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Unveiling the Leadership Secrets of The Karate Kid

A Tale of Two Senseis and Their Impact on Organisational Success

For anyone who grew up in the 1980s, the iconic movie The Karate Kid will no doubt be a familiar memory. It’s the classic story of good vs bad, featuring two opposing karate schools – Miyagi-Do vs Cobra-Kai. On the good side you have the hero Daniel Larusso, a new boy in town just trying to make friends and fit in. And on the bad side you have Johnny Lawrence, the popular high-school bully who takes an instant dislike to Daniel.

The story unfolds through the eyes of Daniel, who decides to train in karate after a severe beating from Johnny. Unfortunately for Daniel, Johnny has been taught by the aggressive and demanding war veteran, John Kreese. Kreese teaches an aggressive style of karate called Cobra-Kai and encourages his students to win at all costs. In contrast, Daniel is taken under the wing of the Zen-like Mr. Miyagi, who has no interest in winning or losing—as long as you compete with integrity, fairness, and honesty.

The climax of the film ends with the all Valley Karate tournament in which Daniel and Johnny meet each other in the final of the competition. Despite some very underhand tactics from Johnny (encouraged by his sensei), Daniel wins the gold. Good defeats evil, and integrity triumphs over dishonour.

Although Daniel and Johnny are clearly the main characters, their two senseis are at least as interesting in terms of personality differences. Daniel’s teacher, Mr Miyagi, is a supportive and inspiring mentor who guides Daniel towards better life choices by asking thoughtful questions. Although he’s strict, he never punishes Daniel for making mistakes. Instead, he teaches him how to learn from his errors and have confidence in his own decisions.

In stark contrast, John Kreese rules by fear and intimidation. His methods are ruthless and brutal, and he employs cheating, intimidation, and threats to get what he wants. Kreese is the complete antithesis of Mr. Miyagi and sees him as weak and ineffective.

While The Karate Kid is an exaggerated work of fiction, the two basic leadership styles it depicts are very real. Mr. Miyagi leads by asking questions, listening to the answers, and processing the information before making collaborative decisions. Kreese's leadership style is direct, assertive , and leaves little room for discussion. In the infamous scene where Kreese tells his student to “sweep the leg”, this was not a request but a command. You’re expected to obey his orders without question—but in return, Kreese takes full responsibility for the outcome.

If you’ve ever been to a leadership training or read any books on leadership, you’ll probably believe that Miyagi’s way is the better of the two. And yes, if you had to choose to be one sensei or the other, I hope you would take Miyagi’s guiding approach over Kreese’s dictatorial (and slightly scary) leadership style.

But aside from being controlling and authoritarian, Kreese does display some excellent qualities. First, you know exactly what he wants you to do; he doesn’t expect you to work out all the answers for yourself. Clear direction is one of the top qualities of a good leader, and Kreese has full confidence in his objectives and methods for success. Second, Kreese rewards loyalty and develops students who put in the most effort . Building loyalty is an essential part of leadership, and if you expect people to stay loyal to the company, you need to reciprocate that trust. Third, you know John Kreese is going to do everything within his control to win. Sometimes he uses dirty tactics (which should never be encouraged), but he will explore every possible path to success. While some would describe him as ruthless and unforgiving, others will see him as determined and tenacious.

So which style of leadership is better—Miyagi’s softer mentoring approach, or Kreese’s strict, straight-talking method? According to Stephen Martin and Joseph Marks, both approaches are effective. In their book Messengers, they explain that the best leadership style depends on the situation. In times of high pressure and demand, Kreese is the person you want in charge. People need clear and unambiguous direction, which he excels at. These are times when you just need to get things done, and you don’t have time for brainstorming or blue-sky thinking.

During periods of stability and growth, however, the mentoring and educational approach exemplified by Miyagi will be the most effective. These periods are opportunities for creativity and original thinking, so the atmosphere needs to be more open-ended. The team needs to think slowly and collaboratively build a strategic plan – and this will only be possible when they’re given the space and permission to think long-term.

So does this mean your organisation needs two different leadership teams, one team for the high-pressure moments and another for the more creative phases? Unfortunately, this would likely be impractical and confusing. Instead, companies should aim for a leadership team that’s diverse in personalities and leadership styles. If there are too many Kreese-like members on the team, the atmosphere will quickly become uncooperative and toxic. At the same time, a team made up entirely of mentors and coaches will struggle to make quick and firm decisions, and perhaps lack a clear direction. A good balance of both styles will blend nicely together and set the organisation up for success. The business will be able to adapt to sudden changes – and have the maturity and discipline to plan ahead for future growth.

In the realm of leadership, The Karate Kid offers a compelling insight into the contrasting styles of mentors, Mr. Miyagi and John Kreese. While Miyagi's mentoring approach emphasises collaboration and long-term thinking, Kreese's authoritative style prioritises clear direction and immediate results. Both styles have their merits depending on the situation, highlighting the importance of diverse leadership teams. By blending the best of both approaches, organisations can navigate challenges effectively, foster innovation during stable periods, and cultivate a culture that embraces adaptability and foresight for sustained success. Understanding the nuances of leadership styles can guide the selection of individuals best suited to lead different projects, ultimately steering the organization towards growth and resilience in an ever-evolving landscape.

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