The Secret to Being a Great Leader


Ever notice that when you are in the presence of a great leader, there is an elusive quality about them? Why do we hang on their every word? What makes them inspire us while others prompt eye rolls? How come their mere presence gives us the sense that everything is going to be alright? In other words, what makes them so easy to follow?

Many years ago my Aikido instructor Matsuda sensei invited me and another student to participate in a Kenshusei program. Long story short, it's like an apprenticeship meant to accelerate and deepen your training through immersion. So for 3 months we ate, drank and slept Aikido. Among other things, we attended every class, tended to the facilities, and received special instruction.

Now that I was attending every class, I was getting thrown A LOT more. The way Aikido practice works is the person performing the technique is like the Lead in a dance. The person being thrown (mostly me!) is like the Follow. When being thrown my job is to, as best as I can, keep up with movements of the Lead and fall safely so I can get up and get thrown again. Glamorous, right?


After weeks of being tossed around like a sack of potatoes, something dawned on me. I could tell who had better technique by how easily I could follow their movements during the throw. No awkward starting and stopping, no pulling or jerking, and very little pain or discomfort. Just a smooth whirlwind of motion culminating in me landing on my back.

"So what does this all have to do with the secret to being a great leader, Joe? There's a point coming, right?"

Yes, let's get moving. The point is right around the corner.

Let's take a look at a quote by author and leadership expert Bruce D. Schneider that captures the essence of leadership.

"Leading is the way we help people move into action, including ourselves."

What I love about this is it zeroes in on HOW leaders help people move, rather than merely the end result.

So how do great leaders get so good at helping people move into action?

The secret to being a great leader is understanding how to FOLLOW.

I don't mean following your followers. After all, you're the leader! What I mean is having a deep understanding of how what you do affects the ability of others to follow you. The way you do this is understanding what works well when YOU are a follower yourself.

Lately I've been exploring the concept of Embodied Leadership - how studying physical movements can help one better grasp leadership principles. Let's look at three examples that reveal how understanding how to follow makes you a better leader.


Let's say I grab your wrist. A basic technique called Ikkyo starts with you moving the arm that is being grabbed up like raising a sword, which stretches my arm and takes out the slack. Think of a stretched rubber band. If you move too quickly, my instinct is to let go. If you move too slowly, I will adjust and you won't get the desired stretch.

Ever notice that some leaders set a pace so fast that no one can keep up? Think of the "I Love Lucy" chocolate conveyor belt scene where Lucy and Ethel are desperately trying to keep up. On the flip side, ever have a leader that takes so much time to make a decision that people lose interest and motivation?


Let's reset. I go to grab your wrist again. Notice how if you move after I've already grabbed you and settled my weight, the stretching of my arm becomes a lot more difficult. If you move just as I'm grabbing, you will feel a lot less resistance and I won't feel much either.

Think about how you catch a ball or stop a car. You begin a little earlier and then the catch or stop is much smoother. On the flip side, if a leader moves too soon, it makes it difficult for people to connect with them and follow. When a leader first makes sure his people understand and are fully engaged, they can follow the desired course more easily.


Do you know where the weak point of a grasp is? It's the gap between the thumb and the index finger. So if you're trying to stretch my arm, you have to be careful not to move in a way that causes me to lose my grip.

Ever had a leader who asked you to do something, but then moved in a way that created several roadblocks? For example, they asked you to take more of a leadership role with your team, but then proceeded to second-guess and overrule most of your decisions.

How a leader positions themselves within an organization can have a drastic influence on how well others can follow them. Are they available? Do they provide direction when no one else can? Do they empower the right people? Are they holding everyone on the team accountable and not playing favorites?


In an Aikido technique, when the Lead has the right Speed, Timing and Orientation, the result is I can easily relax and follow them without fear or injury. I suspect this is because they are taking my ability to follow them into account. My height, my weight, my flexibility, and my level of practice all inform how they move and as a result, how easily I can follow. In the same way, a leader who leads with the right blend of Speed, Timing and Orientation creates an environment of trust, where the team can move confidently and execute to the best of their ability.

Statistically, every company will have some poor hires. People who lack either the right skills or attitude to do the job. However, often the bigger problem is a misdiagnosis of poor employees. The painful truth may be the leader has forgotten what they learned as a follower and is leading in a way that makes it difficult for anyone to follow them.

The wonderful and maddening part is there is no set formula, hack or leadership model that will work in every instance. Truly great leaders (not to be confused with powerful or wealthy people) understand what it takes to make it easier for people to follow. Truly great leaders adjust themselves to what is required in a given environment. Perhaps this is why some leaders may succeed at one company and then fail miserably at another. And finally, truly great leaders do this in a way that is powerful, but barely perceptible. We might not be able to put our finger on what they are doing that makes them so easy to follow, they just are. So the next time you are tempted to bemoan the poor caliber of followers on your team, consider what you can do to help them follow better. I promise it’s worth the effort.

If you have any questions or comments or have a story of your own, I'd love to hear from you.

Next post next Saturday, 6:30 a.m.

The Secret to Resolving Conflicts


OUCH! That looks like it hurts. In fact, from experience I know it hurts. Imagine your body arched backwards as you stare at the ceiling. Feel the stretch as your right arm is raised and your hand reaches for your back as if you're trying to scratch an itch. The only difference is, someone is gripping your hand with both of theirs and is swinging downward like an ax, which sends you crashing to the ground. The reason this hurts, even before you hit the floor, is because most of the force is focused on your wrist and elbow, putting a tremendous amount of pressure and torque on those joints.

Usually my instructor Vardi Sensei shows how to perform the technique, but right now he is showing how to receive the technique. In Aikido part of the training is called Ukemi, which means learning how to fall safely. It's not exactly the same, but think about how a boxer rolls away from a punch or how a hockey player stays calm and loose while getting slammed into the boards.   

As Sensei is being twisted into a pretzel, he says something that catches my attention. I'm paraphrasing here...

When receiving the technique you allow it to happen. It doesn't mean you give up. Or let yourself get hurt. You stay with the technique and follow it in a relaxed manner. You relax at various points as you feel the pressure - relax your wrist, your arm, your shoulder and finally your hips. This gives you more options and makes it less likely you will get hurt.

When you are on the receiving end of an Aikido technique, becoming rigid and stiffening up does not end well. It's much better and safer to relax and go with the movement. Something about what Sensei says unlocks my understanding of how this same principle applies when someone is verbally attacking you - let's call it Relationship Ukemi.

You don't give up

How many times when a conversation gets heated do we just exit Stage Left and drop the conversation? Or in the alternative, we mentally check out by ignoring the person. A final version of giving up is acquiescing to what is being said. The problem with these approaches is they don't resolve anything and both of you still carry around the negativity of the interaction. It's admittedly difficult, but staying engaged, even though your brain is yelling "EJECT! EJECT!" is a necessary step to resolving any conflict.

You don't let yourself get hurt

This idea can be challenging to understand and accept. If you're not fighting back, how can you not let yourself get hurt? It seems like a paradox. Or maybe a wish or fantasy.

We are more likely to get hurt when our focus is purely on ourselves - how I am feeling and how the other person is treating me. When we keep under control (admittedly hard to do in a heated conversation) and try to follow what the other person is saying, our focus shifts to how they are feeling and why they might be acting the way they are. By staying relaxed and thinking about things from the other person's perspective, we can protect ourselves from being hurt.  

You stay with it and follow it in a relaxed manner

Insults and hurtful words are a package deal. It's rare in an argument to have only one attack. It's more often a combination in pursuit of a knockout. So you should anticipate that after the first attack, there will be plenty more.

You're always so x!

Remember the time you did y?

You broke your promise so how can you expect me to ever trust you again!

The key is to understand the need to stay cool while enduring multiple assaults. Keep your focus on the others perspective. Again, not easy to do so why bother? Which leads us to the key.

This gives you more options and makes it less likely you will get hurt

So I know what you are probably thinking.

"Joe, I'm not sure how behaving like a punching bag is supposed to make it less likely for me to get hurt or give me more options."

Great question. Allow me to explain.


In terms of making it less likely for you to get hurt the focus here is on giving you a better chance of resolving the conflict with the other person and leaving with a better relationship. If you fight or flee, it may feel like you are winning or protecting yourself, but in a very real way you are losing. Think about it. Do you really end up in a good place after destroying someone in an argument? When you avoid the issue and refuse to engage, are you content? Do either of these approaches bring you peace, satisfaction, or a sense of personal growth? 

Imagine Life A, where you viciously fight or permanently write off anyone who attacks or offends you. My guess is that this will end up being a very embattled and lonely life.

Now imagine Life B, where you run away from conflict or let people get away with hurting you. My guess is this will end up being a very fearful and painful life. Life A and Life B are both ways of responding, but neither do much to actually RESOLVE life's inevitable conflicts.

We are looking for Life C, where you successfully deal with conflicts.

"So Joe, I'm still not seeing the part where you are resolving the conflict. This still feels like you're a punching bag, but congratulations on being an empathetic punching bag!"

I get your point of view. If you stick with me just a few more moments, I'll explain how this all comes together.

If someone attacks me and my response is to get tense and fight back, this doesn't end well. Getting tense and angry puts the lizard brain in control, which narrows my focus, eliminates my ability to understand nuance, and makes me want to hurt the other person in a fight for survival. And if I flee or give up, my lizard brain helps me run faster and I still haven't resolved anything.

If instead I stay engaged while protecting myself and staying relaxed during the attack, this allows my Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) to stay in control. The PFC is responsible for executive function in the brain, which among other things relates to the ability to differentiate among conflicting thoughts, make nuanced judgments, consider future consequences, predict outcomes and suppress urges. This approach allows me to learn more about what it going on without going all Cobra Kai on the other person.

Strike first. Strike hard. No mercy.

This is incredibly difficult to do, especially when it isn't someone you have tremendous love and compassion for. Strike that. This is incredibly difficult to do EVEN WHEN it is someone you have tremendous love and compassion for.

What options does this give you? You can listen. You can lend support. You can validate the way they are feeling. The goal is to understand what is causing them to lash out so you can help resolve the conflict. Ultimately, you are in control and if you feel you are in danger or too many lines have been crossed, you can DECIDE to eject or fight back. You always have the option to change course, including the nuclear option, but in this scenario you are making a calm, informed choice instead of a knee-jerk reaction which you may later regret.

Let's take a look at an example of not using Relationship Ukemi and instead battling to the death - Thunderdome style.

Two man enter, one man leaves.


Husband (excitedly bursting into the house): You'll NEVER believe what happened at work!

Wife: Hold on a second. Did you take out the garbage last night like I asked you to?

Husband: I don't remember, but that's not important (to ME). Like I said, you'll never...

Wife: Actually, it's important to ME and even though you don't seem to care I'll tell you anyway. The answer is "no." You forgot, again. I came downstairs this morning and the house reeked.

Husband: Are we seriously going to have this trivial conversation again...right now? I have some important news and now I'm not even sure I want to tell you!

Wife: Well I'm not sure I really care to hear your "important news" if you're going to have that attitude. And by the way, did you fix the guest room toilet like you promised you would this weekend?

Husband: What is this, an inquisition? Yeah, I get it, I'm a bad husband. Look at me, the bad husband with the suffering wife. How about cutting ME some slack once in a while and showing some appreciation for all I do to support this family.

Wife: I'd be happy with a husband who just took out the trash when he was asked to and followed through on fixing things.

Husband: Forget this! I'm outta here. I'll talk to you later when you are being a little more reasonable. (Door slams as he leaves!)

 Wife: (to herself) I'm not going to let this one slide! 

See any winners here? 

By the way...just to be crystal clear, this is in no way based on or inspired by my wife...or life! 

The example of a married couple is an emotionally charged one and can evoke a lot of preconceptions and baggage. This can make it difficult to clearly see the concept of Relationship Ukemi. So allow me to share a different scenario to illustrate Relationship Ukemi in action.

Picture a small child - your own or one that you care about dearly.

Something happens and they become incredibly upset. In fact, so upset that they physically launch themselves at you. Their tiny little fists are spinning like a windmill. You shift backwards slightly so you don't get hit in the face or otherwise injured. Now they are screaming at you, doing their best to draw blood.

I hate you!

It's all your fault!

You're a liar!

I wish you weren't my [insert relationship]!

The words sting like acid, but because you understand this is in the heat of the moment and your focus is squarely on figuring out what is causing such a severe reaction, you don't take it personally or take the bait.

You can't really back up any further and their attack is less fierce at this point, so you move in to gently restrain them with a hug. They continue to struggle, maybe throw out a few more barbs, but they are losing steam. You continue to hold them and comfort them with words like, "I'm sorry," "I'm here," "I see you're upset," or "How can I help?" You hold them tenderly as they cry and go limp in your arms, as their anger drains and is gradually replaced by sadness. Maybe they quietly sob or blubber through the tears. When the time is right and they are feeling up to it, you talk about what happened and how together you can make things better.

This is Relationship Ukemi.

By not striking back or jumping ship, you have the best chance to make things better.

First, you protect yourself physically and emotionally. Remember, if you let yourself get hurt, your lizard brain takes over and it is survival time and there is no "we" anymore. Regardless of your initial intentions, once someone's words cut you too deeply, you will not want to help them.

Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

~Mike Tyson

All you will want to do is hurt them back, which doesn't usually make a lot of sense because a) no one is trying to actually kill you and b) this is a person you either care about or at the least, will have to deal with in the future.

Second, you listen and try to understand what is going on. Thankfully, your Prefrontal Cortex is still in control and helping you understand and reason.

Finally, YOU decide the best course of action, based on your deeper understanding of what has happened and what the options are going forward.

aikido training.JPG

How will Relationship Ukemi make me feel?

Will you get to feel the searing fire of righteous anger? No.
Will you have the instant satisfaction of hurting someone back? Nope.
Will it seem as natural as fight or flight? Not a chance!

How will Relationship Ukemi work for me?

Is it easy? No.
Is it foolproof? Nope.
Is it mandatory? Absolutely not!

Relationship Ukemi is a CHOICE. It is a choice to take a less painful, less destructive path. A more compassionate path. A path to understanding and healing.

Think about someone you know who is able to deal with difficult relationships and situations with grace and poise. Think about someone whose participation always seems to make things better. My suspicion is this person, whether they realize it or not, has mastered Relationship Ukemi. The next time this person is in a tense situation, watch how they act and don't act. Watch how this affects the attacker. See what you can learn from them.

If you take away only one thing from this article, I hope it is this - People who have a knack for successfully navigating conflict were not born with a superpower.

We all have the ability to choose this path, to hone this skill, and to change our relationships.

The key is practicing Relationship Ukemi. I'm still working on it and will be for the foreseeable future.

Hope you give it a try and that it improves your results.

If you have any questions or comments or have a story of your own, I'd love to hear from you.

P.S. In case you were wondering, here is an example of the technique that inspired this post (Shihonage) in action...

Next post next Saturday, 6:30 a.m.

Why What You're Doing is Not Working

Why isn't this working? This should totally be working! This always gets a great reaction, but now I'm getting nada. What in the @#$%&...

Has this ever happened to you?

You are doing exactly the same thing that was wildly successful before, but now you are bombing. Maybe you are no longer the apple of your boss' eye. Maybe a cherished activity with your kid has gone from epic to "so last year." Maybe a gesture that was once appreciated by a close friend is now met with disdain. What is happening?

Or perhaps more importantly, why is this happening?

Obvious culprits are that people get used to things or that people and times change. Both are worthy of consideration. However, today I'd like to focus on two less obvious suspects.

suspect #1. a technique has limited usefulness

Imagine a Saturday morning class filled with barely awake kids being asked to pay attention and practice for 45 minutes. Now add floors covered with soft foam mats onto which the kids regularly sit and fall down.

See any challenges?

Welcome to my Saturday mornings at the Aikido dojo helping Eran Vardi sensei with the Children's class. Imagine trying to get a kid to cooperate, except without any of the authority of being their parent or teacher. You're not even the substitute teacher, just a helper.

I recently listened to the book, "How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen," by Joanna Faber and Julie King [include link]. When I got to the section on "Tools for Engaging Cooperation" I was all ears. One of the tools they share for getting kids to cooperate is to BE PLAYFUL. So if a direct instruction or request is not working, make it fun. For example, instead of "put all your toys back in the chest now," try "that toy chest sure seems hungry - let's feed it these yummy toys!"

"Come on Joe, that sounds tiring! Kids should just listen to adults and I have neither the time nor inclination to come up with a game to get them to listen."

I hear you, I do. This is one of many tools you can choose and not meant to be a way of life. So deploy as appropriate. When what should work is not working, it can be worth trying something different. And when I feel my ego getting in the way, I try to remember to ask myself,

Do you want to be right or do you want to be effective? 

Let's jump out of the book and back into the dojo. It's like a lounging epidemic. My requests / orders / powers of persuasion are all falling flat, so I decide to try to BE PLAYFUL. Instead of "Come on, get up, you need to practice," I say, "Whoa, watch out! The floor is hot, you'll get burned! Get up off the lava!" And like magic kids are popping up like a jack-in-the-boxes. 


Fast-forward a few weeks later and it's the same problem. Except this time my hot lava technique meets an untimely demise. 

Me: Whoa, get up, you'll get burned! The floor is hot!

5 year old: No. It's not. (Reclining on the mat, like a seal basking on the beach). 

Foiled by a five-year old! What just happened?

All fixed set patterns are incapable of adaptability or pliability. The truth is outside of all fixed patterns. 
Bruce Lee

I made a rookie mistake. I relied on my hot lava technique because it found early success, not understanding the limits of its usefulness.

Here's the key - A technique only works when the current conditions allow it to tap into the underlying principle (or truth) that makes is work. 

Technique: BE PLAYFUL by turning the mat into hot lava and getting the kids to stand up quickly.

Underlying Principle: When an activity is fun for a person, they are more likely to cooperate. 

I'll be honest, I was stuck by the incontrovertible "it's not hot" rebuttal. If I could rewind time, I would have tried one of two things.

Option A: Realize that my hot lava technique was not fun in this moment and switched to something that would be more fun.

Option B: If I felt fun was not going to happen, switch to an entirely different tool that operates under a different principle.

suspect #2. An egotistical perspective on the effectiveness of a technique

Is it just me or does it seem like the prevalence of corporate PR disasters has been accelerating? And of course, with the screw up comes the obligatory apology.

This got me thinking, what makes for a good apology? Whether it is to an individual, to customers, employees or society, why are some apologies more effective than others?

Scott Galloway is the Founder of L2 and a Clinical Professor at the NYU Stern School of Business. In his LinkedIn article on crisis management, "No Mercy / No Malice: Re-Accommodated" he shares an effective Crisis Management algorithm.

It goes something like this:

  • I @#$%'d up
  • I'm sorry
  • I'll work to prevent it from happening again

And generally speaking, this engenders the following Forgiveness algorithm.

  • Yes, you @#$%'d up
  • I forgive you

I can see this technique working so well so much of the time. But there is a trap we need to avoid when a technique works too well for us. The few times it doesn't work, you might start to blame the victim for not responding properly to your flawlessly executed technique (e.g., the Crisis Management algorithm). I mean after all, you did what you were supposed to do and that usually works, so now it's the other person's fault and problem.

We do this all the time. Have you been on the sending or receiving end of the following?

"Well, I apologized, okay? What else do you expect me to do? If you are going to continue to be upset or hold this against me, there's nothing I can do about that."

It's not what I do, it's what he feels.
Christian Tissier sensei

Something like this happens all the time in my own Aikido training. You execute a certain technique that you "think" you have mastered and so you expect a certain response of your partner. But for various reasons, chief among them you are not as good as you think you are, your partner doesn't respond the way you expect them to. Or worse, they don't respond at all! At this point, we've come to an important crossroads. You can do one of two things.

Option A: Get upset at the other person for not knowing how they "should" respond or even more infuriating, for knowing how they "should" respond, but refusing to do so out of spite.

Option B: Accept that your technique is not effective here. Accept that your partner is not responding because they are not feeling the things necessary to engender the desired response. Explore why this is happening and adjust. 

"So how do I get back that old magic, Joe? Instead of telling why things don't work, how about some fixes?"

Glad you asked. Here are 3 EZPZ steps you can take.


STEP 1. Forget about the specific mechanics of a technique and instead, connect to the principle that makes the technique work.

If you get hung up on executing the technique, you are missing the point.

Instead, use whatever techniques (even improvised ones) work by tapping into the underlying principle that makes a technique effective.

STEP 2. Let go of the perspective that people "should" be respond to your actions in a certain way.

If you get hung up on your expectations of how they should respond, your mind will be focused on that and miss out on important information.

Instead, release your expectations and simply observe your partner's reactions. Make necessary adjustments and observe what happens. Lather, Rinse, Repeat.

Learn from what is NOT working as much as what IS.

STEP 3. Practice, practice and more practice.

To truly master anything, you need to keep practicing the relevant techniques over and over again.

"But wait, a-ha! Gotcha! Just before you said, and I quote, "A technique has limited usefulness."

You are totally right. And repeating a technique over and over and expecting it to always work in the real world the same way is a losing approach.

What I mean is that by practicing a technique over and over again, the technique will start to reveal the underlying principles underpinning why it works. In other words, the practice is a door through which you must pass to reach the final destination - understanding the principle. Once you understand the principle, you can apply the principle across various scenarios, even ones that you have not practiced for or encountered before. Understanding the technique allows you to adapt to more situations and respond appropriately. You are free from the tyranny and limitation of a set number of techniques. 

I hope this has been helpful or given you something to think about. If you try this and it work or even if it doesn't, I would love to hear from you!
Next post next Saturday, 6:30 a.m.