Kung Fu Lessons for Business

I have been a student of Wing Chun Kung Fu for about four years. The beauty of the art is in its simplicity; only a few guiding principles, but able to be applied to any combat situation in any number of combinations. What has surprised me the most, however, is how I have adopted these principles in my professional life.

Wing Chun strips away all the fancy Hollywood moves and finds the most direct and effective route to land strikes. For example, we never kick above the waist; kicking someone in the head makes as much sense as punching someone in the foot. Our punches are always targeted to the spot on the opponent closest to us, delivered in a straight line (which is shorter than the arc a hook takes), often to the head where maximum damage is inflicted with minimal wasted energy.

Wing Chun Kung FuIn life, we are so polluted with distractions and excess, sometimes the work day seems to go by with a lot of busyness but nothing to show for. By attacking problems head-on and ignoring the fancy forms or high kicks, we can effectively find the shortest way to get things done with maximum effect and minimal effort; that is Wing Chun efficiency at its finest.

For example, email constantly puts us under attack with its constant striking. I have learned to strike back immediately and never twice. I make it a practice to handle email with one motion, which is read-consider-decide. I try never to read an email twice or leave it lingering in my inbox, to be considered over and over again.  The biggest upside is that I attack my email at times when it is efficient for me to handle it in one move. If I honestly cannot solve the task in that moment, I strike back by moving it into a ‘pending task’ folder.  I attack this folder usually once a day. The result is that I parry the continuous attacks that come in my inbox all day. I am never overwhelmed and rarely feel unproductive as a result.

The guiding principles above work together to culminate in one of Wing Chun’s highest levels of mastery: simultaneously blocking and striking in one movement. I remember learning this in combat several years ago, then going home and applying the same concept to my Excel spreadsheets. I Googled how to create a simple macro to take care of three steps in copying, selecting, and pasting each new row with existing data from several spreadsheets; this one step saved me several hundred in the long run.

In combat, no opponent is the same, and Wing Chun teaches you how to adapt using guiding principles instead of memorized forms. Living out these concepts in combat and in life allows for the mind, body, and spirit to act as one, always finding the most effective ways to be efficient.

What have you used from your martial arts training that you can apply and teach others in the combat of daily business? What other leadership lessons have you gleaned from unexpected places?


  • Diana Chang

    A definite good tip not to over think, over analyze or dwell on email responses! The guiding principles approach is highly applicable (and something I’ve learned to do) on the squash court too. Adapting according to your opponent’s style of play is the number one rule of the game. Purely smacking it hard is ‘wasted energy’ (which macho, unskilled players tend to enjoy doing); there are indeed many more efficient ways to win a rally…I apply this same approach when recruiting – applicant needs vary across regions, cultures and individual interests/parental expectations…so it’s important to adapt a presentation accordingly. (My jokes tend to be more receptive domestically, whereas the succinct, non fluffy presentations are much more appreciated abroad…even still, much to learn!)

    Thanks for posting!

  • Erin Cannon

    Interesting article. I have never really considered the transferable skills from martial arts training into the business world but your article has discussed some great points. I have not done martial arts before but I am really big into running. Your article got me to think about how I can transfer the skills that I have learned from running into my work life. Great Article!

  • Jen Donovan

    Your article is a testament to the importance of physical activity and sports. Growing up, I was heavily into gymnastics. The sport taught me discipline, work ethic and time management from a very young age. Even though I no longer compete, these lessons stayed with me through school and are now applicable in my professional life. I enjoyed reading your techniques on efficiency and effectiveness with you inbox.

  • Caleigh

    It’s interesting that you use martial arts and aggression as an analogy for your business! It sounds like it’s really effective for you. I use a different approach — I don’t really have an analogy for it, but I actively try to work in a non-aggressive way to keep things peaceful and pleasant! (For me, thinking of work in fighting terms sort of stresses me out! I can see how someone trained in martial arts wouldn’t find it like that, though.) 🙂

  • Jonathan Kong

    A very insightful article that speaks to the clutter (busy work) that preoccupies the work place today and a way to tackle it head on. You also speak to the discipline of ones body, mind and soul. The harmony of that will enable one to find clarity in their day to day tasks and see the bigger picture. Far too often employees feel they are bombarded and subsequently are deprived of the energy to think and act creatively which is essential for any organization if they want to gain a competitive edge.

  • Nick

    Interesting. I do much the same with email, either deleting, replying immediately and archiving, or transferring it to a to-do list, but I’ve never considered it as a martial arts analogy. It sounds like at least one of the commenters though is more of a Hapkido mindset – be like water, keeping things smooth. Thinking about the philosophy behind how we do things, regardless of the context, is definitely useful.

    Great post!

  • Arthur Chang

    Thanks for your thoughts, Caleigh. I actually don’t see it as aggression; it is my way of staying cool under pressure. If I approach attacks knowing I have the defenses in place, then I remain at peace. Incidentally, legend says Wing Chun was developed by a Shaolin nun to teach a young woman trying to escape a bad marriage. Wing Chun is a reflection of the woman; beautiful, graceful, but very deadly when provoked. The woman’s name: Wing Chun, which translates to eternal Spring.

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