as the ability to grow comes from knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses.

As highlighted earlier, inner strength is needed before external strength can be achieved, and if this is true, this logic applies as much to organisations as it does individuals.

Currently in the business world, performance is largely measured against goal orientated outcomes. If, as outlined at the beginning of this paper, there is indeed a sizeable gap between consumer trust and organisations, there must be a paradigm shift in what organisations actually focus on.

To be able to bridge this divide, businesses must reflect on what they stand for at a core level and focus on what truly matters to customers – business morals, ethics and values. Only those companies that have a passion and single-mindedness in these attributes will build customer trust and confidence. Those that do adopt will thrive, those that don’t will struggle to survive.

Under the sensei mindset, the path to achieving goals is more important than the outcome itself. By focussing on character, dramatic improvements in a person’s skill set are made which results in better outcomes.

How leaders can adapt

Taking the lead from the samurai – though not necessarily the extreme of dying for a cause- your team will want to see your passion, commitment to the cause. This ethos, of living and breathing what you say is highly infectious.

A saying that stands true is that as a leader ‘you don’t need to be the smartest person in the room’ rather your job is to attract as many smart people as you can in that room and drive best outcomes from this synergy.

Ultimately you are the decision maker. The buck does stop with you as you are both responsible and accountable for your teams output. If this service is at a high level, praise should be directed solely at the team, if performance is below optimum this sits with you… typically leaders do this the other way around taking praise, deflecting criticism.


This is not to suggest that work environments must adopt all structures found in a dojo, as clearly a dojo is quite different to an office. The traditional model of the sensei based on hierarchy and authority, isn’t always an appropriate leadership style to duplicate in a workplace.

However a must for all leaders to adopt from martial arts is the single-minded focus a sensei has on character development and strong moral fibre.

It is quite clear that a combination of management, leadership and a sensei mindset is required for any successful leader.

  • Management- getting things done, technical capability
  • Leadership – an understanding of what the goal is and driving individuals towards it
  • Sensei – upholder of strong morals and values

You need to be both competent and of good character. An example of the dilemma of trying to choose between the two is in the excellent Stephen Covey book “The 8th Habit[iv]” where the question was posed “whether he preferred an honest surgeon who was incompetent or a competent surgeon who was dishonest. The response ‘depends: If I needed the surgery I‘d go with the competent one. If it was a question on whether to have surgery or not, I’d go for the honest one’[v] .

Any one can become a sensei or at least have a sensei’s mindset. Like most things in life the attributes outlined in this paper can be learnt/developed. The learning principles are the same – learning, practicing, monitoring, refining…. Repeat.

Development of a sensei like mentality is dependent on numerous iterations of the above cycle to transform learnings into embedded habits. It requires a strong work ethic and discipline but, if focused, is easily achievable. It doesn’t mean mistakes won’t be made- they will – but learning from these mistakes and growing from them is what is important.

For some of us things will come naturally and easily and things will just fall into place, but for most of us it will require effort, discipline and patience. For every Piper there is a Red or a Taystee (Yes there needed to be an actual Orange is the New Black reference[vi]).

While leading in a business context cannot solely follow the lead of a sensei, the corporate world could learn a lot from the ethos of a sensei in strength of character and moral compass.

Leaders need to start wearing belts at work… Regardless of the colour!!

Appendix 1

Concepts of learning and development –musings about teaching in both the martial arts and corporate worlds

The primary focus of a sensei is about helping each student on their own unique journey.

Students will have their own individual fighting arts journey with unique objectives. No two students will end up in the same place nor will their experience to get there be the same.

The role of the sensei is to help bring out the very best from each student, supporting them in reaching their own goals. It is for this reason that teachings must cover both the physical attributes of the fighting arts and investment in the student’s character development.

The ultimate goal for a sensei should be to have his/her students build on what they have been taught and ultimately, over time, exceed the sensei’s capabilities.

The learning cycle for a team member

Typically someone new to a role will rely heavily on their manager. They will require a lot of instruction, direction. They are facing the great unknown, trying to understand their role and how they contribute to it. Learning effort is based on the mechanics, principles, and committing tasks to memory. This is the training phase. In these early stages motivation/commitment is high as they are new to the role and are quite often filled with enthusiasm and eagerness.

Over time, as competency grows the relationship will the managers role will transition towards leadership, focused on mindset development, supporting the student in their own self-reflection and identifying strengths and weaknesses. The leader’s role now centres on coaching through supporting, encouraging and acknowledging.

During this phase the team member’s motivation may fluctuate. Some team members may start to feel unfilled, feeling that their growth has stalled. This is where boredom sets in. Conversely there may be other team member that are self-motivated and enjoy the greater independence that comes with increased competence.

The role of the leader is to constantly monitor and identify which phase each team member is in, helping to guide and support them through this stage of the journey.

Finally the development stages transition across to self-sufficiency and independence. The focus of the coach will now shift to encouraging, supporting, influencing, and urging the student to take ownership of their own development. Characteristics of this phase include delegating, outsourcing, and allowing team members to follow their own initiatives.

Some leaders find this transition difficult as letting team members off on their own can be confronting. It can be a dent in the leader’s ego to see a trained team member deviate from what they have been taught, no longer needing constant guidance and sometimes offering an opinion that differs from the leaders. The leader needs to remember this is a perfectly natural part of the journey, and not only should they expect it but they should welcome it, rejoicing in the contribution the leader has made in that persons development. An important caveat is that the student needs to maintain the same principles/values that they were taught. If these divert significantly from the lessons, conflict is inevitable.

It may be controversial but quite often specialists in a chosen field struggle to make the transition to leader. They may be experts in their chosen field where actions/thoughts come instinctively however it’s a very different skillset to be able to get others to perform at that same level. Rather than relying on their own individual skills the leader would need to be able to bring out the best from all individuals within the group.  Areas such as actuaries and IT specialists struggle to make the transition from ‘doer’ to a ‘leader[ due to these significant differences. In karate, transitioning from a black belt to a sensei has similar challenges.

[i] Bushido in Japanese translates to ‘way of the warrior’

[ii] Special Collector’s Edition Karate Magazine ‘Bushido- The warrior’s way of life’

[iii] This thinking was seen with the kamikazes during WW2

[v] Some may view the criteria I have come up with for ‘Emotional intelligence’ and ‘Spirit’ as both falling under Emotional Intelligence however I do prefer the distinction as I have noted. I have been heavily influence by (Covey, The 8th Habit, 2004) with my thoughts here

[vi] As martial arts is a physical activity, sensei needs to be sensitive to the difference in physique and maturity levels  

[vii] (Covey, The 8th Habit, 2004) – Quote attributed to Dr Walter Gong… I can vouch for this as since teaching, my growth trajectory has risen sharply

[viii] This is assuming the instructor is actually competent and actually understands the underlying principles that make the technique effective

[ix] (Covey, The 8th Habit, 2004)

[x] (Wooden, 2005)

[xi] (Bellamy, 2013)

[xii] (Covey, The 8th Habit, 2004)

[xiii] And yes the author has watched all 6 seasons

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