How Leaders Should Lead

By: Emily Kwok


‘Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power’ – Abraham Lincoln

Reflecting on the 18 going on 19 years I’ve been involved with BJJ, it’s a surreal moment to confront myself with the fact that I’ve been training a long time; like long enough for entire human beings to be born, raised, graduate high school and enter college. Though I’ve been active in the scene for a significant number of years, know that there are living legends like Fabio Gurgel or Renzo Gracie who have been black belts longer than all the years I’ve been collectively training!

Though the above mentioned facts make me feel my age more than usual, I am also reminded that I’ve seen and been subjected to a lot of ‘stuff’ over the years. I’ve had the chance to meet many a hero, witness champions being made, schools rise and perish, teams build and burn, and many relationships be born and wither away.  

Outside of self interest, I see it as part of my responsibility as a business owner to pay attention to the dynamics at play within our microcosm. I see this as a concern especially within our schools since we provide the infrastructure and hierarchy necessary to grow the art. Over the years I can sadly report that more often than not, my years have been spent silently learning what not to do vs. being provided with great examples of leadership. Emily and students watch the mat

In our gyms and in our lives we are all leaders to someone. We each hold more power than we may be aware of.

I think leadership at its best has been used to empower others to make decisions for themselves. I’ve witnessed this from the teachings of some of my most cherished mentors. The best leaders offer access to knowledge, they teach others how to ask the right questions, observe, and facilitate critical thinking skills. Good leaders should give people the tools to be successful independent thinkers. We should be friends, lovers, teammates, co-workers and students because we want to be in their circle of influence – not because we got duped, coerced or bullied.

Solid leaders lead through love, vulnerability and authenticity. Confidence is the byproduct of someone’s willingness to stand behind what they say and do, regardless of their success or failure – they aren’t willing to be something they’re not. The best leaders often don’t have all the answers, frequently need help and won’t always succeed. They always put their best effort forward and are happy to bring others along to share their enthusiasm for growth.

Unfortunately I don’t see this version of a leader too often. I’ve experienced and heard many a story about leaders who abuse their power by pressuring people into their decision making, cutting off access and sheltering minds, manipulating circumstances and using ridicule or force. This is a leader of weak character, big ego and cowardly spirit. This is a leader who can’t stand behind their word, will talk much but never do, who will always have someone or something to hide behind, and cannot find grace in accepting failure because everything they are is artificial. Their tower is built of the most fragile rice paper, perfect in their distorted reality but built of flimsy material. Authenticity is their kryptonite.

When we are in the position of privilege to influence others, we should be careful and respectful of their disposition and give them the room to make their own decisions. If someone is stunted, gently nudge or support them until they are out of their rut as opposed to playing games with them until you get the results you want. We should be responsibly helping those around us grow in their own way instead of making them drink more of our homemade kool aid.

We should all feel free to question what we don’t understand and reject what doesn’t feel right without fear of penalty.

Are the leaders in your life capable of having an intelligent discussion around moments of friction?

Does it scare you to imagine what the repercussions might be if you don’t just agree?

Growing up and stumbling upon negative leadership, I’ve tried to recognize the signs clearly from a distance. I try not to get mixed up in it because it only brings drama and heartache. I don’t have time for it and knowing how destructive it can be, I rally against it when I see others trapped in its twisted embrace. It can be a creepy and insidious thing. Many people are unaware of its cancerous power because it often disguises itself under the cloak of someone you’re supposed to trust. It knows no gender and it’s just as much about building a cult of personality as it is about sexual harassment or assault. Everyone can be deceived by it.

The gravity of us naively accepting or turning a blind eye to situations we inherently feel wrong about will only send our industry backward. Hopefully we don’t train ourselves to override our gut reactions in the face of potentially harmful acts in play. No matter how big or small the platform, your actions will be seen by others and the effects will ripple through your community. We are all partly accountable to each other for creating and maintaining a healthy culture within our schools. As school owners and head instructors it is up to us to set the tone and example for everyone else to follow. This is our job.

A very good friend had quoted these two statements to me years ago that I am reminded of often, ‘You can’t lie forever’ and, ‘You deserve the instructor you choose’. I am optimistic for the future because I think most people would love to be treated more respectfully and feel safe in any given environment. It’s just up to all of us to do the work.



  • Los Angeles BJJ

    Great post! Well written. I especially enjoyed your definitions of leadership and negative leadership.

  • Carlos Alvarez

    I totally agree..

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