My Leadership Style Update: Be Like Water

Bruce Lee. Legendary Kung Fu master, martial artist, actor, philosopher, author, and one of my idols. He is perhaps best known for pioneering the martial arts style called Jeet Kune Do.

John Demma. BJJ blue belt, businessman, and the author of a blog read by tens of people each month. I am perhaps best known for my most read blog post that I wrote 5 years ago about how to describe your leadership style. Somehow, thanks to the SEO gods, that post has gotten over 3,000 views, 10x more than my next most popular post. This post is an update to that crowning achievement.

Back then I wrote about a format for describing your style, and gave my leadership style description as an example: “My leadership style is to lead by example, with heart, integrity, and strong professional relationships. I am decisive, assertive and confident in my communication. I create an attractive and bold vision for the future, and develop a plan with my team for realizing our shared vision. Along the way, my team learns and grows so they can achieve their personal development goals.”

My leadership style served me well for the first 5 years of my business journey. In the following 5 years I had to evolve. In some situations being “decisive, assertive, and confident in my communication” could have been replaced for the better with listening and seeking more supporters or partners before making a decision. In other situations my “bold vision for the future” was too bold, and I tried to change too much too quickly. Sometimes my plans and strategies were too rigid, and a flexible and more adaptable style would have been a much better approach.

Enter my new leadership style. Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do (JKD), the style of no style.

JKD is based on the combat situation and the enemy’s weaknesses in any unique moment. Knowing that true combat is dynamic, unpredictable, and happening outside of limiting stylistic patterns, Lee believed in applying different and often times contradictory tools to different situations.

In Lee’s own famous words:

Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.

Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.

Be water, my friend.

In business, no one leadership application is perfect for all situations. It’s the most adaptable leaders and professionals who survive and thrive, and the true masters who can apply opposing strategies interchangeably in their dynamic environments.

Here’s hoping someday they will teach Jeet Kune Do as a leadership style at Harvard Business School. If they did, maybe the professor would talk about using diametrically opposed techniques for different business situations like these:


We all have our own guiding principles and values, but maybe the best style is no style at all. Maybe styles dissolve with mastery. Experienced practitioners can operate in any situation and they thrive on uncertainty. Rookies crave defined rules, the black and white, while all stars are right at home in the grey areas of life.

I’ve got many miles left to travel on my journey to mastery – in business, in fatherhood, in trying to be a decent person. Some days I can feel myself stuck in my ways and trapped in my own predictable patterns of imperfection. In the development of any skill there are plateaus, lulls, and regressions. Months go by where I am frustrated with my progress in the workplace, at home, and in the real world.

And then there are the small breakthroughs. Those moments of mastery that make the day-to-day discipline worth while. Moments where styles and the self dissolve, where we live for a just a moment on a higher plane. And even if they are fleeting, it’s those transcendent moments that get me out of bed ready to continue the journey of endless learning the next day.

Tagged with: