Being an Expert vs Being a Leader

By Alex Sutton

Finding my way back to the Mountain Academy of Martial Arts has been a blessing I could not have anticipated. In truth, I had become a bit lost both personally and professionally a few years ago. As a result, I decided to quit my job and go back to school for my Graphic Design Certification. This decision set me on a course that had I chosen differently, I do not think I would have walked into Master O’Hara’s Green Mountain MAMA class that fateful day.

While back in school, I took a part-time job as a Senior Dance Instructor and Choreographer with the Foothills Recreation District. Soon I was also teaching for the South Suburban Recreation District, and driving all over Littleton and South Metro Denver. Between working and school, my loves to teach and to be creative were renewed. I felt inspired and energized. I felt confident and connected to the world.

Now an adult, I took my teaching role much more seriously than I had as a teenager. I knew I had an obligation to my students and (in the cases of the children) to their parents. Suddenly I realized I was taking this whole “teaching thing” much more seriously than I ever did as a youth, and I developed a perspective of teaching that I very sincerely believe in. My objective here is to share that perspective with the Mountain Academy of Martial Arts in the hope that it can be helpful to up-and-coming instructors within the program. Please note these are mere suggestions. Concepts that helped me. For the most part, they seem fairly intuitive, and they are. Sometimes, however, in order to apply those concepts, we benefit from the practice of intellectualizing them. I am going to speak directly to those new instructors in the first person to help make my points.


“Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” —Jack Welch

Welch’s words are true of anyone in a leadership or teaching position. As we Martial Artists progress in the development of our craft, we sometimes assume that the mere knowledge, experience and expertise we possess automatically qualify us to be instructors. In actuality, the achievement of earning a Black Belt of any Dan qualifies one to be just that: a Black Belt. There is an implied expectation of an instructor by his or her students that he be an authority on the subject matter he is to teach, just like a doctor is expected to have graduated from medical school. Once the significant milestone of Black

Belt is achieved, at least five more things need to happen to transform from an expert to a leader. As John Maxwell said, “People buy into the leader before they buy into the vision.”

1. You are there for the students. When you are teaching, it is about them; not you.

An instructor’s every objective should begin and end with the students having learned something relevant to the subject matter. Do not make a habit of waiting for students to ask for help. As the leader and the expert, it is your responsibility to pay attention to the students and know when someone is having difficulty, or just does not understand the lesson. A student should always be able to ask for help, but shouldn’t have to carry that burden by him/herself. Most schools within the Mountain Academy of Martial Arts are lucky to have some red belts and/or junior black belts who can help observe students and offer one-on-one instruction as needed. Utilize these helpers and make sure they know the leadership expectations as well.

2. Figure out your teaching method.

Take your role seriously and spend some time thinking about your own teaching strategy. Consider how to communicate with different kinds of students: children, teenagers, adults; boys versus girls; shy versus outgoing… there are many different kinds of students. Be prepared to communicate best based on who is in front of you.

Get to know your students. Make an effort to learn their names. Find out why each person chose to take Tae Kwon Do, and what he/she likes most about it.

3. Have a clear (and realistic) set of rules and expectations for class time, and communicate them often.

If students have not been told the rules and expectations, it is not fair to hold them responsible for following such rules. Be consistent. Do not change the rules frequently, or choose only to enforce the rules part of the time.

4. Be flexible.

While it is important to have a teaching strategy and a lesson plan, remember the following:

a. Not every student, all the time, will connect with your every-day teaching method. In fact, sometimes it feels like there are as many exceptions as there are rules. Learn to go with the flow. Once you discover a particular class or student requires something a little different, modify your strategy. Remember, the burden is first on you to teach, and second on the student to learn.

WARNING: Be careful to keep the class (as a whole) your top priority. If a particular student is requiring a significant amount of your attention during class, consider having a conversation with him or his parent about options.

b. Always go into a class with a plan, and make sure that plan factors into the bigger picture. Sometimes, however, a variable creates the necessity/opportunity to change the plan. For example: a major snow storm affects the attendance for a typical evening class, and only three students attend. Seize that opportunity to have a semi-private training lesson with those three students, and really focus on what they would like to practice. At the same time, get to know them better. Creating and strengthening those bonds, when you are able to do so, reinforces their desire to please/impress you.

Become the kind of leader that people would follow voluntarily; even if you had no title or position. —Brian Tracy

5. Be happy!

This does not mean do not be serious; rather, do not be discontented. Make a conscious effort to enjoy yourself while you are teaching. If you are not happy, neither are your students. Having a positive attitude is very much a part of your obligation to your students. If you are continually finding this difficult, talk to your leaders. It is important for them to know the disposition of their instructors, and they may be able to help you find a solution.

Remember, it takes a special person to connect with Tae Kwon Do not just as a physical activity but also as a means of self-defense and as an art. One needs coordination, dexterity and memory to learn forms; quickness and courage to learn to fight; and strength and endurance to make it through the training. In this way, Martial Arts are much more involved than most physical activities. And for this reason, an instructor of Martial Arts must be very well rounded. The good news: If you are—or are about to be—an instructor, you are well on your way! Now, it is simply a matter of finding the best strategy to pass your expertise on to others.


Seeing how much the Mountain Academy of Martial Arts has grown in the last twenty years is nothing short of inspiring. I have enjoyed every moment of training and teaching since I have been back, as well as the connections I have made with the other instructors. I am excited to see what the future holds for us, and am thrilled to be a part of it.