Mentors Matter


Success though service – three rules for working hard, winning big, and staying humble.

Mentors rarely realize the impact they have on the lives they touch. Adjusting strategies with the grace of a martial arts master, the best of them shift seamlessly from teacher to coach, confidante to counselor, cheerleader to drill sergeant, all in an effort to bring out your best. If you’re willing, they’ll succeed, dusting off untapped potential to uncover skills you never knew you possessed. Selfless creatures, mentors have the eye of an artist, the patience of a craftsman, and a curious disposition that enables them to be the architects of possibility.

My first mentor embodied this description, and while she’d scoff at the word, “master,” Sensei Sara was definitely a martial artist. At the time when it was unusual for a woman to be involved in karate, she held a chief instructor rank and operated two thriving schools. Yet for all her accomplishments, she seemed only to take pride in helping others find a path to prosperity…a way out of the old neighborhood and the trouble that seemed to lurk around every corner.

During her lessons, she’d endlessly repeat the idea that “you don’t have anything until you give it away.” The brawlers we were had little use for philosophy, but we soon learned to appreciate the concept. One year, at the conclusion of our brown belt test, she asked the green belts (two levels below) to display their forms. She then judged us on their performance, noting simply, “Black belts teach.” Her point was that if we were to advance, we needed to pay for the knowledge desired with knowledge already accumulated. “Stinginess breeds mediocrity,” she’d say, noting that while the work was up to the individual, leaders made their mark by helping others succeed. Talk about excellence in talent management.


Each New Year reminds me of Sensei Sara and her lessons. After all, it is the time when people traditionally take stock of their lives and the achievements earned along the way. Resolutions are made. Goals are set. And professionals at all stages of their careers optimistically search for that secret set of steps or principles that will expedite their advancement. Unfortunately, despite what self-help gurus would have you believe, effective shortcuts are scarce and seldom easy to implement. Often that “overnight success” was years in the making and forged from a series of unsung efforts and humbling failures.

Of course, a simple, “work ethic works” message doesn’t play well in today’s instant-gratification culture. Given the pace of the average person’s work/life reality, it is easy to understand the desire for quick wins. Ambitious, high-performers can become even more harried as they try to navigate the implications of increased global competition, a still-lagging economy, and newly flattened organizational structures that seem to stifle upward mobility at every turn. So how can you expedite your advancement in the face of this new normal?


As an executive coach, I’ve worked with a variety of talented professionals, and while every client is unique, most begin the engagement with hopes of advancing their development and, in turn, their careers. To help them obtain results, I often find myself referring back to three rules Sensei Sara had us recite before each class. To me, they apply as much in business and professional development as they do for practicing the martial arts.


Sensei was quick to debunk the allure of cinemastyle fighting. Learning isn’t magic…neither is success. In most cases, the process of acquiring either is rather formulaic. If you want a skill, you have to put in the time to develop it. If you want success, you have to put that skill to use consistently. Sure, there are tricks to shorten the learning curve and techniques to help the lessons stick sooner. The value of actual experience—of sweat equity— however, is something you can’t dispute.

This rule also underscores the belief that while raw talent can be valuable, it is worthless if squandered and nothing in the face of consistent effort. Success often relies on embracing the philosophy of deliberate practice and demonstrating the willingness to stick to it longer than the average person does. In the real world, you must work harder and smarter.


It’s hard to deny that sometimes the working world can seem unfair. People play politics. Connections trump know-how. And having the wrong background, alma mater, or even sense of style can get you ousted from the highpotential list faster than the cool kid clique in high school. It seems a laughable and antiquated concept, given the much-discussed war for talent and the focus of many companies to obtain diversified thought leadership. Still, nepotism happens. Self-promoters prevail. And introverts unwittingly can become casualties of corporate dogfights.

Regardless of your organizational reality, it’s important to keep things in perspective. Sure, luck happens and knowing the right people can give you a leg up in certain situations, but there’s no free lunch. At some point, people have to earn the rank they wear. Paper leaders who lack the sense to punch their weight eventually get kicked to the canvass. Sensei advised that we be quick to seize opportunities when they arise, but that we take great pains to live up to the favors of chance. Remember, good beats lucky in the long term.


It’s good to celebrate achievements, but it’s also important to stay humble and put your wins in perspective. After all, each promotion only puts you on the starting line for the next goal. We used to joke with the newly anointed sho-dans by saying, “Congratulations, you are now the lowest-ranking black belt in the universe. Practice begins tomorrow.” An outsider may view this as just a bit of good-natured ribbing from the old guard, but it also served as a productive reminder. Growth has no finish line. Often, the goal you once only dreamed about will seem like a simple stepping-stone to the next objective. You have to stay hungry.

This rule is also about reflection. Sensei consistently reminded us that upon achievement of a goal, it’s important to recall those who helped you along the way and pay their kindness back through service to others. She also noted that it was an excellent time to take stock of your current state and actual desires before blindly signing up for the next goal. This way, you avoided “succeeding in the wrong direction.” At a time when martial artists stuck closely to their own style, she often would ask newly promoted black belts to join other schools and return in a year to share their learnings. The practice of actively releasing talent for the betterment of the individual and the whole was unheard of at the time. Now there is an entire business, Mixed Martial Arts, built on the concept. Many organizations would be wise to adopt the practice.


Life is riddled with risks, obstacles, and competitive forces that cannot be predicted or easily circumvented. In those cases, in which persistence alone is not enough, a flexible mindset can help bridge the gap. Sensei advised us to be aware of our limitations—not for the sake of accepting them, but rather so that we might develop creative workarounds and find a new path to success. For example, after a back injury sidelined my teaching career, I used the time to write a book on the subject. Passing on the lessons via a different medium was a great way to stay fresh while I mended. The challenge also opened up opportunities I never knew existed. Turns out Sensei Sara was right.

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