What Mr. Miyagi Teaches Us About Leadership

Remember Mr. Miyagi?

Yes, the “wax on, wax off” sensei from the Karate Kid movies that taught Daniel LaRusso how to defend himself against the dreaded Cobra Kai’s.

He was often seen pruning and grooming Bonsai trees while Daniel was off waxing cars and staining fences. The cool thing is there’s a key leadership lesson we can learn from Mr. Miyagi related to the Bonsai trees he meticulously took care of.

Did you know that Bonsai trees are not naturally tiny trees? They actually have the DNA to grow to all different sizes, but are limited on purpose.

Bonsai trees are placed in a “bon”, a small tray/pot, which limits the room the roots have to grow. The tree is actually pruned to be small and placed in an environment where growth is limited. Keeping it small is intentional and the “bon” constrains it from growing beyond the size of the pot.

This is very interesting and caused me to pause and ask myself a couple questions:

  • What limitations am I putting on myself as a leader that limits my growth?
  • What limitations am I putting on my team that limits their growth?

Our goal as leaders should be to create space for people to grow. We should create margin where our team members can stretch themselves and experiment in effort to unlock the potential inside them. They need open space and the freedom to try new things and take on new responsibilities. Leaders should create that type of growth environment.

The adverse is also true. We can actually limit our own and other’s growth if we’re not mindful and intentional. We can create constraining environments where growth is limited and we end up with small trees with untapped potential.

Drive it to action – Here are a couple thoughts on how to drive this to practical action today:

Grow You First – The first person you need to lead is yourself. What is your growth plan? What are you creating? What are you doing to push yourself so you continue to grow? What are you reading? You can only lead people where you’ve been yourself, so your lack of commitment to growth not only limits you, it also limits those following you. How big is the pot your roots are growing in?

Grow Your Team – Work with your team members to develop personal and professional growth plans. Give them books or articles to read. Pass along good content that will stimulate them to think a little differently today than yesterday. Challenge them to think about the pot their roots are growing in and think of ways you can stretch them. Help them think through their 1-5 year plans and dream about what’s possible.

Mr. Miyagi unlocked a lot of untapped potential in Daniel and left us a lot of small leadership lessons along the way. As Mr. Miyagi said, “Only root karate come from Miyagi, just like bonsai choose on way to grow because root strong you choose own way do karate same reason”.

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