The Karate Kid Approach to Leadership Development
By Command Sgt. Maj. Samuel P. Yudin
340th Brigade Support Battalion, California Army National Guard
November 2, 2020
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“First learn stand. Then learn fly.”
—Mr. Miyagi (Avildsen, 1984, 1:17:7)
In the 1984 iconic film The Karate Kid, Daniel LaRusso, a teenager that had just moved to California from New Jersey, struggles to adjust to his new surroundings. He eventually forms a bond with a building maintenance man, Mr. Miyagi, and learns not only karate techniques, but also life lessons as Mr. Miyagi becomes an important mentor/father figure in Daniel's life.
Throughout their mentorship journey together, Daniel often becomes frustrated when he doesn't see the importance or big picture of the tasks being assigned to him by Mr. Miyagi. Daniel is only focused on the short-term goal of acquiring specific technique to use on his nemesis. He doesn't acknowledge the developmental journey or long-term mastery that Mr. Miyagi insists upon. This movie highlights the importance of mastering each stage of development for long-term proficiency. This is also true in context of the military. Leadership skills and positional competence must be mastered before pursuing the next rank in order to ensure the U.S. Army is developing qualified leaders ready for the future fight.
Focus on the Right Things
Initially, Daniel focuses on the wrong things in his desire to learn karate. He asks Mr. Miyagi about superficial things such as his belt rank and awards. Mr. Miyagi, like any good leader, focuses on the process, the operational approach, developing people the proper way, and the mission at hand.
Like Daniel at the beginning of his journey, new leaders may not yet have the experience, tools, or knowledge to handle multiple complex tasks and problems. They may not have a structured operational approach to help them assess the mission, concepts, key tasks, and actions required to be successful (Department of the Army, 2019b; c). Without the proper training and tools it can cause leaders, and their subordinates, to become frustrated and impatient. According to retired Army Col. Jim Greer:
“Training and leader development are two military functions that go hand in hand. It is of little use to have personnel and units that are well trained if they are not also well led; conversely, the best leader can accomplish little with poorly trained troops.”
—(2018, para. 33)
Be Patient and Put in the Effort
In one of the most memorable scenes of the movie, Mr. Miyagi tells Daniel to show him “sand the floor,” “wax on-wax off,” and “paint the fence.” Daniel reluctantly goes through the motions while Mr. Miyagi refines his technique. Then, unexpectedly, he unleashes a barrage of punches and kicks that Daniel defends using the proper techniques he was taught.
This scene illustrates lessons coming together between a leader and a subordinate after long hours, patience, and hard work. This development process is necessary at each rank as the Army grants more responsibility to the progressing Soldier. This approach is also reinforced by time in service and grade requirements in the promotion system affording dwell time to gain experience (Department of Army, 2019a).
Grow at Each Level
In order to have success at increasing levels of leadership, a Soldier must have experiences to draw from. “Judgment becomes more refined as commanders become more experienced” (Department of the Army, 2019c, p. 2-6).
Best-selling author Malcom Gladwell discusses his famous progression pillar, the 10,000 hour rule, in his book, Outliers (Gladwell, 2008). He argues that people are not experts in a skill or field until they have put forth 10,000 hours honing their craft. This requires several years of study and experience in order to ensure mastery is achieved. So it is important Soldiers learn as much as possible at each station and rank before climbing the ladder. If one does not master each position, they might not have gained the experience necessary to make the complex decisions required of senior-level leadership.
Trust the Process
Throughout the first half of the film, Daniel is frustrated easily, either by lack of progress in his training, or not believing he has the ability to overcome his challenges.
The author Carol Dweck describes this type of fixed mindset in her book Mindsets: A View from Two Eras. She explains that among other things, somebody with a fixed mindset believes they are not able to develop and covers up their insecurities or shortcomings by focusing their attention outward deflecting by not taking ownership of their own development (Dweck & Yeager, 2019). On the opposite spectrum, a person with a growth mindset embraces the attitude that through determined effort one can grow, develop, and learn (Dweck & Yeager, 2019).
In the latter half of the movie, Daniel embraces an attitude change and embraces the development process and begins believing in himself. Like Daniel, Soldiers will have much more long-term success if they also embrace mastering not only their position and tasks, but also the leadership skills appropriate to their level. This develops positive relationships in both subordinates and superiors, and also gains “…trust by showing motivation and a learning attitude during training” (Department of the Army, 2020,p. 5-3).
Conclusion: How to Be the Best Around
In a rapidly evolving world, future Army leaders must spend their 10,000 hours focused on the right things. They must have patience and develop their growth mindset. They must gain experience at each new leadership level and have the right positive attitude. It is through proper preparation that the U.S. Army will produce leaders ready to adapt and overcome any future obstacles and challenges.
Avildsen, J. G. (1984). The Karate Kid [Film]. Columbia Pictures.
Department of the Army. (2019a). AR 600-8-19: Enlisted promotions and reductions. https://armypubs.army.mil/epubs/DR_pubs/DR_a/pdf/web/ARN17424_R600_8_19_Admin_FINAL.pdf
Department of the Army. (2019b). ADP 5.0: The operations process. https://armypubs.army.mil/epubs/DR_pubs/DR_a/pdf/web/ARN20305_ADP%205-0%20FINAL%20WEB.pdf
Department of the Army. (2019c). ADP 6.0: Mission command: Command and control of Army forces. https://armypubs.army.mil/epubs/DR_pubs/DR_a/pdf/web/ARN19189_ADP_6-0_FINAL_WEB_v2.pdf
Department of the Army. (2020). TC 7-22.7: The noncommissioned officer guide. https://armypubs.army.mil/epubs/DR_pubs/DR_a/pdf/web/ARN20340_TC%207-22x7%20FINAL%20WEB.pdf
Dweck, C. S. & Yeager, D. S. (2019). Mindsets: A view from two eras. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1745691618804166
Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The story of success. Little, Brown and Company.
Greer, J. (2018). Training: The foundation for success in combat. Heritage Foundation. https://www.heritage.org/military-strength-topical-essays/2019-essays/training-the-foundation-success-combat
Command Sgt. Maj. Samuel P. Yudin is the intelligence senior enlisted advisor in the California Army National Guard and the 340th Brigade Support Battalion command sergeant major. Yudin has also served on active duty, and in the Army Reserves. He is a U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy class 67 graduate and holds a Bachelor of Arts from Humboldt State University and a Masters in leadership studies from the University of Texas at El Paso.
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