Over the Halloween weekend, I attended an intense, 4 day Taiji retreat with Master Chen YingJun. YingJun is the son of Chen Taiji’s standard bearer and Grandmaster Chen XiaoWang, and he visits us once a year. It’s a great honour to train with such an accomplished martial arts master. It turns out that Master Chen had more to teach than Taiji and Qigong, and in this blog I want to share about his leadership and how he keeps changing the place from where he leads: to lead by example, to practise together, and to empower each individual to practise on their own. His exemplary leadership sets the tone for everyone’s co-leadership in the room.
There’s power in every punch
Master Chen travels all the way from Australia to demonstrate what is possible when you train intensely day after day, year after year. He is incredibly strong and still grows stronger, by cultivating chi through gentle movement with an inward focus – no weight lifting, no jogging. Just Taiji! When Master Chen walks the Taiji forms, you see power in every punch.
Beginners and senior instructors gather to learn and grow
When he visits us, he is here to help us all grow. He is as dedicated to the beginners as he is to the senior instructors. And he varies his leadership style continuously and in a predictable way: We can watch him, practise together with him, go into the details, and then practise individually, receiving corrections which are tailor made to our respective needs.
Shifting from one to another leadership style in a predictable flow
Every session, Master Chen takes us through the same sequence. This sequence is a shift in leadership styles that allows us to watch, ask questions and learn by doing.
We start by walking a form together. He walks in the front, and we all walk in sync with him. We try to emulate his leg, arm and hip movements, and correct our own while we walk along with him.
Then he invites us to gather and watch him as he demonstrates the form to us.
Which is followed by all of us walking it together once more.
Then it’s question time! After having walked the form three or four times, Master Chen invites us to ask questions. One after another we step forward, make a movement and ask for clarity on how to do it most powerfully. Question time gives everyone a chance to see individual movements demonstrated once more. Sometimes, if we ask, we even get to repeat it all together.
I love that question time finishes when we have no more questions!
From collective to individual learning
Now it’s time for corrections. That’s when Master Chen moves from the front of the room and becomes a leader from behind.
I can select any posture I want to understand better and improve on. Eventually Master Chen will come to me and correct my stance. He will take his time until he senses that my chi now flows as my hip joints, shoulders and elbows soften and open. I feel the chi flow as I get quite warm and feel my hands tingling.
While Master Chen now goes to the next person, I will try and stay in this challenging stance as long as I can, because I want to be able to remember the feeling. I will search for this feeling throughout the year as I practise the form.
One after another, Master Chen gives us individual corrections.
Finally, we walk the form together once more.
Master Chen attends to all of us, he knows our names, he addresses our individual problems, be they tight hips or ailing knees. That’s pretty much how he structures every half day session, only that we walk different parts of the form or do other practices like QiGong.
It’s now time for our well deserved communal lunch!
The importance of relationship
Come lunch, we all sit together and Master Chen sits with us. Our highly respected guest always mingles with us. He joins our conversations, answers more questions on Taiji, or listens to some of us philosophising about Taiji and life! He’s keen to learn all of our names. And when he comes back in the following year, he still remembers them. Just as he remembers our individual learning edges. He allows us all to feel that we belong, no matter how often we train and how senior we are.
Master Chen models a number of leadership practices that are an inspiration for any leader:
He leads from the front by demonstrating form and by allowing us to step through the forms together with him.
He encourages participation by inviting questions, and he treats all questions equally. No question is a bad question. Nothing is too basic, or too complex! He leads us through question time with great attention and a dose of humour. That makes question time as entertaining as it is enlightening.
He generously gives us individual feedback, geared to empowering us to better ourselves when he’s gone.
Creating a leadership culture
Master Chen is a model of a leader. And his leadership style trickles down to the national and regional leaders of Taiji all over the world. If you’re curious about how that shows, read this blog about Becky, a visiting teacher and her leadership during our four days intensive with Master Chen.
Over the years, we move from merely trying to mimic physical movements (they are complex, so that is where everyone starts!) to focusing on the inner workings of Taiji as we train with intention and precision. By his example, Master Chen helps create a movement of lifelong learners. And that’s what leaders and those they lead are: life long learners. And that it is the role of a leader to grow leaders all around, from whatever place of leadership they start. This requires investing into relationship, leading by example, allowing people to practise so they can stretch into their leadership, and building a community of leaders. And all of this is possible if you adopt a fluid leadership style.
How fluid is your leadership style? And how much leadership do you see those you lead take?