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Home > Columns > Ross Robertson > September, 2006 - I Shouldn't Have to Do This
by Ross Robertson

I Shouldn't Have to Do This by Ross Robertson

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Seidokan Summer Camp, Long Beach, California, 1990s.

The late great Seidokan Founder and Kancho, Rod Kobayashi, was presiding over one of the sessions at Camp. During class he mentioned casually that he'd like to lead a group of people on a walk down to the beach later in the evening. It was an off-hand remark, and seemed like no big deal. But he mentioned it several times more. I thought it sounded like a good idea, so I noted the scheduled time and went on with training.

The appointed hour arrived, and I wandered over to the commons area where Sensei said we'd meet. I found him alone, standing in the middle of the room, hands in pockets. No one else was there. I looked at him expectantly and asked "Where is everybody?"

For the first time in my life, I saw him look embarrassed. He shrugged a bit, took his hands out of his pockets, and turned them palms out. He finally blurted out "I ... shouldn't have to do this!"

I saw the problem immediately, and told him I'd take care of it. I zigzagged around the campus, pausing wherever I could find groups of people gathered outside under the eucalyptus trees, or in the cafeteria. I told them, "Sensei wants to go for a walk. Let's go." After a short while, a small group of 15 people or so had gathered, and when we got back to where Sensei was waiting, it seemed to be enough.

He quietly led us off the campus, through the streets, and down by the pier. There was no reproach or lecture on etiquette or inattentiveness. Neither was there any discourse on the nature of aiki, nor any surprise training on the beach. I'm pretty sure all he wanted was some company on a pleasant evening, and to offer a chance for people to get together for a bit of community.

Still, the episode was a seminal moment for me. Kobayashi always approached his leadership responsibilities the same way he did his aikido -- gently, respectfully, and without insistence. It was as if this wonderful thing could not happen unless shared by others. By his example, he seemed to communicate that a wise leader does not have to command. But neither should a wise leader be expected to beg.

The Tao Te Ching observes that when a great leader accomplishes something, the people say, "We did it." [Chapter 17] And one of my favorite bumper stickers says "When the people lead, the leaders will follow." Kobayashi Sensei exemplified this. No one questioned his authority, because he earned our trust by being a simple and earnest man. In addition, he was an ardent researcher and tireless innovator. His aikido was powerful, compelling, but always inviting. It was also demonstrable, teachable, and learnable -- not something shrouded in mystery. So he also earned our respect by having the goods and sharing them freely.

Nowadays I have my own independent dojo. I do all I can to live up to this example, but it's hard. Normally when someone says "I shouldn't have to do this," they mean that it's not their job, not their responsibility, it's not their problem. When Kobayashi Sensei said it, it carried a very different nuance.

If a respected leader says this, then people must understand they are being invited to help make something happen. The group is expected to understand the value of distributed authority and responsibility. Wise leaders knows their own limitations, and therefore cultivate a culture where the group carries the load together. Burdens and rewards are shared.

But if people aren't paying attention, then group cohesion is eroded. On this occasion in Long Beach, I happened to be the one paying attention. But of course I wonder how many other times there was an opening, an invitation that I overlooked. When we fail to be attentive, we invite calamity and opportunities are overlooked.

The fatal grace of this ironic universe is that if we are really not paying attention, we may never even know the consequences.

In aikido, a wise leader is willing to do whatever it takes to keep the system healthy. They may sweep the mats, pay the rent, do the marketing, take the phone calls, design the flyers, arrange seminars, and more. All of this in addition to teaching classes, doing the research, and refining the art. But the system is not healthy if the kancho, chief instructor, or dojocho is allowed to take on a disproportionate load. It is shameful and lazy on the students' part, and it is humiliating and embarrassing for the leader.

The truth of this is so obvious, that I shouldn't have to tell you. I shouldn't have to do this. But if you're one of the ones who needs to be told, odds are you're not even reading this.

Ross Robertson
Still Point Aikido Center
Austin, TX, USA

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