The Price of Leadership

Teaching in London – Photo credit David Rawlings

There are some amazing perks to being a martial arts instructor. A month ago, I was in London, England, teaching at a swordplay event. The organizers covered my flights, put me up for my entire stay, fed me delicious food, and ran an instructors’ beer tab at the pub we went to every night after teaching. I was treated extremely well, and handed 3 classes of 20 students to do whatever I wanted with for and hour and half at a time. I came home to my own martial arts school, got fed homemade baked goods by a generous student, and fell back into my routine of using large groups of adults as test subjects in my training experiments. When I say jump, they jump – literally. When I want to try something new, they’re game. When they grow and get stronger and kick ass, I get a big chunk of the credit. Many of them have become my friends, and a few look up to me. Next month, I’ll be hosting a pair of instructors I deeply admire in my school and my home. I’ll get to watch them teach, show them my world, and shoot the shit over whiskey late into the night.

These are all things that my position as a teacher lets me do. They’re the perks of leadership. I’ve worked hard to earn my position in my school and community — to be worthy of leadership and the kind of reputation that gets me invited to international events — and I’m now getting to enjoy the fruits of that labour. My situation is pretty typical. Those of us who teach eventually amass a small amount of authority that gives us access to some opportunities, relationships, and benefits that weren’t available to us as students. In a field where financial compensation is low and many of us struggle to make martial arts anything close to a full-time gig, these fringe benefits are often the best payment we get for what we contribute to our community, and we value the hell out of them.

Of course, there are costs too. Hours and hours of work and training and blood and sweat and tears and stress and worry. We’re all pretty good at acknowledging those. What I see talked about a lot less is the opportunities that leadership takes away from us. We get to do all of this cool stuff like traveling, and getting to meet our idols, and having people admire and like us because of what we can teach them, but there are are also things that we don’t get to do anymore. Being a leader means that we can’t do things like:

  • ignoring the power dynamics of our relationships: this isn’t quite as simple as “don’t sleep with your students”, though that’s definitely a part of it. We have to acknowledge that our position grants us power over others. It may not be much — the sole instructor in an 8-person club isn’t as powerful as the head of a hundreds-strong organization, and both are orders of magnitude less powerful than a national-level politician — but it is real.

    When someone trusts us to teach them, they are giving us power over them. The power dynamic implicit in student-teacher relationships is particularly powerful in martial arts, where one of the reasons someone is elevated to a teaching position is because they can out-fight, and thus physically overpower, the majority of their students. “He can kick my ass!” isn’t just an acknowledgement of skill, but the identification of an unequal power dynamic.

    The people we have power over might be our students, our staff or event volunteers, or our junior colleagues elsewhere in the community, and our relationships with them may vary from the purely professional to the deeply personal. We need to be aware of how power inflects those relationships, and use that power to support, protect, and elevate others, not manipulate or control or silence them.
  • enabling assholes and abusers: if someone we know harms others in our community, and especially if they harm those more vulnerable than them, then we cannot further their career or facilitate their access to victims. If they consistently demonstrate bad sportsmanship or dangerous behavior; if they harass, abuse, or otherwise mistreat others; if they publicly advocate discriminating against or harming vulnerable people; if they’ve got a history of creepy and exploitative behavior; then publicly supporting them isn’t acceptable.

    This isn’t about who we’re drinking buddies with, but who we endorse. Who we invite to teach at events or run tournaments. Who we have represent our martial arts on the world stage. Whose books we promote, who we refer students in other cities to, and who we reach out to for expert opinions. It’s neither reasonable nor practical to police every public or semi-public figure’s personal relationships, but it’s absolutely fair to judge us for who we choose to invite deeper into the community, and who we elevate to positions of power.
  • stepping over the missing stair: if we’re aware of a problem in our school or community — if there’s an instructor that makes all the female students nervous, or a student who keeps injuring their training partners, or a persistent safety issue with a piece of equipment or part of the training space — then it’s on us to fix it. We don’t get to quietly navigate around it, like tenants in a broken-down building stepping over a missing stair they have no power to fix.

    After all, we’re the landlords in this analogy. We have both the power and the responsibility to fix things that pose a danger to those who depend on us. We might have to do some repairs, or change suppliers for problem equipment, or have a difficult conversation with a student or colleague. In the worst cases, we might have to kick someone out of an event or ban them from a space. How we deal with things is up to us, but whether we deal things isn’t.
  • pleading ignorance when harm is done under our banner: to expand on the previous point’s analogy, it’s also our job to know that a stair is missing in the first place. If one of our staff is abusing their position, or our students are bullying each other, or someone is sexually harassed at one of our events or in one of our classes, that’s on us. It doesn’t matter if we didn’t participate in the abuse or even witness it directly — if it happened on our watch, it’s our responsibility. “I didn’t know” is an acknowledgement of failure, not an excuse.
  • leaving more vulnerable community members to clean up the mess: in cases of predatory or discriminatory behaviour, we’re seldom the primary targets (if we’re targets at all). Most predators are smart enough not to pick on their social equals, or on people more powerful than them. Instead, they’ll go for easier targets. Newcomers who don’t yet have strong social ties to a community. Physically weaker and smaller people. Minorities who aren’t well represented in leadership.

    In male-dominated spaces, women are far more likely to be the targets of sexual harassment, and far less likely to be in positions of power that might allow them to deal effectively with the perpetrators. Bullying and cheating at a tournament is more likely to be targeted at students from clubs other than the one hosting, because they have fewer social resources to draw on, and lack the numbers to mount a group challenge to bad behaviour.

    We don’t get to leave victims to fend for themselves. The fact that we’re unlikely to be targeted gives us a degree of safety when we speak out, and we’re sometimes the only voice in the room that can call out someone powerful and actually be listened to. We cannot opt out of using it.
  • failing to learn from our mistakes: everyone screws up. Sometimes we don’t catch a problem before it hurts someone, or a bunch of someones; or we leave a gap in our policies or fail to enforce the ones we have; or we trust someone we shouldn’t; or we misjudge our audience or misinterpret a relationship and embarrass or upset someone; or we let our emotions or ties to our friends get the better of us.

    We’re just as human as anyone else, and an error isn’t the end of the world if we respond to it appropriately. If we acknowledge the harm caused and take steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again, then the odds are good that we’ll be forgiven. If nothing changes, or if we keep making the same kind of mistake again and again, then we’re failing our community.

This list is non-negotiable. Sure, not doing some of the things on it is hard. It’s unpleasant, risky, and may cost us important friendships or opportunities. It’s scary. It’s also part of the deal we make when we’re elevated to a leadership position — no matter how large or small its scale. Leadership must also be stewardship. If we’re not willing to stick our neck out for the people we lead and pay the costs of leadership, then we have no right to its perks.