The Bruce Lee Approach To Leadership




In a now famous interview, martial arts legend Bruce Lee stated that one’s approach to fighting must be like water.  See the excerpt in the video above. Here’s the quote:

Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless - like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup, you put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle, you put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.
— Bruce Lee

Bruce was referencing his Jeet Kune Do approach to fighting. He believed that the most effective approach to martial arts was one that was not restricted by places of origin, cultural traditions, or style.  He often referred to Jeet Kune Do as “no style”.    His was a free flowing, adaptable approach to his craft. 

Bruce’s philosophy also has implications for leadership.    Which leader do you think would be more effective, one that has a rigid approach, or one who is open to a rapidly changing environment?   One who stubbornly holds on to a mental position, or one who is open enough to learn something new?   Our approach to leading should be like water as well. 


Empty Your Mind, Be Formless, Shapeless 

How does one do this as a leader?   Often times, we let our egos get involved in the decision making process and become attached to our opinions.  Decisiveness is definitely a quality that great leaders have, but so is adaptability.   There comes a point where decisiveness can become stubbornness, just as there is a point where adaptability becomes flakiness.  Finding that happy medium allows you to be formless in your decision making, as you are able to access decisiveness when necessary and adaptability at the appropriate time.   So how do you do this?  

You must first become aware of your own biases, strengths, and weaknesses.   This involves a lot of honesty, and you may have to admit some things about yourself you may not like.   At work, try doing a 360 feedback exercise with your team, and really listen to the responses.    If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll know which criticisms are warranted, and you can then work on development in those areas. In addition to 360 feedback methods, mindfulness meditation practices are a great way to identify your biases, as awareness of your subconscious beliefs often leads to freedom from their influence. 

If you know your Myers-Briggs personality type, another approach you could use is to practice using all of your opposite functions.    For example if you’re an ESTP, your opposite letters would be INFJ.  To increase your comfort with each of your opposite functions, defy yourself. Do everything you normally wouldn’t do.   What does this look like for an ESTP?   Well you could try being to yourself more often to think out your ideas (I), exploring your creativity more often by coming up with new ways to solve old problems (N),  confronting your feelings and using a more human-centered decision making process (F), and  meeting deadlines in advance of the due date (J).   By purposely defying yourself, you are actually increasing your ability to utilize those functions.  

It may be difficult at first to accept criticisms that you don’t want to hear, or to practice using your opposite functions, but stay the course as these practices can greatly increase your ability to adapt your leadership style to a variety of different people, environments, and circumstances.   As the master himself said, be water, my friend.