Be Like Water: Lessons on Leadership from Wing Chun Gung Fu


by Alex Hernandez and Adam Williss


As leaders in a constantly changing business and technology climate, the value of having a clear understanding of the fundamental conditions of success cannot be underestimated.

Most people, however, are completely clueless when it comes to the fundamentals of success. Even if they experienced great success in the past, they may be unable to clearly identify what it was that got them there and therefore unclear on how to replicate those actions, behaviors, or choices. As a result, they struggle to get back to the mindset that made them so successful.

The good news is, this struggle is unnecessary. The fundamental conditions of success are much easier to identify, and much easier to achieve, than most of us make them. They’re very specific and very constant. Most importantly, they aren’t as distant as we often imagine them to be.

They also aren’t new. These universal principles have existed since the beginning of time—fragmented and scattered, you can find evidence of these principles in literature and philosophy going back centuries. But they can also be found in unexpected places. In fact, we found them in a surprisingly complete package. Not in a business management or a self-help book, but in the work of a man whose name is synonymous with the leadership characteristics of passion, courage, strength, flexibility, confidence, change, and innovation: Bruce Lee.

Maybe the best way to understand Bruce Lee is through his own words:

“Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

Bruce Lee is a shining example of leadership, success, and what it means to be your best. He was all about making the most of what you’ve got, seeking truth knowledge, and applying what you know.

Born in the Year of the Dragon, Bruce Lee took up the study of Wing Chun Gung Fu as a teenager. (Gung Fu is the Cantonese pronunciation of the more common Kung Fu, the Mandarin pronunciation.) At the age of 13, Bruce was introduced to Yip Man (aka Ip Man), the man who originated the art of Wing Chun, an form of martial arts known for, among other things, its close-quarters fighting efficiency. For the next five years, until he moved to America at the age of eighteen, Bruce immersed himself in the study of Wing Chun, and he revered Yip Man as both a teacher and a wise leader. Yip Man was largely responsible for shaping Bruce’s personal philosophy.

So, what do great leaders like Bruce Lee do differently? Simply put, they understand and are able to apply six universal principles.

Relax

Every day, business leaders are faced with competing decisions and challenges, which can cause considerable frustration and anxiety. Relaxation is the first step toward achieving clarity. Through proper breathing techniques, postural control, and an awareness of being in the moment, you can achieve a state of calm in the center of a storm.

Deep down, you already have all the answers. The key is to stop resisting and overthinking so that you can allow yourself to feel. When you relax and find your center, you find yourself. You find what feels right, not what you’re forced to do by others.

If you can’t maintain your center under pressure, you’ll never reach higher levels of leadership and authority. You have to allow yourself to tap into your potential (which is unlimited!). This takes patience and trust: patience with yourself, and trust in your own abilities. Bruce often said,” Don’t think, feel!” When it comes to highly effective leadership, feeling is everything.

Move Forward

When faced with difficult decisions or challenges, most people retreat or immediately go on the defensive. This is only natural; our instinct as humans is to resist or back away from things we perceive as challenges. However, resisting or going on the defensive takes us away from our goals. Resisting actually locks us into fighting the challenge and takes our mind completely away from the possibilities and opportunities in each situation.

As leaders, we must to look at every single situation as an opportunity to get closer to our goals. This is what is meant by moving forward.

If you spend most of your time wrapped up in fighting the same challenges you’ve fought time and time again, you won’t make progress. You’ll be focused on the challenges, not the opportunities. By channeling your energy toward your goals and maintaining your focus, you’ll keep moving forward.

Act Upon Stimuli

Acting upon a stimulus just means being in the moment, ready to act when the time is right. Timing is everything here. You need to take the necessary steps to position yourself for success, and you need to be ready to act when opportunities arise. Effective leaders must have the instinct not only to react when a situation calls for action but also not to react when faced with negative stimuli.

Respond Simply

Your response to the business challenges you confront should be simple and direct. By simplifying your response, you will make better decisions much more quickly than those who overcomplicate situations and respond slowly. When your response is simple, your decisions will be direct, correct, and respected.

Know the Goal

As you channel your energy toward your goals, it’s important that you remain purposeful and confident. Many people and tasks will attempt to come between you and your goals, but it’s imperative that you keep your mind focused on the end game. This will help you establish boundaries and align your priorities, which will lead to a more balanced life.

Lower Your Center of Gravity

Sticking to your position without wavering: this is what it means to lower your center of gravity.

As an example of how these concepts should be applied, let’s take a look at how we would approach a confrontational verbal exchange with a customer. First, relax (shoulders and wrists), breathe from your lower abdomen through your nose, and listen to the customer’s response while being completely in the moment. Keep your shared goal (resolving the incident) in mind. Respond simply, directly, and confidently (lower your center of gravity). You’ll be amazed how your response to this confrontation will transform the interaction and lead to a solution.

By properly applying these concepts, you’ll develop and/or improve the quick decision-making reflexes that are vital for successful leadership. You’ll learn to maintain your sense of self by preventing outside influences from breaking your focus. You’ll develop successful habits for avoiding the trap of procrastination. You’ll become more centered, allowing you to deal from a position of strength. You’ll harness the power of simplicity. You’ll come to see efficiency as the key to effectiveness. In sum, you’ll be better prepared to be a successful leader.

The universal principles of Wing Chun, when applied to leadership situations, will help you create balance, set a clear vision, and guide the entire team toward greater performance and profit. By having a leadership style that can adapt to individuals and situations, you will be in a strong position to create winning strategies, gain a competitive edge, and achieve your goals. All you have to do is be like water— just go with the flow.

 

Alex Hernandez is the director of CIO Advisory Services at KPMG. Prior to joining KPMG, he was a principal at Accenture, where he led ITSM and IT strategy transformations for Fortune 100 organizations, a practice manager at Plexent, and a senior consultant at Microsoft. Throughout his twenty-year career, Alex has served as a thought leader and solutions agent in the areas of IT strategy, operating models, capacity management, business continuity, information security, service desk, and ISO/IEC 20000. He’s a priSM-credentialed Fellow in Service Management, an ITIL Master, and the author of ITIL and ISO/IEC 20000: A Practical Handbook.

Sifu Adam Williss is a martial arts and self-defense expert and founder of The Dragon Institute. He’s made it his life’s mission to empower individuals from all walks of life to pursue the physical, mental, and life-changing benefits of martial arts. In addition to Wing Chun, Sifu Adam has studied other martial arts, including Chen-style Tai Chi, Jeet Kune Do, Shorinjiryu Kenkokan Karatedo, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and Muay Thai. He was inducted into the US Martial Arts Hall of Fame in 2010.

Tag(s): leadership, professional development

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