The martial arts of management

Based on principles found in aikido – a form of Japanese martial arts – author Michael Veltri theorises that leaders and managers can transform their busy lives. In an edited extract from his new book The Mushin Way to Peak Performance: The Path to Productivity, Balance, and Success he looks at how to find your ‘one-point’ and why deprioritising wellbeing is counterproductive to staff management

A sense of cosmic balance

In aikido we learn that it’s crucially important to find what’s called your ‘nen’. Nen literally means ‘one-point’ and it refers to your physical center of gravity — a point two inches below your navel. When you’re fighting, if you find your one-point, it’s much harder for your opponent to push you off balance. Metaphorically, nen refers to a line that connects your personal energy to the energy of the universe. It’s the sense of cosmic balance that keeps you from being pushed over psychologically, by fear or over-confidence.

Finding your one-point is as crucial in life as it is in aikido. If you’re not centered in yourself, any little thing can push you off balance. Picture yourself arriving at your office in the morning with one major item on your to-do list. You’re focused, you’re ready to tackle this project.

And then the emails start streaming in—your boss wants this assignment done by Friday. Now you’re worried that you won’t be able to finish in time. You’re thinking about how much pressure your boss has been putting on you this year. Then you get another e-mail. Your colleague wants to get lunch, and you know what that means—an hour of listening to nonstop complaints.

The best is possible

You can already feel the headache starting to throb behind your eyes. Next, it’s your spouse texting to remind you to stop at the store on your way home, which is annoying, because you definitely weren’t going to forget. Sure, you forgot yesterday, but today you’ve got a reminder on your phone. And so on. Before you know it, all that focus and purpose you walked in with is gone.

That feeling of being buffeted from side-to-side by whatever’s coming at you—that’s the feeling of losing your one-point. It can happen on that kind of small scale, over the course of a day, and it can also happen on a larger scale, over the course of a year, or a lifetime. Your parents pressure you to go out for the soccer team because they think it’ll look good on your college applications. You join a community choir to get closer to someone you find attractive. You take a job because you need a job and then, five years later, you’re stuck in a career you didn’t particularly want.

Some outside influences are positive, of course. Some people encourage us to be our best, like the friend who makes a pact to go to the gym together once a week or the spouse who always believes the best is possible. But, all too often, we’re influenced by other people’s expectations in a way that really has nothing to do with what we really want. And because we want to please these people, or we fear letting them down, we let them push us in one direction or another. And we end up off-center. We lose our one-point.

Finding your one point by stepping away

For years I put work ahead of everything else in my life. My twenties flew by while I was living, studying and working in Japan. My thirties were a blur, moving back to America, starting and running successful companies. By age 42, I was completely burned out. I had achieved significant professional success but I was lonely, and I’d never taken a two-week vacation in my life.

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I know I’m not alone there. A recent survey by the executive search firm Korn/Ferry found that only 3 percent of executives across a range of industries were willing to completely cut themselves off from the office during vacation.1 Why? What are we so afraid of? For me, I was afraid to delegate. I thought that only I could make all the necessary decisions and take care of all the important clients. So I kept pushing myself—until I finally hit the wall and I was no longer good to anyone: myself, my family, my friends, my staff, or my clients.

Finally, at age 42, I took a real vacation. For three weeks I traveled and rested and recharged. This was the first time in my life that I left my laptop at home and didn’t look at e-mail, answer phone calls, or worry about work. I completely unplugged. My stress level dropped to near zero. I had fun, for the first time in many years.

That vacation showed me that my priorities were all wrong. I had put my own well-being way down on my list of priorities, behind my job, my family, my friends, and a host of other distractions. And the irony was, by not taking responsible care of myself and constantly putting my job at the top of the list, I was actually limiting my professional success.

Averting disaster

When I finally stepped away, the disaster I was afraid of did not materialize. Quite the opposite, in fact. My staff thrived, my clients were exquisitely happy, important decisions were made with more creativity than I could have summoned—everything went great, and I came back refreshed and ready to work harder and smarter than before.

In Stephen Covey’s bestselling book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, he explains that one of the fundamentals of being productive is to take time off to rest. To exercise. To go on vacation. That time is not money. Because no matter how busy you think you are, if you don’t take quality time off, you won’t have the energy, creativity and vigor to fulfill your other business and personal priorities in earnest. Your well-being cup will run dry.

So how do you keep your well-being cup full? Start slowly. Start by setting boundaries, such as staying off the Internet before 8:00 AM or after 7:00 PM. Stop working on the weekends. Remove wireless email from your phone—trust me, you don’t need it. And for your own sake and the sake of everyone around you, take a vacation. Sometimes you need to step away in order to recalibrate and find your one-point again.

About the author:

Michael Veltri is a top-rated keynote speaker, serial entrepreneur, and leadership expert for elite organisations such as the Central Intelligence Agency and many Fortune 500 companies. As a professional athlete and U.S. Marine veteran, Michael shares his unique message of business transformation and peak performances to leaders, executives, entrepreneurs, and professionals worldwide.

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