Leadership Lessons from Aikido with Andrew Sunter

Loris Marini - Podcast Host Discovering Data

Can Aikido's principle of "going with" instead of "against" a threat help us become better leaders? Join me as I learn from Aikido black-belt, Andrew Sunter.

Also on :
Stitcher LogoPodcast Addict LogoTune In Logo

Join the list

Join hundreds of practitioners and leaders like you with episode insights straight in your inbox.

You're in! Look out for the next episode in your inbox.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Want to tell your data story?

Loris Marini Headshot

Checkout our brands or sponsors page to see if you are a match. We publish conversations with industry leaders to help data practitioners maximise the impact of their work.

Why this episode

The difference between a good leader and a great leader often comes down to handling conflict. Conflict in the workplace is unavoidable. We gain or lose respect based on how we respond to it.

The problem is that our instincts don’t serve us well in conflict. Whenever we disagree, our natural reaction is to push back against that person.

This response can sound defensive or aggressive, and trigger an even less productive reaction. One way to reduce conflict and increase cooperation is to go WITH, not AGAINST people who disagree with you. That is the essence of the Japanese martial art known as Aikido.

I personally discovered this art a few months ago. It has been incredibly beneficial in regaining balance and a bit of control in my personal and professional life.

Training to recognize conflict is the first step to stop reacting and start leading. Today, I want to dive deeper into this less mainstream martial art, and what better way to do this than with a conversation with my Aikido sensei, Andrew Sunter.

Andrew Sunter is a professional Aikido instructor who explores the boundaries of conflict resolution by applying the principles of non-attachment on the battlefield to everyday life.

He has lived and studied in Japan, and subsequently spent over two years as an uchi-deshi in an old-school dojo in Sydney's inner west, where he became an accidental Buddhist.

Andrew also had an extensive career as a computer programmer, technical writer, corporate trainer, and project manager in the disciplines of Quality Management, Information Security Management, and document and records management.

Follow Andrew on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/andrew-sunter-85619110/

Sign-up for Andrew’s Aikido classes: http://aikidoinsydney.com/

What I learned

Share on :

Want to see the show grow?

Your ideas help us create useful and relevant content. Send a private message or rate the show on Apple Podcast or Spotify!

Episode transcripts

Loris Marini: I've been thinking for a while about the difference between a good leader and a great leader. There are a lot of material online. I came across a number of references, which you'll find in the show notes. I figured that one of the ways we can differentiate a good leader and a great leader is how we handle conflict.  

Conflict in the workplace is really unavoidable. We lose or gain respect based on how we respond to it. The problem is that our instinct doesn’t serve us well conflict. If we disagree with something that someone says or there's something that bothers us, our natural reaction is to push back and against that person and what they said. Unfortunately, this type of response can sound defensive, even aggressive and can trigger even less productive reaction on the other side.  

So how should we handle conflict? One way is to increase cooperation: not going against people and their arguments no matter how it might sound to us. I realized recently that this is actually the essence of the Japanese martial art known as Aikido. I stumbled upon it a few months ago and found it incredibly beneficial. It helped me regain balance and even regain control in my personal life, aside from my professional life.  

It was during the process of training to recognize conflict which helped me to think that awareness is the first step to change direction and stop reacting and start leading. Today, I wanted to dive deeper into this less mainstream martial art and what better way to do it than with my Aikido sensei, Andrew Sunter.  

Andrew began training in Aikido in 1989. He holds Dan ranks from three Aikido schools and received a sixth Dan from a direct student of the founder of Aikido, Koretoshi Maruyama sensei in 1996. Andrew spent five months studying in Japan and training at the Ki Society’s regional headquarters in Osaka. In 2014, he formed the Great Ocean Aikido community with Jim Nicholls, John Ward and Daniel James. He is the head of school of Aikido in Sydney, a fantastic dojo in Sydney, Alexandria.

So, Andy, I'm stoked to have you on the podcast. Thanks for taking the time and thanks for being with me.

Andrew Sunter: Pleasure to be here.

Loris Marini: Let’s set some context here. What is Aikido? After 30 years of practicing it, what makes it different from other martial arts? Why was it developed in the first place?

Andrew Sunter: Oh, so many questions. We don't have that many hours, do we? So, look, my view on Aikido has evolved over 30 years. I started out young and dumb and just believing everything I was told. The view I've formed is that Aikido has evolved from samurai arts.

That means it came from the battlefield. On the battlefield, it's killed or be killed. Historically, Japan went through the warring states period where basically everyone was fighting with every neighbor they had. That was happening all over Japan. The Tokugawa Shogunate was formed and that brought a unification to Japan and peace. People started thinking, “Well, maybe I don't have to sleep in my armor every night. Maybe I don't have to have an unsheathed sword in my hand every waking hour.”  

With the samurai, there was a lot of scholarship. There was a lot of learning. There was a lot of education. Aikido is really being able to kill and choosing not to. So, in terms of conflict resolution, sudden death is resolved. That can lead to ongoing feuds and all that kind of stuff. So obviously a peaceful resolution is preferable. So, yeah, that’s Aikido: resolving a conflict peacefully. Part of the peaceful resolution is the other party recognizing that there is another way.

Loris Marini: It's crystallizing a lot of things that I've seen in the dojo over the last five months. The same idea of knowing or feeling that there is another way. Depending on how you move, given a situation, even a threat, instead of reducing a number of options available to you, you can increase them. It's counterintuitive because when we are put in a stressful situation, we think less and react a lot more.

I believe it's the amygdala, the part of the brain that stimulates the fight or flight response. It hijacks the main control system of the brain. I'm not an expert in neuroscience, but from the little that I know and have read, it literally is an emergency circuit that comes online when we feel fear or threatened. We stop thinking and there's very little planning or strategy that we do in that moment. We just react.  

I find it fascinating that you can retrain that part of the brain. The other reason why I wanted to really have this conversation with you is that I have an untested thesis. We know the body and mind are connected. In a completely controlled environment like the dojo, where people follow the same set of rules, philosophy, discipline and set of beliefs, is it possible to do train your mind not to react, to be calmer and more focused?

Andrew Sunter: So much in there to unpack.

First, I want to say that we, as all sentient beings, are hardwired for survival. We're hardwired to pass on genetic material and we have to stay alive long enough to do that. So, we have these survival responses, these instinctive responses, and that's completely appropriate.

Can we go beyond that? Yeah, absolutely. We can go beyond that. In order to resolve conflict peacefully, it needs to be a choice, not a necessity. If I can’t resolve it any other way, it's more of a capitulation. If I can resolve the conflict not peacefully, but I choose otherwise, then that’s a choice. That choice only becomes available to us when we move from the reactive to the responsive.  

So, you talked about the amygdala response and fight or flight. The ability to move beyond that is all about having choices. You mentioned choices opening up. In Aikido, we move to a position where we're safe then we can move in any direction from there. So that's kind of getting into the more technical aspects which we can explore.

Now, you asked if the body can influence the mind.

Loris Marini: Yeah. In particular, can we learn to become more effective leaders? Can we stay calm in a situation of psychological stress?

Andrew Sunter: So, staying calm under pressure is critical. It's critical in Aikido and it's directly transferable to interacting socially as well. So of course, if you're having a beer with friends, there's no pressure. There's no work required there, but if you're driving in peak hour traffic, getting onto public transport, finding a car space in a crowded shopping center; all of these things can lead to conflict. Whether that is completely internal, when we simply feel stressed and anxious, or we want to make a splash on YouTube and we want to be that guy lost his shit in the car park. We don't want to be that guy. We don't ever want to be that guy.

Loris Marini: Yeah.

Andrew Sunter: There's consequences to this stuff and that's really important to know. So, responding, not reacting is critical.  

People look at Aikido videos and they read Aikido books and they love the philosophy and all. It's very attractive. Someone then grabs hold of them and everything changes. We don't normally put ourselves in situations where, let's say we're a 50-kilo woman. We invite a 150-kilo man to grab hold of us and try to restrain us. That makes for stress.  

Now the weird thing is that is so simply resolved, from the aspect of that 50 kilos woman, but we don't learn it. We don't know what we don't know. We can start by assessing what is happening. So, you've known from your own experience, we basically start class by grabbing somebody. They’re not going to go into punches. We're learning to deal with the assumption that they aren't going to go into punches.  

The nice thing about the dojo is we don't have to learn by just getting punched over and over again. We can slow that down and we start by taking a breath. As you know, the first thing we do is to set ourselves up physically for that calmness. So, if we're off balance, falling over, getting grabbed by somebody, it’s much more difficult if we don't have a strong center.

There's a school of thought that insists the mind leads the body, but the body also leads to the mind. Now we know this. Take a deep breath. Count to 10. All those kinds of things we tell children to help them manage their emotions. These things work. They work better the more we practice it.

Loris Marini: Yeah, absolutely.

Andrew Sunter: What we're doing is conditioning ourselves to be okay with adversity. Now, in the dojo, we get to dial that adversity down to 0.1. Let's start there. Different people have different comfort levels. Of course, people have trained in other things previously. They're aren’t new to that stuff already.

Loris Marini: Yeah. I was thinking about my personal experience with karate and body injury. A big difference between Aikido and lots of other martial arts is the fact that anyone can practice it. Anyone can study its principles and see results without necessarily having an ultra-healthy body.  

I speak from experience. This is surprising because as I started practicing, I learned that there's way more to Aikido, other than just pure self-defense. I love the philosophical aspect of it, and I'm finding that I can apply those principles back into my business, my personal life.

To me, it started only as finding a sport that can engage my mind and my body without breaking my lower back. It's an injury that I still carry. I started looking around. I first tried Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I was fascinated by the ability of jujitsu to be so effective in the street. That's the sales pitch for BJJ. I tried one class and it really felt like you need to have a really healthy body. Lower back and knee injuries are at the top of the list when you look at the injury stats.  

Strangely enough, Aikido came as the only option on the plate for a martial art that is effective and doesn't require muscle strength. That's something that I wanted to talk to you about because it connects with this aspect of leadership. There are two styles. There's the conventional leader or boss who sits at the top of the pyramid and everybody works hard to sustain the leader.

There's servant leadership, which is where the pyramid is inverted. The leader is at the bottom and they do the heavy lifting. They try to support everyone else to be their best version. If you look at that image, you say, “Okay, it's clear with option one that you don't have to be strong because there's an entire block of people supporting the leader.”  

In the second option, you think, “Oh, they are the bottom of the pyramid. They have to be strong enough to hold everybody.” I actually think that might be an illusion and that connects with one of the basic principles you teach me which is being relaxed and not needing to engage your muscles to get out of trouble. I wanted to dive into how counter-intuitive that is. Why does it work so well? What's special about it?

Andrew Sunter: There are antagonistic muscles in our own body. If I try to strike my arm and bend my arm at the same time, I'm using a lot of effort, but nothing’s happening. This is the basis of isometric exercises. They were in vogue ages ago where you're working your muscles, but nothing's actually happening because you're using the antagonistic muscles.  

Let's get two people involved. If you push me as hard as you can, and I push you as hard as I can and we’re the same height and weight, we're you going to cancel each other out. Nothing's going to happen.  

So, the whole point of Aikido is that we move orthogonally to that incoming force. We don't meet the conflict. We maintain stability. Of course, if we collapse, we take all of that incoming force. We eat the physics of the situation. Typically, what we're doing is turning. It's a lot easier to demonstrate physically. If you can visualize something turning on the spot, as something comes in, if we try and push against it, we're going to have that collision. Turning is simply going to guide that away.

Loris Marini: Don't we wish to be like round objects at work. It would be really nice to embody that.

Andrew Sunter: Look, isn't really great? Don't we want well-rounded leaders at work?

Loris Marini: Yeah, exactly. Quite literally. I've actually been appreciating a lot your invitation to stay curious and bring an open mind to the dojo. I found that to be extremely good not just in terms of how effective it is with the progress I feel that I'm making.  

I'm also lucky enough that the dojo is small. We have one black belt, two blue belt, one brown. So, I'm the only white belt there basically, which is good because everybody knows what they're doing except me.  

I was reflecting on how I could feel threatened or inept or completely out of place. You create an atmosphere that invites anyone to stay curious and discover what else they can do. How can you improve? I think it's the magic sauce.  

I don't know if there's a question. I just wanted to know how you go to that. Is it something that is simply intuitive to you? Is that how it worked in the past? Was there a particular moment where you realized that curiosity is the key to unlock that personal growth?

Andrew Sunter: There was a colleague of mine in the U.K. who said, “Hold with curiosity.” It kind of transformed my own practice because there are styles of Aikido where we hold very strongly all the time. There are other styles where we hold very softly. Both of these have advantages, but it occurred to me that when you hold with curiosity, you're looking to find what's happening in the other person's body.

Now, what's happening in the other person's body is very subtle. Moving orthogonally to your vector of force, you have to be curious or otherwise you'd just be sitting on the floor, scratching your head over and over again. This is part of why we train slowly as well. The attacker is not just fodder. The person doing the technique is learning and the other person is being learned upon; partners collaborating and learning.

As the person receiving the attack also, we want to be curious about what's happening here. If we're talking about leadership and managing conflict in the workplace, say that this deadline has changed. Oh, we can't change the deadline. That's very reactive. A more responsive approach would be, “Okay. Why?” Sometimes there is a good reason, but whatever it is, you have to work with it. The more information you have, the better you can deal with whatever the situation is, however that situation is going to evolve. This comes from that staying calm under pressure.

If you're not calm, if you're instantly reactive, you'd never even get to ask that question into an argument. That may not even be the most important thing. The deadline has changed, but hey, the budget is tripled. The CEO says, “This is so important. We're going to apply more resources to it. We're going to achieve that.” So, who knows, I guess we also assume the worst. With curiosity, we can kind of figure out, maybe it's not as bad as it might be.

Loris Marini: Yeah.

Andrew Sunter: We're talking about staying calm under pressure and responding, not reacting. That needs stability. This is very much coming from our training.

The first thing I teach people is how to engage their core. I've been training Aikido for a long, long time. I used to really struggle with flying. I was a nervous flyer. If there was any turbulence, I didn't like that feeling of being unstable, being unsafe.

Once I learned to engage my core, I couldn't care less. I was happy. The plane could be swinging from side to side and jumping up and down. As long as I felt stable, I could manage my emotions. I could manage my reactions to that constantly changing situation, which is stressful. So how do we develop that stability?

Centering. Engaging the core. The great thing about engaging the core is it instantly gives us structure in our body. You've seen that yourself. There's little exercises we do to just give people the idea.

Loris Marini: If you have time, I think you could do a much better job in describing

Andrew Sunter: Engaging the core?

Loris Marini: I’m not going to steal your thunder, but from experience, what happens is that you actually feel that you’re way, way more grounded than you were two minutes before. You don't have to have stronger abs or do some crazy moves or meditate for 20 years. You can literally see the effect on your body in than 120 seconds. So, it still blows my mind.

Andrew Sunter: So, when we learn to switch on the correct muscles, which are these tonic muscles, the stabilizing muscles, 5% to 10%, that's how they're designed to work. That’s how they can work constantly. It gives the wrong muscles a chance to switch off.  

We miss out so badly. No one teaches us how to breathe properly. We have to breathe with our diaphragm. So, we're born, we get a smack on the ass and we start breathing. How are we doing that? You know, it's hit and miss. We're not really taught how to walk. We all do it by trial and error: falling on our butts over and over again until we manage not to fall over anymore.

Now, there are better ways to do that. One better way is to engage your core but I was never taught that. I realized that one of my Japanese teachers had been trying to communicate that and I'd been working on it for years. I happened to pick up a book on Pilates and they described it step-by-step. I thought, “Oh, this is so simple.” I couldn't wait to get to the dojo and just start hurling people around. It was so profound.  

It's much easier if you have someone coach you through it, but for me, this is what Hara is. It's a Japanese concept of center. The Hara is very important in Japanese culture. I define it like this: you’ve got the pelvic floor at the bottom, the diaphragm at the top, under the lungs. You've got this cylinder, which is the transverse abdominis, which is, I'm not sure, three or four layers deep.  

So, there's a lot of obsessions about the six pack, rectus abdominis, but it's superficial. It has no meaning. Physically, it looks great, come on.

Loris Marini: Yeah.

Andrew Sunter: But in physical activity, it has very little utility. If we gently squeeze on the pelvic floor, we gently engage the transverse abdominis and the diaphragm. We've got this stable core. Where this is important is particularly in Newtonian physics: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. So, if we're going to push something, the only thing we can push against is the floor. So, we're generating force from it.

You can explain this so much better than me Loris, but we know that energy leaks as we transfer it. So, we need to have a body that transfers energy efficiently and with minimal loss. So, engaging that core gives us the ability to transfer energy from our lower limbs, into our upper body and out through our upper limbs.

So, we have that center that gives us structure, and also allows us to play and maintain with balance. They're the three key things: center, structure, and balance that gives us that stability. Once we have that stability, because the mind leads the body, we can calm the mind. So, we’re not feeling every single buffet. We're not feeling every single bit of turbulence. We’re riding with it. It's okay. We can manage that. So that brings us to equanimity, stability of mind.  

It's okay. I don't have to react to every little thing. My coffee isn't quite as hot as I would like. It's okay. I went to Fiji years ago, what an amazing place. I didn't have to wear shoes for two weeks. I was just on this little island in the Yasawa group. One day I stepped on a stone and I said, “Oh, my foot hurts.” I was like, come on. I’ve been here 10 days. Of course, even in paradise, there are some difficulties. This is the Buddhist aphorism: life can contain suffering. We know that because we're alive and we experience suffering in a greater and lesser degree all day, every day.

Loris Marini: I want to actually dive deeper, into the Buddhist lens in particular, and the connection with empathy and kindness. You say it often in the dojo that it’s important to have options. How do empathy and kindness help us be more efficient handling a stressful situation? How does it connect with leading a team or being less responsive, less scattered all over the place when there's turbulence around us?

Andrew Sunter: On the battlefield, it's kill or be killed. There's been some serious studies about actual battlefields. I can't remember the numbers off the top of my head, but there's a great book called On Killing. It assessed how many shots were fired in the first world war versus the second world war and the Vietnam war. How willing were people to actually shoot to take another life?

Surprisingly few, because where most of us are sane, sensible, socialized human beings. Taking a life is anathema to us. So, we only do that in extremes when there's no other option. We're thoughtful and considerate that this is another human being who's more like me than different.  

In feudal Japan, they belong to a different clan. Do they have the same problems as me? Yeah. Do they have a wife? Do they have children? Sure. Do they have families that love them? Absolutely. Do they have friends? Yes. Do they like going out, drinking and eating? Yes, they do. So, what's the difference? Their uniform. They have a different Mon. They have a different crest.

There's the othering of different groups of people as a survival thing. You and I don't live in a survival existence. Unfortunately, there are people in the world who do live in a survival existence. I would not like to be in Ukraine at the moment.

Loris Marini: Yeah.

Andrew Sunter: Those people are fighting for survival. So, what choices do they have? Their choices are pretty limited. I imagine they're having to suck up a whole lot of conflict and difficulty.  

We want to train to be effective on the battlefield because we don't want to die. There are still consequences when we train in the dojo. If you make a mistake on the battlefield, you die. If you make a mistake in the dojo, should you die? It's not a good business model.

So, it's about choices and we have to train ourselves to make the right choices. We need to make the right choices automatic. So, the initial choice is, “Do I resist and fight back”, or “Do I see what happens? Do I stay curious?”  

Going back into leadership in the workplace, how do we do that? Curiosity is a great thing. Patience is a great thing. I think a really important thing is that we acknowledge conflict. It exists, we experience it every day in tiny ways. We experience it in the workplace. Now, this is a great thing. I want to say that conflict is a wonderful thing. Diversity of opinion is critical to the building of an organization. If we all think the same, we all make the same mistake. If we have diversity of opinion, then we're going to have conflict in minor or major ways.  

I was very conflict averse. I didn't want to know about it. I wanted to pretend it wasn't happening. I don't think I'm the only one in the who's ever existed who's tried to avoid conflict. I had to learn to allow it and go, “Okay, well I'll deal with it.” We can practice it because conflict resolution is a skill. It's not, “Oh, I can do it. He can do it. She can do it. They can't do it.” It's not like that. We can all do it to a greater or lesser extent or we can all improve.

Loris Marini: I'm glad that you brought that up. One could argue that one way to deal with conflict is to stick your head in the sand and pretend that nothing is happening. The elephant is not in the room but there are so many situations where the elephant is shiny. It's in the middle of the room and someone should have the courage to point it out. But the environment is such that nobody feels safe. The level of a threat perceived by the room is much higher than the potential reward of keeping an open mind and staying curious.

We're like, “Hey, there's this shiny elephant there. What do we do about it?” There could be a risk of being sacked or suffering a number of other less extreme, but still not pleasant consequences. So, we shut it down. The problem for me is that the that's where learning stops.

We talk a lot about data and the knowledge economy and transforming organizations. Digital transformation is nothing. It's often perceived as a bunch of technology, but it's not the tech. It's how we think, how we structure teams, how we approach challenges. How can we keep an open mind? Can we be comfortable with unmeasurable things? Some things can be measured. Some things cannot be measured. It shouldn't be measured.  

If you only focus on one or the other, you only have half the picture and it's hard to make progress. I think this I'm digressing, but I do see the importance of saying, hey, handling conflict? Yes. But conflict in itself is not a bad thing. It's an opportunity to learn. How we respond to it matters and can have a huge difference.

Andrew Sunter: Well, I think conflict is inevitable. Otherwise, why have we been experiencing it all of our lives?

Loris Marini: Yeah.

Andrew Sunter: So, you made a really good point there. You touched on something: courage. Courage is intrinsic. It takes courage to walk into a dojo and say, “Hey, I'm a grown-ass human being. I want to learn something.”  

A lot of us are conditioned to pretend we already know everything. That’s anathema to learning. If we want to learn something, we have to acknowledge that there's something that we don't know. This is a bit of an aside, but it astonishes me that people come to learn and they're disappointed that they don't already know it. I kind of think, “Well, if you already knew it, what would you come?”  

It's uncomfortable for us to acknowledge, “Yeah. I don't know,” because we put such a premium on expertise. The real expert are the people most likely to say, “I don't know.”

Loris Marini: So true.

Andrew Sunter: So that courage thing is really critical. We’ve got to have the courage to assess what's coming. My reaction to whatever's coming in, whether it's lethal or innocuous, is still going to be the same. Having courage lets us maintain our stability and watch it go past, guide it past, or simply absorb it. That's a really big thing.  

You also touched on the elephant in the room. Sometimes, the elephant in the room in the room is, “This is wrong.” As corporate citizens, as well as leaders, we have to have the courage to say, “This is wrong and we're going to change it now.”

Now, if we're not in that position of control and let's face it, we're not all CEOs, we have to have the courage to walk away and say, “This situation is wrong.” I've presented to organizations in the past that the activity is either unethical or straight illegal. Sometimes you don't even have the ability to present that, but once or twice I've been in that situation. The only valid response is, “We'll fix it and we'll start immediately.” Any other response, you have to walk away. Otherwise, you're part of the problem.

Loris Marini: It makes me think of social media and those who must be on all the time, 24/7. It's a weird place. Social media connected us, but also made us very different and distanced from one another. I see conflict all the time. People post things that are designed to create fights. There's absolutely no curiosity. There is no empathy. There is no kindness. There’s, “I want to engage in a fight. I want to make some trouble.”

Andrew Sunter: Sometimes I see posts and I read the comments to see how long I can not get angry. I get angry. I lose. So, I have to get out of there.

You can read through them and go, “Hmm. Well, that's inflammatory.” As a human being, I wonder what prompts that. I'm no saint. I don't last very long, but I was thinking, and we talked about conflict and the opportunities to learn. We can look at it like rain falling on leaves.

Sometimes it can be hail or snow or a nice, gentle rain. It falls on the leaves. It eventually makes it to the roots and sustains the tree. So, we can look at that like conflict is coming in on us all day, every day. We can take that as, I'm driving in heavy traffic. I can essentially train my mind to not get upset. Someone gets stuck. I let them in. Someone doesn't let me go, it's okay.  

It's not life and death. That's what we have to realize, because I think ultimately our fear is, “I will die.” I'm not a psychologist. I don't understand it. The ego is really important. Managing our ego is critical and a lot of martial art is about learning to learning to manage our own ego, so we have these opportunities which are positive experiences of dealing with conflict. This is where the dojo is really helpful because it's a safe space. You can learn to fight for your life without risking your life, to that constant positive exposure.  

Going back to kindness and compassion. If every time you make a mistake in the dojo, you're beaten down, you're beaten unconscious. Is this a positive learning experience? It’s training collaboratively. It's not training collusively. We're not doing it for each other, but we're giving each other graduated, increasing levels of challenge.

The more we experience that, the more calmness, the more stability we can experience. That constant positive experience of managing conflict successfully will permeate our subconscious. That's what's important. We need that ground of stability and equanimity to be able to be curious when in adversity. Anyone can be curious when there's no pressure. Can we maintain that curiosity when not everything is going okay?

Loris Marini: Yes. I'm going to answer that positively. At least for my system, I sort of developed this habit. In the last five months of coming into the dojo, I know to keep my calm and don't react. I don't succeed every time, far from it. When I do, I am rewarded with new ideas and new realizations -- a positive feeling.  

I don't know how to describe it, but there a positive feeling associated with, “Oh, I was stuck. It was weird. I didn't know what to do. My head moved. I was clearly out of shape, but I kept at it anyways.” Instead of beating myself up and thinking, "What do you think you're doing? You're not good enough.”  

All of these things that I'm talking about that can be transposed to other fields as well. You can replace Aikido with a machine learning or database organizational storytelling or data culture. Everything that we are supposed to do in our organizations, we're not doing quite well.

It's very easy to measure yourself against people around you and feeling not quite good enough. That's where the learning stops. To me, that’s the trigger. I know that if I compare myself with a black belt and I let my brain think, “You’re a worthless bag of bones and flesh. Get out of here. What are you doing?” I am not getting that reward.  

For me, it's the carrot or the stick. The carrot works for me. I wonder if can we create that environment? I've been thinking about this for a while, because one of my ideas for Discovering Data is to create an environment very similar to the dojo. The feel that you created in Alexandria, creating a safe space. Imagine the impact that this can have if we were able to extend the same principles, the same philosophy to any workplace and bring a bit of calm.

Andrew Sunter: It's really interesting. We've talked about social media and the absolute filth that people say to each other. What's missing is respect. I think, maybe even less than a hundred years ago, where you could reasonably have a good grasp of knowledge.

I think now there's so much knowledge that it's ridiculous for anyone to think, “Oh, I know everything.”  Of course, we can't know everything, but it's inconceivable now. The learning environment is just information exchange. Yeah. I know more about this than you do but you know more about other things than I know. So, it's an exchange.  

There’s a lack of judgment. It's the absence of judgment. The pandemic has been so interesting. We've had to give up that one-on-one thing, which is what most martial arts are predicated on. You go to the dojo and you have a physical interaction with another human being.

Over the last few years, I've been able to work with people overseas and we simply video what we're doing and we send it off. It doesn't need to be much because if you've got someone who knows what they're talking about, they don't need to see an hour of me fumbling around trying to do this or that. They can see it in 30 seconds. “Oh, this is the most important thing to work on.”  

They don't need to tell me. They don't need to criticize, “Why don't you know that already?” Who cares? If someone doesn't have the information, they just don't have the information. There's no point in telling them the other things that they don’t know. We just provide the most helpful thing right now. That person has something concrete that they can work on.

We can then go back and say, “Okay, that's great. Now let's work on that.” Well, you don't know that and that's wrong, that's wrong and that's wrong. That's wrong. This is just brow beating.

Loris Marini: Yeah.

Andrew Sunter: It's disrespectful. So, you are a human being. I'm a human being. You have thoughts and feelings. I have thoughts and feelings. You have life experiences. I have life experiences. Oh, you don't know how to do that one? You're not less of a person because you don't have some piece of information.

I'd love to be able to speak Italian. I can't speak Italian.

Loris Marini: Does it make you less?

Andrew Sunter: I never feel any judgment from you. Hey, are you stupid or something?

Loris Marini: Come on. You have a black belt in Aikido and six Dan. You can’t speak Italian? Ridiculous.

Just one point on that. Learning and the amount of information you have available, and the difference between knowing something cognitively and knowing something physically. I don't know if this is pseudoscience or there's more to it because I haven't honestly done a proper literature review on the topic. I've heard terms like BQ and EQ to go along with IQ. BQ stands for body intelligence and EQ emotional intelligence.  

Emotional intelligence is rock solid. There's neuroscience there that backs up the concept of emotional intelligence. With body intelligence, I don't know from the scientific standpoint. I know that I can feel it. We all have those memories in our body like the famous gut feeling. Our bodies process information all the time and it's not crazy to argue that that is part of information processing. The information that is processed at the level of the limbs and the organs contributes to the decisions we make rationally, perhaps even subconsciously. It’s currently the basis of how we make decisions.

It's a bit of a mess, the whole decision-making machine. One thing I know is that when we are at the dojo and you show us something, you always ask, “Is this enough information?" We then get to the practice and during practice, that's when the learning happens.  

So, I wonder for a lot of us that work in organizations that don't make us feel safe, where curiosity and empathy are not rewarded. Where we are supposed to know stuff, we put a mask on and pretend that we always know what we're doing even when we don't. Not only is the opportunity to learn and to exchange information lost, but I think there is also this feeling of being stuck and not really having an opportunity to create our own future to change the circumstances.  

It's important to have to have a space we can join with folks who don't think like us, to have a growth mindset, and want to learn from one another. They want to have fun because in the end, playful learning is the most effective way of learning.

Andrew Sunter: I've got a few things to say about it. So, one thing that triggered a couple of thoughts. I’ll tick off a couple of minor points first. Skill acquisition goes from unconscious incompetence: we don't know. We move to conscious incompetence. I know I can't speak Italian. We go to conscious competence. I go to classes for a couple of years. I find some conversation partners. Now I can hold a conversation and entertain. Eventually, I’d probably have to go and live in Italy. I achieve unconscious competence, so I'm dreaming in Italian. I'm responding automatically in Italian. I don't have to translate from English first to speak to you in Italian. I'm operating in Italian.  

This is absolutely the same for any kind of skill acquisition, whether it's in martial arts, the corporate environment, managing conflict. The really good people, they're automatically into that.

Another aspiration we have is the feeling mind in the thinking body.

Loris Marini: The feeling mind in the thinking body. How does it work?

Andrew Sunter: Lots of the exercises we do are challenging our balance. We can sense these stabilizing muscles switching on.

For me, the biggest challenge for students in Aikido is trying to think their way through the movement, but their brain is not performing the movement. The body is performing the movement, so the body has to have autonomy. Basically, you've got to train those good useful, efficient movement into our body because we're not fast enough.  

Again, this is why we need to be responsive, not reactive. We see a punch coming or we see a fist cocked. Is that going to be a straight punch? Is that going to be an uppercut? Is that going to be a hook? If I'm waiting to see what's coming, it's too late. If I have to recognize what they're doing, then process what's coming in and then react to it, I'm unconscious. Every time I lay down, I have to move in a way that is going to protect me and put me into a safe space. That's training. I have to move in a way that keeps me out of trouble and gets me into a position where I can start causing trouble.

I've worked with a woman a few years ago. I was just amazed at what she called socializing the concept. So, we wanted to create a new system and rather than, my idea was here. Here's the concept. I've written it up. Here it is. Let's talk about it now.  

She said, no, no. Let's go and talk to all the people. I thought this was a very Japanese approach. I believe in corporate Japan, when you hold a meeting, the decision is already set. The decision is a formalization because you've already met with all the stakeholders. You've already consulted.  

Loris, what is your consent? Well, I'm worried that will productivity will drop. Income will drop. Okay. What can we do? Address those concerns. We hadn't thought about that. That's great. Okay. What can we do to safeguard against that? What can we put in place? We go to all the stakeholders. Instead of having a meeting with people shouting at each other, we have a meeting of equals who have all been heard, had their concerns addressed and all feel comfortable with the way forward.

So, this is this is the epitome of conflict resolution: anticipate where the sticky points are going to be.

Loris Marini: Listen. Yeah.

Andrew Sunter: Yeah. Listen to the people. In some cases, you're listening to expert who really know more about it than you. Sometimes you're listening to people who don't really understand.

Loris Marini: But they feel it.

Andrew Sunter: But have juice.

Loris Marini: Yeah.

Andrew Sunter: Yeah, they just feel it. They're hurting.  

This brings me to another really important thing. I heard about this concept, holding the space. I had a quick Google. It crops up in kind of some mental wellness therapy kind of stuff. This is my view and this is the crux of it. If we're stable, if we're calm, if we're equanimous, if we've trained ourselves to be okay with conflict, then we can hold the space. So then if we're holding the space in a leadership role or in a corporate environment, what do we have to do? We have to be confident that we're not going to die.

Not too many deaths in the corporate milieu. A lot of fear. “This is my livelihood. How will I feed my family?”

Loris Marini: I’ve got a mortgage to pay.

Andrew Sunter: “I've got a mortgage to pay.” All that kind of stuff. It's real fear. It's not going to happen now. It could in the future.  

We also need to be able to suspend judgment. What are you saying? It's potentially not what I think. You're going to have a different opinion. Okay. So, do I browbeat you immediately with my opinion? It's not helpful. We want a collegiate approach. I need to hear what you've got to say.

In order to listen, I have to not start judging because my view is different. I have to allow you to have a view that's different to mine. That's a long way towards working with that concept. We have to listen and understand. We actually have to understand what you’re saying.  

“The deadline has changed.” We can blow up and get into a fist fight over it. Why has it changed? What is the consequence of it changing? What can we do about that? Is it beneficial or not? Our assumption is, “This is a bad thing.” It's never black and white. There's always positive and negative. There's always advantages and disadvantages in every single situation. That's fine. Sometimes we have to look a little harder.

Loris Marini: Yeah.

Andrew Sunter: Sometimes we have to squint a bit more. Now, what's critical about that is we have to manage our own discomfort. I have to be able to see it. You're telling me that white is black? I don't think white is black. That hurts me in the tummy. I have to be able to sit and think, “Oh my tummy is hurting listening to it.” It doesn't mean that I'm capitulating. It doesn't mean that I have to adopt that view. I just have to hear the view. That's all.

Loris Marini: Yeah, and this is critical, right? It’s the nice guy or nice gal syndrome. We always want to please everyone.

Andrew Sunter: We want to please everyone.

Loris Marini: Yeah, and just say condescendence.

Andrew Sunter: So, we give up ethics. We give up our principles, but no, we should hold onto those principles. We should hold on to those ethics. So, the final thing then is we need to respond respectfully.

So, look, one really important lesson I learned from one of my teachers was never give up on any person or any situation. I've had to moderate that because I'm not a saint. For instance, I've let a couple of students go. My criteria is this: while they continue to make improvements no matter how glacier, they're working on it and making some progress. I'm happy to keep engaging. If they say to me, “No, I'm not going to progress any further. I'm happy with where I am.” Well, that's fine.

I guess a lot of your audiences aren’t that interested, because it's kind of an abstruse thing. It's not a mainstream thing when I talked about holding the space, but really what's happened there is we're managing our own ego.  

In Good to Great, they talk about the five levels of leadership. I don't remember all the aspects of it. The thing that stuck out for me was the level five leadership: ego around the success of the organization, not the personal ego.

They're often fairly reserved people. They're able to manage their own ego. I think that's really critical in good leadership. As a little aside, I think we often point to the military as a great example of leadership. I think, oh, come on they have to do what you tell them or there are severe consequences. In the corporate world, if someone doesn't like what you tell them to do, they can leave. They can simply ignore you. The consequences aren't that severe. Barking orders is not leadership. That's a strict hierarchy that's in place.  

Leadership is getting people to do what you ask them to do. They want to do it because they see a benefit for the organization and they see a benefit for themselves. People are invested in the success of the organization. The leader's major motivation is the success of the organization. We've all seen those leaders whose major motivation is personal success. Those are not leaders.

Loris Marini: The experiment started five months ago. I'm five months in and have found incredible and unexpected benefits from the practice of Aikido, especially following your teachings and your philosophy. The way you approach this martial art, which I'm sure is not the standard. You talk a lot about curiosity, empathy, and exploring things with an open mind, which is what I've been talking about for the last 30 episodes or more on this podcast. That was the connection that got us to get together.

I think that meditation is now a couple of billion-dollar industry. It's projected to reach $10 billion so it's growing. It's a small part of the bigger health pie, but it's a significant business opportunity. We've seen a number of meditation apps coming to the market. I've subscribed to many of those in the past. I've joined a silent retreat in the Blue Mountains, in a Buddhist school for 10 days. I've tried different things.  

I'm not an expert in meditation, but I know that there are benefits. The problem is that meditation is not for everyone. There are people that can't sit still. What do we do with those people? Can we offer something else?

Andrew Sunter: I want to pick up on two things there. One of my most important teachers often said martial arts are for people who can't sit still. If you can sit and meditate, sit and meditate. You don't need all this nonsense. You can find that stability, equanimity, balance simply by sitting. I am not one of those people.  

Some of us need more entertainment. For me, I guess, solving that problem, there's a fist traveling towards my nose. That's a problem. I want to solve that problem without overreacting. I have the ability to cause catastrophic injury to that person. Unfortunately, if I do, they won't be able to come back Thursday, so also, I recognize their motivation is to help me.

It can be a moving meditation. Some people dismiss Aikido like that’s all it is. That's why for me, it's so critical that they set marshal integrity. It actually has to be effective. Of course, there are all these other concomitants benefits.

The other thing you mentioned was choices. So, in our reactions, we have flight, fight, freeze. A saber tooth tiger jumps out at us and we run like Billy. A person from the neighboring village tries to take my fish. We're going to duke it out. Unfortunately, there's also this freeze response, which is great for a prey animal. You try and hide. It's not so good for an urban citizen who's confronted with a social violence or sexual assault. Freezing in that situation is not useful. So, the freeze response comes from, “I have nothing else to do. I can't run, I can't fight. I'm afraid.”  

A great aspect of Aikido training is that we develop options. Oh, the punch is coming this way. I can turn and avoid it. I can enter in. Just two choices to start with. Without getting too technical, we have a bunch of shapes. We have a bunch of standard responses. Part of our Aikido training is making sure that we can apply those to whatever happens, whatever vector is coming at us. It takes some time to work through those things, but you're making a start.  

Choices are all about that. We need those choices in our subconscious. The only way to get them into our subconscious is to train them repetitively. The knowledge isn't necessarily enough. We're very knowledge-based. I want to know about it. I know that when I'm pushed, I should turn, but then someone pushes you and you react and you go, “Oh, that's not how I thought it was going to go.”

Loris Marini: To me, this part in particular is so humbling every time. I have the same realization that there's a difference between what I know I should do and what I actually end up doing. It's also frightening because if I extend that to other areas of my life, I start asking myself really tough questions. Questions that I'm not sure I want to know the answer to.

Because it’s the carrot that moves me, I do want to know the answer. I want to learn. I see that as an opportunity for learning and growing. It's about, “What if I am the same in other aspects? What if I do the same thing in this podcast. What if I do it with my kid or with my wife?” I know that I shouldn't react. Maybe I subconsciously do. That could be the reason why half of the time, I find myself in a situation that is unpleasant, an argument over something so meaningless. It should have been resolved very, very quickly, but we hang on things and we make big deals of things.

I think it's way beyond leadership at work. I think there’s benefits of looking into the mirror in the right environment. In the wrong environment, it can be very scary. If the environment is right, a mirror and someone that can guide you, who honestly wants you to improve, has patience, that's possibly the best thing that can happen.

Andrew Sunter: Ultimately, no one else can do it for you. You have to do it. Essentially what you're describing there was the human condition. Congratulations.

Loris Marini: Yeah.

Andrew Sunter: Of course, you’re in your 20’s now, Loris.

Loris Marini: 20’s. I wish.

Andrew Sunter: All of that habituation of reaction, and then you go, “You know what? I don't want to do that anymore. I want to do something different.” It's not instant. We have to have multiple positive experiences of changing our behavior so that our behavior becomes automatic. I guess it may be for some people, they simply make a decision and everything changes, but that's never been mine.

Loris Marini: Yeah, it takes a lot of work. Andy, for people that want to give Aikido a go, what do you recommend? How can they get in contact with you?

Andrew Sunter:  I guess we'll put the website address in the notes. My contact details are there. We have a basics class every Monday night and that's our major intake class. People assume it's a beginner's class, but you'll notice it. Everyone comes to that class because that's where we introduce people to this concept of having good stability, because everything comes from that. After all, it's taken me kind of 10 years to figure that out.

After 20 years of kind of going about it the wrong way, that's the learning. We have to acknowledge it. Oh, I thought I knew this. High school physics is not university physics. Research physics is a different level. So, we have to go through these developmental phases and we have to come to the realization that our understanding was incomplete.

That's just normal. We start there. Anyone's welcome. We have a package for people to just come and try it out.

Loris Marini: I definitely recommend that.

Andrew Sunter: We don't mind if you're male or female, young, old. We have teens’ and kids' classes. We have adult classes. We welcome diversity, because we're curious.

If you have some physical disability, why shouldn't you be more confident in handling physical conflict? If you have a mental disability, there's still a human being. We're more similar than we are different. Those people in marginalized communities are more at risk. They're even more welcome. People can sign up for a class or email me or phone me. We're not a big-time operation.

Loris Marini: That's cool. I'll make sure to put those links definitely in the show notes for those that are interested.  

Just a final question. What's your why? What's the first thing that you think of when you wake up? Why do you do it?

Andrew Sunter: I want to make a contribution. I want to have a net benefit to others. Another exhortation is, “Always leave a place better for your having been there.” So, I'd like to leave this place better for my having been. Good-hearted people do this.

You’ve been training just a few months in. I sense a certain, “Do I belong here? Should I be here?” Your engagement and your curiosity benefit the whole dojo. People worry about being a beginner. They won't want to train with me. No, no. We want to train with you because we want to see if this stuff works on someone who doesn't know how it's supposed to work.

Yeah. So, everyone who comes in with curiosity, engages, they're automatically making a contribution and that's more than we could as humans. Have I improved the planet by being here?

Loris Marini: I'm going to write that down and stick it on my desk because it's very easy to think the opposite. I'm not good enough. What contribution am I giving?

Even if maybe, you don't have a lot to contribute, at least on the surface. That's certainly true for me from a technical standpoint, I can contribute much. I can put my body, my best intentions. That I can do. It turns out that that's contributing. So that's good.

Andrew Sunter: Asking a good question is a great contribution. If we have that collegiate respectful environment where we're all working for a common goal, that's kind of what organizations are about.

Loris Marini: Yeah.

Andrew Sunter: Every organization has a mission, a set of values. A lot of times they are dismissed. If you don't like them, then change them or leave.

Loris Marini: Definitely. Three options available.

Andrew Sunter: We've been talking about leadership. I had a great friend and mentor who pointed out that you don't need to be in a management role to be a leader. You can exhibit the correct values. You can live the values. If you're not doing that, you've got to ask yourself, “what am I doing here?”

Loris Marini: Yeah, what for?

Andrew Sunter: How can you be happy in an organization that you don't agree with?

Loris Marini: Yeah. Step number one is to find and plan a way out.  

Andrew Sunter: Yeah. You don't have to have a dummy spit and walk out that day. Maybe it's been okay, but you might get to that point where you say, “Well, you know what? This isn't working for me anymore. I need a strategy.”

Loris Marini: Yeah, I need a community.

Andrew Sunter: I can try and change it. If I can't change it all, then I don't belong here anymore. You need to figure out how to move on.

Loris Marini: There's an aspect there of community. Knowing and belonging. You said belonging. To me that’s so important because in your dojo, I feel like I belong. Even if I don't have a black belt. That gives me that that peace of mind. It makes me feel that I'm in the right place and that's something that a lot of people don't have.  

We've seen The Great Resignation is still here. It's still happening. We're not over that. That's causing enormous loss of capital and knowledge and intangible assets, like intellectual property, knowledge information to companies and organizations. Hard to put a number on the loss, but it's happening. It could have been avoided arguably if we had the right system to manage stress and confidence.

Andrew Sunter: I think a lot of it is respect. Even the person who only sweeps up is making a contribution and deserves their respect.

Loris Marini: We'll plan it for another day. I promise I'll wrap it up. Andy, thank you. Beyond grateful for this opportunity. I think we planted some seeds here for future discussions and conversations.

Andrew Sunter: To be honest, I wasn't really sure how we could talk about leadership. I really struggled. I found it very thought-provoking that we were going to have this discussion. Obviously, I didn't want to look like an idiot. What I could possibly say?

Yeah, I think you're onto something. So, thank you. It's been a great pleasure. It's been really thought-provoking and I think there's more juice to be squeezed out of this orange.

Loris Marini: Plenty. Thanks again, Andrew. Enjoy the rest of the afternoon.

Andrew Sunter: Okay. All the best.

Contact Us

Thanks for your message. You'll hear from us soon!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.