Leadership in the Movies:
The Karate Kid

The Mentoring Leader

karate kid

“We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give”
Winston Churchill

This is part of a series of articles that combine two great passions of mine: leadership and movies. The series seeks to explore leadership through the lens of select movies. Today we are looking at the 1984 movie The Karate Kid directed by John G. Avildsen and featuring Ralph Macchio as Daniel LaRusso and Noriyuki “Pat” Morita as Kesuke Miyagi, his mentor. I always recommend you watch the movie before reading the analysis so as not to spoil a great movie.

The film tells the story of a high school senior Daniel LaRusso who moves with his mother from Newark, New Jersey to Reseda in California. Daniel experiences problems adjusting to his new life including being harassed and bullied by a vicious gang who belong to the Cobra Kai karate club. Johnny Lawrence, a key member of the gang, takes issue with LaRusso for hitting on his ex-girlfriend Ali Mills and things turn nasty. During one episode where the gang set on Daniel outside his apartment, he is helped by the apartment’s aging ‘maintenance guy’ Kesuke Miyagi an eccentric immigrant from Okinawan who uses the karate skill his father taught him to trounce them all. Danny asks Mr Miyagi to help him. They visit the Cobra Kai club to meet with its sadistic sensei, John Kreese, an ex-Special Forces Vietnam veteran to seek a peace-offering. Conditions are set that Daniel is to be left alone if he competes in the All-Valley Karate Tournament and Mr. Miyagi sets about training him. His unconventional teaching methods frustrate Daniel but it soon becomes obvious that they are effective as Daniel’s technique and balance quickly improves. Despite Kreese’s attempts to cheat in the tournament by ordering illegal hits on him, Daniel goes on to win the tournament, beating his adversaries. By the end of the movie, Daniel acknowledges that Mr Miyagi has taught him more than just karate, but valuable life lessons (“Lesson not for karate only… lesson for whole life… “)

The movie is a powerful demonstration of mentorship and the mentoring leader. In the opening chapter of his book, Becoming an Effective Mentoring Leader, William Rothwell quotes from John Quincy Adams, second president of the United States: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” Kesuke Miyagi is a mentoring leader.

Let’s remind ourselves of the origins, role and core competences of mentoring. The word mentor originates from Homer’s Odyssey where Mentor was the trusted advisor and teacher of Odysseus’ son Telemachus. In Mentoring Executives and Directors (1999) David Clutterbuck and David Megginson define mentoring as “off-line help by one person to another in making significant transitions in knowledge, work or thinking.” Clutterbuck (2004) provides a useful acronym to highlight the role of the mentor:

Manage the relationship
Offer mutual respect
Respond to the learner’s needs

Below are five competences that are widely considered essential to be an effective mentoring leader. Let’s take a look at each competence and relate them to the movie. To be an effective mentoring leader you need to:-

Be committed. You should have a genuine desire to help/support the mentee and be prepared to commit time and energy to the mentoring relationship. It is essential to maintain an unconditional positive regard for the mentee and be totally committed to the continuous development and growth in both yourself and the mentee (to help others develop you must be committed to your own growth too). You should encourage mentees to routinely commit to achieving goals and lasting personal growth & change.

Mr Miyagi commitment to Daniel is unquestionable. He builds trust early by teaching him how to shape Bonsai trees and voluntarily fixes his bike. He intervenes when the gang pick on him and he commits to teach him karate where he invests much of his own time. He makes a learning agreement with him: “First make sacred pact. I promise teach karate. That my part. You promise learn. I say, you do, no questions. That your part.” and he always honours appointments and commitments.

Help your mentee look at a situation from a new perspective. Effective mentoring leaders encourage mentees to do the thinking and look at a situation from a new perspective. Oftentimes this is done through skilful questioning techniques such as balancing advocacy/inquiry and asking open questions that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. It can also be achieved by aphorisms and through role-modelling behaviours.

In the movie, Mr. Miyagi is constantly challenging Daniel to see things from different perspectives. “Not everything is as seems” he says. Mr. Miyagi’s entire way of life is a role model for inner peace, simplicity and humbleness and his training methods challenge perspective by using everyday tasks such as waxing cars and painting fences to demonstrate the different technical moves of karate. Mr. Miyagi’s nuggets of wisdom which forces Daniel to stop and think are plentiful and much quoted. Here are just a few classic examples:

How do I know my picture is the right one?
If come from inside you… always right one

Fighting always last answer to problem

Karate here (points to head)… karate here (points to heart)… karate never here (points to belt)

Win lose no matter you make good fight, earn respect then nobody bother

Just remember… license never replace eye, ear and brain

Man who can catch fly with chopstick accomplish anything

Listen actively with an open mind. Effective mentoring leaders listen attentively, processing everything the mentee is saying with an open/non-judgemental attitude. They observe body language, give nonverbal cues such as maintaining eye contact and nodding, and understand which topics are difficult for the mentee to discuss. They genuinely value what the person is saying and do not interrupt. Active listening requires patience and the suspension of assumptions and judgement of the mentee’s views, lifestyle and aspirations. Keeping an open mind means suspending own thoughts, value system and prejudices and be open to new ways of thinking.

One such example is when Daniel gets beaten by the gang and has a black eye. His mother’s reaction is full of reprimand, judgement and assumptions; whereas Mr. Miyagi’s reaction is to listen to Daniel, suspend judgement and give a calm and considered response:

What happened to eye?
I fell off my bike
Lucky not hurt hand

Provide feedback. Effective mentoring leaders give feedback that adds value for the mentee. This shows empathy, understanding and care.

Mr. Miyagi gives Daniel encouragement and feedback as he progresses with his balance and technique. He also gives him feedback on crucial aspects of his life; for example:

Daniel son… you too much by self… not good
To make honey, young bee need young flower… not old prune

Build mutual respect and trust. Effective mentoring leaders understand that the core of an effective mentoring relationship is mutual respect and trust. The best mentoring relationships are when both parties are growing and developing. Respect and trust is earned by being open, honest and transparent. Effective mentoring leaders build open safe environments and are prepared to hear honest answers to honest questions.

Mr. Miyagi always allows Daniel to express exactly how he feels such as the time Daniel accuses him of turning him into his “goddamn slave”; the relationship, however, is clearly built on mutual trust and respect. Two poignant moments in the movie are when Daniel gives a covert bow to his sleeping teacher and upon reaching his eighteenth birthday when he tells Mr. Miyagi “You are the best friend I ever had” to which Mr Miyagi replies: “You pretty ok too.”

Mentoring leadership is juxtaposed throughout the movie with Kreese’s instructorship (“No such thing bad student, only bad teacher,” says Mr. Miyagi). This ex-commander uses command and fear to control the Cobra Kai’s. Kreese, the antithesis to Mr. Miyagi’s approach, focuses on short-term wins rather than long term development, drills his students with mantras about showing their opponents no mercy, is completely closed off to any form of student discussion, clearly views his students as a vehicle to build his own success, and cheats to the point where he loses the respect and trust of his own students.

Let’s apply this back to the workplace. As the millennial generation with their focus on values, growth and engagement become more prevalent in the workplace, an instructorship (command/control) approach is proving ineffective. The mentoring leader with the combined skills of commitment, growing perspective, listening in a non-judgemental way, providing feedback and cultivating an environment of mutual respect and trust has more chance of engaging the modern workforce. As statistics point to a disengaged workforce and as more companies are turning away from one-off end of year appraisals see here, the mentoring leader may be a good way for leaders to connect with their employees. Within the context of the workplace, it should be recognised that there is a clear difference between coaching and mentoring.
In an article, the BREFI group draws a good distinction between the two seeing mentoring as an ongoing, long-term, informal, experienced-based activity whereas coaching is seen as a goal-orientated, short-term, structured, skills-based activity.

Look out for further articles in this series.

Richard Kelly PhD.
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