4 Powerful Leadership Lessons From Bruce Lee

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When we think of Bruce Lee, we probably think of his monumental skills as a martial artist and an entertainer, and possibly about his untimely death at the young age of 32. What we don’t always realize is that the man was an active and impassioned leader—someone who not only trained others, but inspired them in ways both deep and powerful. Here are 4 Leadership Lessons we can take from Mr. Lee.

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1)    Knowledge and willpower are no substitutes for action.

Bruce Lee wanted more from his students—and from everyone with whom he worked—than mere knowing or good intentions. He wanted action, too. He’d remind his students that all forms of knowledge lead to self-knowledge, which, in turn, must affect the way we express ourselves and act. By extension, we can conclude that, in Lee’s view, if knowledge did not translate into action, then it was either fake or useless knowledge.

In the words of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Knowing is not enough; We must apply. Willing is not enough; We must do.” Lee was a big fan of this quote; in fact, he is known to have stated it in conversations and interviews, which led many to think it was his own.

When we’re in a leadership position, we must certainly train those with whom we’re working and inspire strong morale within them. Yet we’re really only truly leading when we inspire action.

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Take a look at your team. Are they in motion? Productive? Excelling? Experiencing forward momentum, and even setbacks? All such things are excellent signs. For if your team is educated and has a good attitude, but is lacking in the performance department, then that’s a reflection of poor leadership on your part. Step it up and remind your team that yours is a place where action matters most.

2)   In the worst of adversities, rediscover and recalibrate yourself so you can be your best no matter what.

On one occasion in 1970, Lee was attempting an exercise called a “good-morning.” It called for him holding a barbell across his shoulders and bending forward while keeping his back and legs straight. In the process, poor Lee threw his back out.

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His recuperation was long and slow. But he used that time to pen a series of writings, all about his favorite process: martial arts.

What he couldn’t do with his body, he described with his mind and hands, creating written passages that could be of benefit to many others, which were eventually collected in his book Tao of Jeet Kune Do (published after his death in 1973).

The lesson here is to always use whatever resources are available to you, even when you’re hit by blocks or limitations. Good leaders know how to inspire such conduct in their teams. When it’s raining on the field, practice indoors. When your team’s down with colds, work on mental strategy instead of practicing moves. And if they’re too weak to study, hold a bonding session for them, and watch a movie together.

The point is to always make yourself useful. Leaders have to think on their feet and be creative in this regard. When obstacles land in the road, the leader must instantly see ways around, above, below and through them.

The premise is to stay in motion, remain relevant and keep being useful at all times.

3)    You are only defeated when you accept it.

No matter who you lead, they will suffer defeats. Whether you’re operating in business, sports, the arts or what have you, your team will experience disappointments. It’s on you, as the leader, to set an ongoing tone of learning and opportunity from the top, which will help boost morale and realign efforts to continue the fight.

Remember words once spoken by Bruce Lee: “Defeat is a state of mind; No one is ever defeated until defeat has been accepted as a reality.”

In your role as a leader, bear Lee’s wisdom in mind. Don’t let your team call themselves “defeated” until you declare it so. It doesn’t matter what the quarterly reports or the scoreboard say. And if you ever declare defeat and your team refuses to accept it, then you’ll know you have done something right.

Let’s not mistake Lee’s view of defeat as a naive reluctance to accept reality. From a leadership stance, reality, be it positive or negative, must not be ignored nor naively denied. Yet our focus must be a result of our vision, not a mere reaction to reality.

When your team stumbles and falls, remind them of your ongoing plans and goals, as well as existing trends that point to positive conclusions. Remind them, also, that whereas you have dark days, you will also soon have bright ones. It matters what the leader says, every day.

4)   Human learning is about changing visions, positions and actions rather than just accumulating knowledge.

Lee once shared the insight that “Learning is never cumulative, it is a movement of knowing which has no beginning and no end.”

When we think about these words, we can see the clear truth in them. People’s minds don’t operate in a cumulative fashion, loading up more and more information like data on some computer hard drive. Human consciousness operates in far more nuanced and delicate ways. When we acquire new knowledge, the same replaces the old, causing a rewiring of our brain that changes our consciousness and outlook on things. Whether we are talking about business success, spiritual development or any other subject, new knowledge causes us to reinterpret reality in a way that shifts our actions either slightly or profoundly.

Also, it takes time for learning to completely change our thoughts and actions. Learning is kind of oscillatory. The human mind shifts in and out of new states of awareness like the tide moves along with the phases of the moon. Sometimes we’re all clear about all new knowledge we have acquired, all present in our new state of being. Other times, we’re sort of lost, less focused and murkier, as if the new knowledge were the cause of confusion more than anything else. Oftentimes, we’re somewhere in between. At all times, however, we are letting the new knowledge redefine us. We are always learning.

Having said that, don’t expect your team to memorize every lesson you teach them, much less expect their growth to occur in a linear fashion. Sometimes lessons will stick; other times they won’t. What one team member remembers, another will forget. The important part is to bear in mind that learning is an ever-unfolding, ongoing and open-ended process.

When you trust learning to occur in this way, you will have more trust in your team and their potential for progress. Likewise, your team will have more trust in you.

This post was originally published on Forbes.com.


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