Boardroom ‘zen’ class for success

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breaking point: it’s a company ‘away day’ like nothing else. Neil hudson met the man who wants to use martial arts weapons to put you in touch with your boardroom tiger

Company away days are nothing new. These days you can go on any number of themed ‘team building’ days, doing everything from military-style assault courses and hovercraft racing to kayaking and wine tasting.

Others are even more demanding and require almost theatrical performances from their participants but now the company ‘away day’ may have found a more profound form of expression.

It’s called Corporate Kobudo and it’s the brainchild of one Leeds martial artist who’s Chán School of Nunchaku delivers ‘kobudo’ (the martial arts weaponry systems originating on the island of Okinawa) workshops for busy people, but if you think it’s all about conflict, think again.

Liverpool-born Martin, 43, is a third dan in kobudo, a 2nd dan in wado ryu karate and a 1st dan in iai-jutsu (Japanese sword training) but he plays down the importance of grades saying there’s a lot more to martial arts training than gaining high grades. He is also heavily into meditation.

“While martial arts weapons were originally adapted from agricultural tools to be used in combat, they also happen to be wonderful metaphors for life, offering rich insight in how to deal with different situations. I’ve done martial arts for more than 30 years and the more I practise, the more I see it’s not about conflict or being able to knock someone out. It’s about self-development. The real art is diffusing situations before they become physical.

“Martial arts weapons come in various shapes and sizes, and lend themselves to different situations. Some are extremely flexible and versatile while others seem rigid and cumbersome. That’s why they are a metaphor for people. Training with weapons offers insight into how to deal with all kinds of things, from boardroom discussions to tricky customers. We all come across different kinds of people in life: some are rigid, others more compliant. The question is how do you get the best out of your relationship with them?

“People on the course get to handle various weapons, including the nunchaku, the double baton with chain made famous by Bruce Lee, and a six-foot long wooden, very thick stick called a bo.

“The bo is a very large object and once you get that moving, it has a lot of momentum and so if you want to be graceful, you have to work with it and understand how it moves. Staying relaxed is the key. If you are tense, moving the bo around will soon tire you out. It’s the same with people. If there’s too much tension, interaction is heavy going.

“Conversely, the nunchaku move in a more erratic way and are very capable of hurting you. The nunchaku can be compared to more off-the-wall people who are perhaps capable of creative genius but can easily get out of control.

“The idea behind understanding these kinds of weapons is that by changing how we interact with them, noting their qualities, it will allow us to recognise the same principles when dealing with people.

“So, for example, you might have a person in a board room who has a lot of power and sometimes they are a little bit harsh. You can decide to fight with them over every little thing but in doing so you will miss out on all their power.

“Accepting them warts and all and using your judgement when to resist and when to yield will enable you to have more power. This is not smart thinking, it’s smart feeling and I emphasise the word feeling because when you come to practise martial arts, you do not think about the movements as much as feel them.

“I teach people to excel with the weapon they are using by feeling its qualities. You always have to understand how something feels, how it sits in your hand, where its centre of gravity is, if I hold it in the middle, what does it want to do.

“I encourage people not to impose their will on things and the nunchaku are a great example of that. They are essentially two bits of wood connected by a chain. You can think all day about how they might move but in order to get them moving in harmony, you have to feel it. It’s a bit like whistling, you can read a book on how to whistle but then try to do it… it’s something you have to find.”

The former sales executive is on the sales end of a digital marketing agency and is a freelance writer called The Helpful People, delivering one to one coaching to business executives and actively involved in local community charities.

“So this is about putting your will on hold and it’s the same in the board room, I tell people to leave their egos outside, because they need to feel what’s going on, which is a sort of emotional intelligence.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming to be the greatest diplomat going or that I have never lost my patience - that’s something we all work on through life.

“But if you are in the board room, the argument you had with your wife earlier that day has no place, your worries about how you will pay for your kids to go on holiday have no place. What happened this morning no longer exists and likewise, neither does the future. All we ever have is the present. I teach people to be mindful of the present, of the moment and that starts right here, right now, in the dojo (training room).

“What’s the best way of dealing with anxieties such as the arguments we have and the worries we have? Act in the most appropriate way at the most appropriate time. That is, you take the actions that you know you can take, at the best time to take them.

“Likewise, if I start using the nunchaku and I let my mind begin to dwell on the argument I had, I am going to whack myself in the head. It’s the same in the boardroom. When you go in there, it’s not play time, what you say or do is going to have an effect on what happens, it’s not a practise session and they are not going to ask you to come back in and do it again. By focussing on working with the dynamics of a situation, you can get the best out of it.

“There are all kinds of people in business and my argument is you cannot change the people you are dealing with, so you have to work with what you have and understand how they move, to feel them and move with them, in harmony and that, by definition is a kind of meditative practice.”

Martin places a lot of stock in meditation but, again, he shuns the stereotypical idea of a person sitting cross-legged with their eyes closed.

“There are other forms of meditation which do not stop you doing ordinary things.

“There’s a great joke about this: two monks go to see their master for guidance and after they come out one lights up a cigarette but the time immediately after visiting the master was traditionally for meditation. The other monk is aghast and asks, ‘What are you doing? Did the master say you could do that?’ The first monk answers yes and so the next time they go to see the master, the second monk comes back out and says, ‘I asked the master and he said I cannot smoke while I meditate’, so the first one says, ‘Ah, I asked the master if I could meditate while I smoked.’

“If you’re constantly looking at what we call ‘skull cinema’ - replaying events from yesterday or thinking about what’s happening tomorrow, that mental noise is going to have an effect.

“I teach people not to shut out all those thoughts but to almost watch them as they enter and circle your mind and to give them labels, like that’s a worry thought, that’s an ambition and so on. When you do that you realise you don’t have to give an emotional response to them. The realisation you are not your thoughts allows you to be in the moment.”

Martin O’Toole, managing director of Fist of Fury, said: “As a new business, with a mixed team of people, I wanted to do something different in terms of team building. I couldn’t think of anything better than a Nunchaku (and other weapons) training session. Martin handled the session with expert competency.

“We had a great time, it was a worthwhile in terms of bonding, though I’m not convinced there are any Samurai amongst us.”

‘Chán’ is a mandarin word which roughly translates as ‘meditation’ or ‘Zen’ in Japanese. Martin chose the mandarin word for the title of his school to reflect the strong Chinese influence in the way he uses and teaches others to use nunchaku – fluidity, fluency and flow as opposed to more linear jerky or tense movements. This fluid way of working with nunchaku (and any weapon) can be described as ‘tsiang shui yang’, mandarin for ‘flowing like water’.

‘Nunchaku’ is a distinctly Okinawan word for the double baton and chain, the weapon that Martin is well known for specialising in – Martin has his own school:

Martin can be contacted for team building and away days on 07954 584980 or by email on

Tony Burdin, chief executive of Sheffield Mutual Friendly Society

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