Lessons from the Dojo: How Being a Black Belt in Karate Makes Me a Better Association Executive

By Carol Ann Burrell, CAE

New beginnings are exciting. They offer hope.  And while courage is frequently required to make them happen, it is the anticipation of creating or accomplishing something for the first time that often motivates us.  Some firsts are the kind that stay with us because they may have been on our bucket list and we are encouraged to be present as we experience them.  But there is a whole cohort of firsts—or first steps—that we recognize after the fact, and it is only upon reflection that we acknowledge their significance.

As I stood in my brand-new white gi—still nicely crisp and stiff with fabric sizing—then wrapped a soft, very plain white obi around my waist, I simply chalked this up to another garden-variety first in my life.  The fact was, wearing that white belt and taking my very first karate class was four years in the making.  That’s how many years of kick-boxing classes it took before I plucked up the nerve to finally put my toes on the line and really find out what I was made of.  It would be another three years later, while leading up to my 1st-degree Black Belt grading, that my journey of self-discovery would really come into focus.  I wasn’t just a physically stronger and healthier version of myself.  Without even realizing it, I had become a better mother, better wife, better daughter, better friend, better association executive.  Just by taking a modest first step—signing up for karate classes—I was physically, mentally and spiritually transforming into the person I was striving to become all my life, and the journey was far from over.


To be honest, that first karate class was a bit of blur.  Four years of regular kick-boxing classes meant I was in pretty good shape, but the dizzying array of Japanese-named blocks, punches, kicks, strikes and stances were much more technically challenging to execute than I had anticipated.  Now that I have been training for more than a decade, naturally things come a little easier.  Even now though, each and every class, week after week, am I humbly reminded that I still have a lot to learn.  But I also know that with focus, practice, a can-do attitude, and the help of my fellow karate-ka, I can learn pretty much anything I set my mind to.

As association executives, especially those of us who have our CAE, the pressure to have all the answers all the time is real.  Nothing is static anymore, learning is continuous, and progress is hard-fought.  It can be pretty overwhelming at times.  Training in the martial arts has taught me to acknowledge that I already have a pretty impressive professional tool box.  And by continuously updating my skills, acquiring new knowledge and putting concepts, old and new, into practice—lots of practice—that tool box is constantly growing.  Of course, I don’t always have all the answers, the right tools or the know-how to use them, but when that happens, my martial arts training has helped me discover the confidence to acknowledge the gaps and the humility to ask for help.  Lucky for me, both my CSAE colleagues and dojo karate-ka generously share their knowledge, teach me essential lessons, and inspire me to be better.  It just takes a little faith—in myself, the process, and the people around me.


Like so many of us, I came to association management 30 years ago less by design and more by accident.  I was only a few years along in my career when things shifted dramatically and I was unexpectedly promoted to the senior staff role at the association where I was working.  To be sure, the promotion was a stretch.  It was a little like being thrown into the deep end without knowing how to swim.  But my 28-year old self accepted the challenge with a mixture of trepidation and fearlessness, and never looked back.

Similarly, when I began taking kick-boxing classes 15 years ago, I never could I have imagined myself eventually teaching the very class that quickly became my mental, emotional and physical salvation.  I gave the classes a try mostly because a friend asked me to go along with her, and secondarily because I thought exercise might help me overcome some situational depression for which I was being professionally treated.  Trying out a class was, in truth, no big deal, but at the time it seemed like a huge leap.  So, when I experienced an enhanced mood, improved fitness, and increased confidence, I was so afraid of losing these benefits I resisted taking the next logical step in my growth, which was to begin training in karate.

For me, the risk of losing what I had gained was too great.  I saw it as an either/or, not a win-win.  When I finally did embark on my martial arts journey, the pay-out was to become ten times what I could have ever imagined, transformative, really.  What’s more, my four years of resistance made me realize I had become risk adverse.  I was forced to ask myself, where did that young woman with the indomitable spirit go?  It made me re-examine how I was making decisions, considering options, and seeking out new initiatives in my professional life.  It pushed me to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, not just in the dojo, but most especially around the boardroom table.


Constant pressure to create the next best thing, coupled with an expectation to deliver the goods, when it’s often not even known what those goods are, is the day in a life of an association executive.  A steady stream of deadlines and a never-ending to-do list, pitted against uncertain resources, engagement and buy-in, are frequently what motivate us to seemingly create something out of almost nothing.  We love the challenge, subscribe to high standards, and take great pride in our accomplishments.  But passion for our work and a commitment to excel can come at a cost.  Lack of sleep, high stress, 12+ hour days, seven-day work weeks take their toll on our health and well-being, not to mention our personal relationships.

I will not tell you that, by making time to train and teach in the martial arts, my busy schedule somehow became less busy.  No magic tricks here.  What I will say is that my busy life is now solidly within my control, and I have more stamina than ever.  The tough physical demands of karate ensure I come home both pretty darned tired and thoroughly energized.  Collapsing into a deep slumber, even if it is from physical exhaustion, means I am better rested.  In fact, it is particularly during periods of conflict and challenge that I crave the dojo because, not only can I rely on getting a good night’s sleep, but I know that while I am in class, teaching or training, my brain will get a reprieve from the clutter that robs me of clarity and good judgement.  That’s because the martial arts demand one hundred percent focus.  In exchange, I am rewarded with a clearer mind and greater concentration.  Conversely, should I let my mind wander in class, I risk being punched in the head.  Or worse, should I lose my control, I may commit one of the biggest sins in the martial arts—hurting my training partner.

What’s more, whether I am training (when I am required to simultaneously understand instructions given in Japanese and execute them) or whether I am teaching (when I must be able to give instruction   and personalized feedback to a diverse class of 20 or more students), there’s nothing else I do in life that is better for improving my memory and ability to think on my feet.  Additionally, faced with learning a brand-new skill, being assessed in an adrenalin-inducing self-defence scenario, or performing a memorized sequence of movements in front of a grading panel of Sensei’s, as a karate student I am regularly challenged to stay composed and keep calm in the face of uncertainty.  I cannot tell you how many times I have driven to the dojo consumed with a work problem, and after only an hour of rigorous training, I discover the solution to my problem during the drive home.  It is nothing short of miraculous how a clear mind and an exhausted body can restore the spirit of a beleaguered association executive in such a short period of time.


The most surprising benefit of training in the martial arts has very little to do with how well I can kick, punch or defend myself.  In fact, the most generous and useful gift karate has given me is an iron-clad set of values and principles by which to live my life both inside and outside of the dojo.  Ideals like integrity, trustworthiness, honesty, respect, courtesy, humility and compassion, among others, guide my daily behaviour and are a mindful part of my personal vocabulary.  A healthy dose of truthful self-reflection—and a simple tactic that I like to call the “gut test”—hold me to account on these.  And when professional or personal adversity test my inner strength—as is the case for me right now, being unemployed for the first time in my career—I have learned through my martial arts training to double down on persistence and patience, have faith in my abilities, and heed the advice of those who care about me.  Instant gratification, quick fixes and heavy-handed strategies—the fast food of poor leaders—are not only short-cuts, but are also short-sighted.

Embodying these martial arts values as an association executive means, quite simply, modelling the behaviour I wish to engender in others, each and every day.  Whether it’s through my relationships and interactions with directors, volunteers, members, peers and staff, or how I lead a team, solve problems, make recommendations and implement new ideas, the personal belief system I have embraced as a martial artist provides me with crystal-clear clarity of purpose.  It is my aim that, through consistently honest and open communications, I am bringing a measure of good faith and integrity into discussions and negotiations.  By giving credit and standing back to let others shine bright, it is my hope that I am helping to develop the next generation of leaders.  By asserting that there is enough room within our associations for everyone to be successful, I am seeking to build consensus and foster collaboration.  By demonstrating that respect is something to be tendered rather than apprehended, I am hoping to cultivate positive, mutually fruitful relationships that bring people together in partnership and success.

Training in the martial arts is not for the faint of heart—not because it is physically demanding (it most definitely is), but largely because of what you must be prepared to uncover about yourself.  Don’t expect to blend in, even in a class of 20 people.  And think twice about wanting to be the centre of attention—fools are not suffered gladly.  Don’t think you’ll be let off the hook or that you can coast your way to Black Belt.  Much like a career in association management, the learning is demanding, the feedback can be harsh, but the rewards are unassailable.  My martial arts experience has taken me along a path to transformative self-discovery, in my personal and professional life, and that journey is nowhere near the end.  I can’t see what lies ahead exactly, but that doesn’t bother me, I still know where I am going.  The virtues of my training—self-improvement, continuous learning, a strong body, mind and spirit, and a solid set of guiding principles—make me a better association executive, a better person even.  This change didn’t happen overnight, and to be sure, it is work in progress.  Each time I wrap my Black Belt around my waist, I am reminded that my journey started with one, unknowing first step.  My path as a martial artist, an association executive, or as a human being, for that matter, hasn’t always been clear to me.  But I now realize that I don’t need to have all the answers to be a better version of myself.  I just need to put my toes on the line as we say in the martial arts, and be better than I was yesterday.  That is what will get me where I want to go—one first step at a time.