Lessons on Transformation from Tao Te Ching and Japanese Martial Arts

Sep 12, 2023 5 Min Read
a group of people working on transformation project

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Unlocking Change and Growth

Every human endeavour, whether a company, sporting club, government organisation, or any other, has a ‘way’ of doing things. And this ‘way’ is familiar to everyone as the combination of philosophies, culture, tools, techniques, and strategies that makes their organisation unique.

The ‘way’ is deeply ingrained in Japanese culture and philosophy and has become a foundational element of the traditional martial arts that’ve been transmitted through the generations, such as karate-do, judo, and kendo.

This concept of there being a ‘way’ of things is old. It has its roots in the Tao Te Ching, written by Lao Zhi, a Chinese philosopher in the 4th century BCE. According to the Tao Te Ching, there’s a ‘way’ of being a farmer, priest, soldier or merchant, and all occupations have definite characteristics that underpin how they do things. 

These established ways and traditions can be a significant impediment to change.

Discover: Transformation of Body, Mind, and Soul of an Organisation

One reason transformation’s so difficult is because the current ‘way’ of doing things never has to argue its own case. The status quo continues, familiar and comfortable to everyone, adding a little extra complexity and weight year after year, like the rings of a tree. 

And when someone turns up suggesting change, the many people comfortable with these existing traditional ways are inevitably likely to resist. Transformation of organisations is empirically difficult, and Harvard Business School estimates that 70-80% of transformation projects fail.

So, what can the Tao Te Ching and traditional Japanese martial arts teach us about transformation? Well, as it turns out, plenty.

Martial Arts Mindset

Traditional Japanese martial arts provide many lessons that can help us adopt the right mindset to overcome this innate resistance, including focus, resilience, and determination. I believe the four most powerful lessons that traditional martial arts can teach us are to connect with people, keep an open mind, set meaningful objectives, and take action.

#1 Courtesy and respect for others

These traits are the foundation for martial arts because their goal is to create good people who contribute positively to society. And importantly, disrespectful and carelessly executed techniques can create injury or serious harm to your training partner. 

Likewise in a corporate setting: respect for others should be the starting point for every interaction, but especially those related to transformation. A disrespectful and carelessly discouraging comment can have a hugely negative impact on a whole team or the entire company. Courtesy from the leader means ‘turning up’ in a positive, engaged and present manner. Respect means being honest and transparent with people throughout the change journey and treating anyone negatively impacted fairly. 

#2 Humility

Every traditional martial art instils a strong sense of humility. Before any exercise in karate, you bow to your partner or opponent as a sign of respect, and as a physical indicator that you are there to learn and work together without ego. This protects the student from hubris, and when combined with genuine curiosity, is a powerful force for keeping an open mind and resisting the temptation to think that you know everything. 

In a corporate transformation setting, especially when you’ve had decades working in the same industry, its critical to avoid considering yourself the only true expert who can predict with certainty how your industry will operate in the future. You must actively draw on the experience and opinions of others with regards to what’s really happening in the world and use them to complement and challenge your own views.

Corporate graveyards are filled with organisations that thought they knew it all and failed to take a humble approach. We’re probably all familiar with how Blockbuster Video failed to adjust to a changing world and thought itself the expert in all things relating to private movie viewing. What’s less obvious is that Reed Hastings, the founder of Netflix, actually pitched his movie-streaming idea to Blockbuster in 2001, and they laughed him out of their boardroom.

#3 Ambition

Traditional martials arts require the exponent to be ambitious and want to win. After all, in the samurai duels prevalent in Japan in the 17th century, coming second really could mean the difference between life and death. 

Whilst it’s unlikely we’ll face an opponent with a razor-sharp samurai sword anytime soon, we’d do well to be ultra-driven against our external industry competitors and cultivate a strong desire to win. This means an ongoing commitment to serving customers with better products and services and being more efficient and effective in their delivery than anyone else.

Amazon is a great example of ambition. After commencing operations as an online book seller, they’ve grown into range of other category-killer retail areas, launched Amazon Web Services to help other companies migrate their technology operations into the cloud, created a TV and movie streaming business called Prime, and are now becoming market leaders in artificial intelligence and machine learning. They are relentlessly pursuing their vision to be ‘Earth’s most customer centric company.’

#4 Urgency 

The last trait is urgency, and bias for action. In martial arts, an opportunity to win may present itself briefly, and if you blink, you miss it. Martial artists are therefore trained to take immediate and decisive advantage of every opportunity that presents itself. They know they may not get a second chance.

Whilst company decisions and opportunities may not be as ephemeral, you should still seek to get at them, and not waste time. Do it today. Build momentum and create pressure to get things done. The faster the transformation is completed the better. Urgency is an underutilised corporate resource.


Transformation of any organisation will require you to challenge the long-held customs and ‘ways’ of working that people have always used. Leveraging the traditional martial arts mindset of courtesy and respect for others, whilst being humble, curious and willing to learn more will help you connect with the people who need to change. When you combine these with ambition to set meaningful targets, and an urgent mindset to actually get things done, you’ll be off to a great start. 

You may also like this: The 7 Challenges of Constant Transformation in Organisations

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Edited by: Kiran Tuljaram

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Great Change

Adam Bennett is the Principal of Great Change Consulting, and a former CEO, big-4 bank CIO and management consultant. He’s the author of Great Change – the WAY to get big strategy done published by Wiley. He holds a 3rd dan black belt awarded by the International Karate-Do Gojukai Association, headquartered in Tokyo, Japan.



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