Our society tried to circumvent the pitfalls of bad leadership by putting limits on the power our leaders can wield, and we have largely succeeded. There are situations, however, where those limitations do not and/or cannot apply. There are still positions in life where people gain a higher-than-normal level of control over other people; where they can put others through severe physical, psychological, emotional, or spiritual stresses, potentially pushing them to breaking point. In those situations, healthy leadership is absolutely critical. The lacks of poor leadership cannot be counterbalanced by limits on the control the leaders wield, because the very nature of the situation is that the leader has much or all of the control.
The main situations I can think of where this kind of condition applies are:
- Life-or-death situations, particularly those taking place in circumstances where everyday laws are ignored or temporarily put aside. This applies to the military, but also to gangs and organised crime.
- Spiritual or religious situations where the leaders control not only the spiritual/psychological/emotional aspects of participants’ lives, but also often the physical (sex, food, sleep, etc). This applies to many religions though it is particularly obvious in cults.
- Any situation where people are pushed beyond the common limits of physical/psychological endurance, such as extreme sports training, or torture.
And here’s the rub: all of those three conditions can apply to horrible situations such as domestic abuse; but they also apply to (at least ideally) positive growth environments, such as martial arts and self-defence training. I am not talking about someone doing a bit of X art once or twice a week, because the dojo is just down the road, or they need to let off some steam, or it’s more fun than jogging, or the Zumba class was full. I am talking about those people who willingly and deliberately embark in a journey of self-transformation through martial arts or self-defence; people who are ultimately willing to significantly change not only their lives, but also themselves.
Many people who take up martial arts/self-defence (henceforth abbreviated as MA/SD, because I’m getting bored of this) are on a quest. They often have a problem that they think/hope the MA/SD training will make go away. The problem may not be directly related to their ability to dismantle other humans. This is reflected in the advertising of MA/SD schools, who don’t shy away from presenting any number of personal attributes that can be allegedly gained by training: fitness, weight loss, muscle gain, confidence, discipline, awareness, focus, and so on and so forth. You can also exorcise any number of negatives: “abolish anxiety, stress and mediocrity!” (and I quote). The bottom line is that MA/SD is seen and sold as a “transformative experience”, which isn’t a false promise.
Fortunately or unfortunately, or perhaps just inevitably, transformative experiences require that you keep an open mind. And ‘the problem with having an open mind, of course, is that people will insist on coming along and putting things in it’ (Long Live Terry Pratchett). The journey ultimately requires a degree of faith/trust in the system or art in question, and/or in the instructors. That faith is too often handed out very early on in the joining process, when students simply do not have the critical skills to evaluate what is being taught. If you are completely new to a field of study, how can you tell if you’re being taught well? Furthermore, many schools include their own failsafes against loss of faith, largely based on convincing you that if you can’t make that technique work it’s because you are not good enough yet. The very fact that you are questioning the technique shows that you are not fully committed to it, after all.
I’m not saying that all MA/SD is brainwashing, or that all instructors are wannabe gurus. I am saying that MA/SD training can have a profound impact on a person’s emotional, psychological, physical and spiritual state. For that reason, good leadership in this field is particularly critical.