Teaching the Art of the Fall

04/28/2015 10:23

Mae Ukemi, or learning to fall, is the first skill Aikido students are taught. “Relax, you are attacking the floor!” a master teacher once told me, laughing. “Let it be. Your whole young life you’ve been falling and not thinking about it. The key is in the rising. The roll and the rise are what you aim for. Like playing in a game.”

Our Global Corporate Social Responsibility class reminds me of many of the life-changing lessons of Aikido, as well as much of what Jack Stack wrote about in his classic book The Great Game of Business. CSR, naturally based on an exploration of business ethics, affords us an opportunity to talk about the falls of organizations and systems we would have hoped we’d been able to trust.

Many universities, including MIT and the University of Chicago, incorporate the principles and philosophy of Aikido into cross-cultural and business studies, e.g., conflict negotiation.  Aikido students understand and become adept at the redirection of negative forces coming their way into a gentle roll intended, never to dominate, but simply to neutralize a threatening situation.

In CSR studies we look for ways to deal with the pervasive consequences of personal and professional failures. We move beyond light judgements and try to understand what might be done.  Some case studies hit close to home, like that of the 11 Atlanta educators jailed for cheating while scoring standardized tests in their low-income district. 

Richard Rothstein, research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, asks: If you cheat to escape a corrupt accountability system, who is really to blame?

Roger Riddell, writing for Education Dive, presents two lessons of the case for us to consider.

Implicit in this example is the multi-layered dysfunction of the educational system in which we operate as educators, administrators, and students. We need standards, but they aren’t always upheld. Consider grade inflation, a national concern, and slaps on the wrist as opposed to serious academic consequences for cheating. On a broad scale basis, if these sorts of problems count, apparently we are falling all the time.

Well, whoever said that the motivation to learn begins with a problem was right; I’d take it a step further and say careful examination of the details of our own falls, or those we witness, could make us all functional geniuses, or at least what one wise Sensei (Master Teacher) referred to as “acolytes of the possible.”

It takes practice to risk. It takes guidance to do things according to the higher knowledge we call ethics. And it takes careful instruction to help us learn to concentrate on the rise after falls if and when they occur.  

When I was as young as most of our students are, I had plenty of opportunities to fall partly due to early influences of parents and teachers who didn’t really want to do their jobs. But later on in life, I found outstanding real-world guidance even in the business world. Whether corporate educated or entrepreneurially adept, each mentor-teacher offered a wealth of perspective beyond technique or pedagogy. All of us at the College of Business know about this kind of mentoring, and have probably benefitted ourselves.

These individuals help their mentees to make the upward rise through the crazy dysfunctional world even as they help them negotiate the “great game of business.” Smart mentees realize the lessons their mentors teach are really about life. They may have won and/or lost and re-earned millions, but these resilient and respectable folks know what ultimately to account for and to whom. Once such mentors take hold of your success training, you learn that you can fall with both your hands tied and still bound to the rise - even in the stupidest and most dysfunctional business/political systems imaginable. Values provide direction, but can’t substitute for the hard work involved in perfecting our aim to rise within situations that can be discouraging to say the least.

Ironically, virtually each of my mentors came from industries our Business Ethics text appropriately takes to task: the banking and the pharmaceutical/biotechnology industries. It’s quite the paradox that good and wise individuals can be found even in professions where considerable corruption exists. Then again, where does dysfunction of some sort not exist? Few places.

As great mentors say, simply being capable is a fine way to live your life.

That’s the little bit of hope I like to leave students with.Good people are around, so find them and try to be one of those thoughtful people yourself. Anticipate the falls, but aim for the rise. Falling is basically just an invitation to get back on our feet and in the process, maybe help others to get back up on theirs.