Skipping Grades

I recall a story I read in a book on leadership:

On a man’s first day on the job as a new manager, his CEO invited him into the office for a short meeting, welcoming the young man to the world of leadership. Eager to learn, he listened intently as the CEO spoke, even taking notes when he heard little nuggets of truth dropped throughout the conversation. When the few minutes were up, the older gentleman asked the young man if he had any questions. The young manager asked just one question:  “What is the secret to growing in this company?” See, the young man was ambitious, and anxious to climbing the ladder.

The CEO laughed, and told him, “I’m going to tell you the most valuable secret of all.” He then asked the new manager to have a seat, and the wise old boss took out a tattered shoe box. In it were a can of shoe polish and two rags. In the next 10 minutes, he quietly shined the young man’s shoes, not saying a word. The young man was embarrassed. Perhaps it was a lesson about dress! Had he forgotten to shine his shoes? Did he look sloppy? How could this wealthy man–a CEO for pete’s sakes–shine MY shoes, he thought. He tried to refuse the kind gesture, but the old man would have none of it.

When he was done, the CEO thanked him, and showed him the door. “I’ve got a lot of work to do, sir,” he said, “have a great day, and welcome to the company.”

End of story.

There were many lessons. Depending on what type of man you are, you will pull a different lesson. But this is what I got out of it:

  • No  man can lead until he is capable of serving those supposedly “beneath” him. I think of the story of Jesus (pbuh) washing the feet of his students and followers. How  can one lead if he felt his position to be above those of the ones he is responsible for?
  • If a man understood true humility, he should be able to do more than just describe it, he must be able to demonstrate it. Leaders are humble men, because they lead out of a sense of duty, not power.
  • Yes, you must look good while doing it. Maybe the young man’s shoes were dull.
  • It takes a sense of service to build a sense of being served. You cannot lead men into battle from the rear–after all, who is following whom?

Today’s lesson, however, is not one of leadership. It is of the path to mastery. In the martial arts, there is a rush to jump to “Master” without going thru the stages. Men are very quick to strap on the title of “Master” and “expert” without climbing the ropes. Rather, they are looking for the easiest way to get to the top; an elevator, perhaps. They want something painful. They don’t want to put their own reputation on the line. They want the cheapest way there. They don’t want to grovel, to sleep on floors. They won’t travel across town for it. They won’t stay with a Master, practice in the rain and back yards, they want to wait until the Master has a nice comfy school–before they will make the commitment. And worst of all, after a life of doing everything (excuse the expression) half-assed–they want the same respect and same titles as the guy who clawed and scratched his way to mastery.

You cannot become a Master teacher, until you were first a Master student.

Master teachers who were not Master students are a dime a dozen. I hate to say this, but I can tell from the words that come out an old man’s mouth if he was worthy of carrying my jock strap when he was young. In the art of fighting and life of a warrior, you don’t get your stripes with old age automatically. Some men were mediocre at best when they were young, and now that they are old they are worse… They are too old to do anything but make up stories of how good they were when they were young. They are incapable of duplicating the best of their student history in the majority of their students. They tout one or two great students, because the majority of their students were a lot like themselves:  mediocre. Not because the students have been bad, but because the teachers weren’t all that hot.

When a man has earned his stripes, it shows. He does not need to flaunt his resume, chase awards and certificates, or stay in the company of friends and groupies. He may be old, but his students’ skill speak for his knowledge and expertise. He has seen more and learned more and forgotten more than anything the other guys could ever conjure up in their seminars and videotapes. He is this way, because he has spent many years at the feet of one greater than himself and learned those lessons patiently–not paid for them by following celebrity teachers around the country. He does not need to quote stories about his teachers because he has acquired stories and experiences of his own by encountering others like himself and tested what he has learned against what they have learned.

He is high on former opponents, and low on training partners. <— This is the litmus test of the Master student. He is patient, he is humble. He does not approach teachers with an order form like he was on Amazon ordering books (I wanna learn this and that, but not that, and I’m not doing that) .  He was willing to shine his Master’s shoes for years because of the lessons he gained from that Master. He was willing to shine his opponent’s shoes for years because of the lessons his opponent gave him. He was willing to shine the shoes of his students (before becoming a “master”) for years, because of the lessons he would learn from those students.

And after decades of shining shoes as a lowly student of the arts, he will be ready to call himself a “Master”. This is not a level you achieve because of popularity, media sales, seminar attendance, or PR efforts. You gain it as a by-product of spending time on each rung of the ladder in the quest for knowledge and ability. It reminds me of kids who think they are so smart they could skip grades. They are in such a rush to grow up they talk of skipping grade levels to get through high school, but even if you could do it, and get the certificate… you’re still a 15 year old kid with a grown man’s diploma.

Thank you for visiting my blog.

Author: thekuntawman

full time martial arts teacher, full time martial arts philosopher, and full time martial arts critic

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