Bringing subtlety to the pursuit of leadership presence

Written by Francis Briers on 20 May 2015

I have been invited to take over this blog and wanted to have a theme to shape my writing.  I have found that sometimes when I am seeking to develop a quality in myself or others, even finding the language for what we want to learn can be tricky. One of the gifts of studying ancient cultures in the way that I have is that I often come across words which have a richness and depth of translation that helps me to concisely articulate something that can be otherwise hard to grasp.  This then will be the theme of the blog for now: applying ancient wisdom to modern learning. 

The word I want to begin with is Kigurai. It is a word from Japanese martial arts which I came across while practicing Iaido, a Japanese sword art. If you look up Kigurai in a Japanese-English dictionary, it is typically translated as “arrogance”. However, something is lost in this translation. The way the word is used in Iaido is something more like self-possession. A great master of a martial art may humbly welcome you into his dojo (training hall) but it is still his dojo. This subtle but powerful confidence is Kigurai.

So often when people are trying to develop confidence, leadership presence or even just leadership, I see them end up working to create a way of being which seems to declare to the world “I am independent! I don’t need anyone” or particularly when working on leadership “I know what to do”. This frequently ends up having a brittle and arrogant quality to it. Now, of course, when people are learning something new, most of us are clumsy to begin with but I often have the feeling that what people are aiming for is a little off-target. 

The best leaders I meet manage to combine a kind of solidity, dependability or fierce competence which makes them easy to trust, a natural person to follow. They have a humility, a deeply held knowing that they don’t have all the answers, which makes it easy to work with them (not just for them). They also have a kind of aliveness or animation that is inspiring to be around, seeming at once larger than life and an invitation to dream bigger, to dare further and to be part of what they are creating. I have seen these same qualities in masters of their arts and this is very similar in my mind to Kigurai. Where there is much debate about whether leaders are born or made, the message I have consistently received in the traditional martial arts is clear: if you are willing to train hard, then you can learn anything.

I’m not offering a quick-fix or “3 steps to leadership greatness”. I think if you want to go beyond tricks and tips and grow as a person, it takes time and hard work. But maybe ancient language can give us new ways to see the journey we and our clients are on. Perhaps you know someone who thinks they need the hard certainty of ‘leadership presence,’ when what they really need to cultivate is the gentle confidence of Kigurai.


About the author
Francis Briers is a senior consultant at DPA

Share this page

Related Articles