Shu-Ha-Ri and Situational Leadership for Managers

In the previous blogs What is the leadership style in your software teams ? and Situational Leadership in Software teams, I explored how leadership has evolved over time, and how we could relate it to the concept of situational leadership in the context of software development teams. Those thoughts were from an essentially western perspective where the ideas such as democracy in life and at work, free thinking, equality, participatory management, individualism (followed by a re-discovery of team-oriented approach to managing work) and shared leadership have been uniformally accepted in the social values and ably institutionalized by legislation. The net result is that we are seeing a great shift in the balance of power from the so-called ‘management’ (a.k.a. the role in an organization responsible to get the job done) to the so-called ‘labor’ (a.k.a. the role in an organization responsible to do the job). The four models of leaderhip helped us understand how leadership evolved at a macro-level down the ages, and the concept of situational leadership helped us understand how a guru, or a manager, could adapt his style of leadership based on the growth of his teams.

In this context, it is interesting to see how Shu-Ha-Ri, an old Japanese concept of staged learning, guided empowerment and inner learning in martial arts supports a learner to graduate through a process of blind loyalty, learning, discovery, questioning and finally figuring out things on his own. In my view, this is complemantary to the situational leadership in the sense that while the emphasis in situational leadership is on the leader (even though his style depends on his follower’s growth), the focus is clearly on the follower in Shu-Ha-Ri model, even if his/her growth is supported by the guru himself. I think a study of this model helps us understand where and why a student’s journey must begin, and what are the stages of evolution. In my view, this model doesn’t explicitly tell how a guru must lead as the student grows in his learning, and I think therein lies an important application. But, let’s first look at the model.

Shu-ha-ri is “a term the Japanese use to describe the overall progression of martial arts training, as well as the lifelong relationship the student will enjoy with his or her instructor.

Shu can either mean “to protect” or “to obey.” The dual meaning of the term is aptly descriptive of the relationship between a martial arts student and teacher in the student’s early stages, which can be likened to the relationship of a parent and child. The student should absorb all the teacher imparts, be eager to learn and willing to accept all correction and constructive criticism. The teacher must guard the student in the sense of watching out for his or her interests and nurturing and encouraging his or her progress, much as a parent guards a child through its growing years. Shu stresses basics in an uncompromising fashion so the student has a solid foundation for future learning, and all students perform techniques in identical fashion, even though their personalities, body structure, age, and abilities all differ.

is another term with an appropriate double meaning: “to break free” or “to frustrate.” Sometime after the student reaches dan (black belt) level, he or she will begin to break free in two ways. In terms of technique, the student will break free of the fundamentals and begin to apply the principles acquired from the practice of basics in new, freer, and more imaginative ways. The student’s individuality will begin to emerge in the way he or she performs techniques. At a deeper level, he or she will also break free of the rigid instruction of the teacher and begin to question and discover more through personal experience. This can be a time of frustration for the teacher, as the student’s journey of discovery leads to countless questions beginning with “Why…” At the Ha stage, the relationship between student and teacher is similar to that of a parent and an adult child; the teacher is a master of the art. and the student may now be an instructor to the others.

Ri is the stage at which the student, now a kodansha (high ranking black belt), separates from the instructor having absorbed all that he or she can learn from them. This is not to say that the student and teacher are no longer associated. Actually, quite the opposite should be true; they should now have a stronger bond than ever before, much as a grandparent does with their son or daughter who is now also a parent. Although the student is now fully independent, he treasures the wisdom and patient counsel of the teacher and there is a richness to their relationship that comes through their shared experiences. But the student is now learning and progressing more through self-discovery than by instruction and can give outlet to his or her own creative impulses. The student’s techniques will bear the imprint of his or her own personality and character. Ri, too, has a dual meaning, the second part of which is “to set free” As much as the student now seeks independence from the teacher, the instructor likewise must set the student free.

Shu Ha Ri is not a linear progression. It is more akin to concentric circles, so that there is Shu within Ha and both Shu and Ha within Ri. Thus, the fundamentals remain constant; only the application of them and the subtleties of their execution change as the student progresses and his or her own personality begins to flavor the techniques performed. Similarly, the student and teacher are always bound together by their close relationship and the knowledge, experience, culture, and tradition shared between them. Ultimately, Shu Ha Ri should result in the student surpassing the master, both in knowledge and skill. This is the source of improvement for the art as a whole. If the student never surpasses his master, then the art will stagnate, at best. If the student never achieves the master’s ability, the art will deteriorate. But, if the student can assimilate all that the master can impart and then progress to even higher levels of advancement, the art will continually improve and flourish.

It is interesting that a Shu-Ha-Ri journey must always start with a complete blind faith in the guru’s skills. Perhaps this is more oriental concept, but in India too, we have great examples of how students excelled when they reposed complete faith in their guru’s skills and knowledge. To me this is like climbing Mt. Everest – you can’t just get airdropped close to the summit and complete the final climb – you must undertake the journey from the base camp. This is important because the skills you require for the final assualt are the ones that you need to master right from your formative years as a student of that subject.

An interesting part of this model is that the end objective. It is expected that the student shall surpass his master in knowledge and skills for the ultimate benefit of that trade. Situational leadership doesn’t talk in that many words, but Shu-Ha-Ri model probably is all about the ultimate liberation of a student’s faculties. However, in modern times of nano-careers and floating workplace relationships between a mentor and a disciple (or a manager and his team members), it is perhaps very hard to expect that there is a guru for each one of us, who is helping us improve every single day, with the eventual goal of making us better than himself. Managers are exposed to their own traumas – job unsecurity due to economic situation or other organizational chances, skills obsolesence, stagnation and so on. How do we expect those managers to actually go out of the way and help out their disciplines in their careers ? If the average tenure a manager is with a given team member is not more than a few years, is it even reasonable to expect ?

Looking at it from a disciple’s eyes, there might be yet another set of issues to confront. How to choose a guru who can selflessly teach him to fly like a carefree bird and scale heights that he can’t do by himself ? How does he know that his guru won’t sabotage his career? Assuming his guru is a good guy, does he have all the skills and knowledge to help him at every stage of his career ? In the context of an immediate manager as his guru, how many managers will be willing to help him grow and risk their own obsolescense at workplace. Do today’s job pressures even leave one with that much time for a long-haul development of one’s skills and abilities ? Is it even worth doing it given that in every 5 to 10 years, perhaps the entire subject might be re-written and replaced by a new body of knowledge?

I think these are very relevant questions, and with no easy answers. A manager must outgrow his fears and invest time and effort in developing his teams in a way that helps grow them. The process of taking a student from Shu to Ha and finally to Ri is highly rewarding and educating process, not to mention the obvious challenges. Better managers among us have mastered the art of making difference to the people who worked with them. They all faced similar challanges that I mentioned above, and that probably made the entire experience even more rewarding for them. In the process of liberating their disciples, those gurus also became little better gurus.

After all, a guru is known by the work of his disciples.

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