By Beth Stiner, in partnership with Barb Ward

In martial arts, color-coded belts signify a ranking system that represents class advancement and recognition for the hard work and discipline a student dedicates to master the art. The belt also serves as an external symbol, alerting the other students in the martial arts community to what the student is working toward, inviting others of higher rank to step in with support and guidance. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had the same indicators in leadership? The ability to claim our areas of learning and mastery. The invitation to form a community to encourage one another’s growth.

While a system such as this does not exist, it’s important to realize, whether you’re a first-time manager or a seasoned executive, that leadership is a continuous journey. There is always room for growth and learning, no matter how masterful you are.

So, what makes a black belt leader, and where are you on the journey toward mastery?

White and yellow belts signify that a student is a beginner.
  • White belts symbolize innocence, a clean slate, and new beginnings.
  • Yellow belts represent a seedling being adorned by the transformative rays of sunshine and opening the mind to wisdom.

You have worked hard and received a new leadership position. Whether this is your first leadership position or you are an experienced leader taking on a new role, you may be starting out as a white belt with regard to your experience in this role, with this team, at this organization. At this stage, it’s essential to give yourself permission to be a learner. This means being curious, absorbing the environment around you, listening with an open mind, and allowing yourself to not have all the answers. Everyone has been new at some point, and if you act like you have all the answers when you don’t, you miss the opportunity to forge new relationships with those around you who could support your learning. When you ask co-workers for their help and advice, it shows them you respect their knowledge. This can help you develop strong relationships from the beginning. Take your time at this level and enjoy the newness of it all. Allow others to step in and support your learning.

Orange, green and blue belts are for those immersed in the study and application of their art.
  • Orange belts symbolize growth both physically and mentally.
  • Green belts signify the sprout of a seed emerging from the earth. With a firm foundation, they strengthen and refine their techniques.
  • Blue belts are a symbol of the sky, illustrating that the student is preparing for a transition to be an advanced student.

As you have grown into your position over time, you likely feel more competent and knowledgeable in your role. Your energy is focused on deepening your competence in the role as well as leading others. Now is a great time in your journey to ensure that feedback channels are open with superiors, coworkers, and direct reports so you are aware of potential derailers that may be keeping you from being as effective as you’d like.

Using a tool called a 360-degree assessment, leaders rate themselves and ask people they trust and whose opinions they value to rate them on the same criteria. This combined self- and peer assessment can be an invaluable asset by identifying both areas where you are excelling and areas in which you could improve.

The 360 may point to opportunities for your leadership to go from good to great; it might also reveal feedback that is unexpected or difficult to accept. In these situations, it can be helpful to employ the services of a leadership coach. A coach can work with you to define your leadership goals and use the feedback received to propel you forward in your development. Increasing your self-awareness and proactively identifying development goals can be the difference between soaring to new possibilities or stalling in your trajectory within the company.

Brown and red belts signify high competency through hard work and maturity.
  • Brown belts represent ripening and maturing as students gain the skills necessary to advance to the highest levels through hard work and determination.
  • Red belts are a symbol of the power of the red-hot sun. Red belts know their strength and ability, and now must practice caution and control as skill level and abilities become more developed.

Leaders who have advanced to this level are mastering themselves, their work, their teams, and their relationships. They understand that success is not all about what they can accomplish individually, but rather mobilizing the hearts and minds of others to achieve results. They honor their responsibility as a role model for others, knowing that even the simplest things (such as their ability to be present in their interactions, responsive to their colleagues, and on time for meetings) sets the tone and expectations for everyone around them.

As a brown or red belt, a fundamental necessity is knowing your own level of emotional intelligence. Research by Daniel Goleman found a strong correlation between effective leadership and emotional intelligence. Emotionally-intelligent leaders have high self-awareness, an ability to manage their own emotions and behaviors, awareness of the dynamics of the teams and organizations they operate in, and strong relationship management skills.

Do you tend to find yourself triggered by certain people or situations? Do you find yourself talking more than listening? How well do you navigate conflict and

give feedback? An emotional intelligence assessment can help you identify the areas of emotional intelligence where you are strong and detect areas of opportunity before they become limitations or derailers. If you have not previously taken an emotional intelligence assessment, you might consider doing so. We consider this important baseline information for our Innovative Connections coaching clients and participants in our Signature Programs.

The great thing about emotional intelligence is that it can be learned. Just as a red belt gets stronger and faster with every training session, we as leaders can do the same—improving how we lead ourselves and others.

The black belt, the ultimate achievement, symbolizes the “darkness beyond the sun” and mastery of skills and achievement.

  • Black belts use their knowledge to teach others, and at the same time continue to broaden their own understanding, continually seeking knowledge. Within the black belt level, a separate ranking system breaks down mastery into degrees, or levels of achievement.

A black belt signifies a level mastery; however, it is not the end of the journey. Those familiar with martial arts know black belts are often referred to by “degrees.” For example, a “third degree black belt” is even more advanced than a “first degree.” There are guidelines for this progression through the degrees of the belt, including skill mastery over a specific period of time, teaching and development of others, and the person’s contributions to the community through service and new knowledge development.

Similarly, in leadership, a black belt leader isn’t simply someone with a CEO title. It is not a leader who rests on past accomplishments as the sole proof of future success. It is not a leader who leads through ego, arrogance, power, or fear. Rather, black belt leaders are the ones at work humbly serving their communities, mentoring and engaging others, continually evolving, stretching and reaching new levels of accomplishment, finding fulfillment in the “being” of leadership as much as the “doing.”

Leadership is a lifelong journey. The metaphor of the martial arts belt system is a creative way to reflect on our leadership journeys and the communities of people we serve. Martial arts students at every belt level demonstrate commitment, focus, and hours of practicing their skills to progress through the ranks. Experienced executives as well as first-time leaders must do the same to develop and improve.

Ready to explore your own leadership mastery? Reach out to start the conversation about executive coaching, 360 assessments, emotional intelligence, and more.

A black belt is nothing more than a belt, a piece of cloth. Your ultimate goal should not be to get your black belt. Your ultimate goal should be to be a black belt. Being a black belt is a state of mind, a way of life.  ~ Bohdi Sanders