Issues & Observations
Making Meaning
Through a Martial Art
Kevin Liu
e live in perilous
times. The tragedy of September 11,
recent corporate ethics scandals, ter-
rorism around the world, and a con-
fusing and divisive conflict in Iraq
have led people to ask: Why? Why
now? What does all this mean for our
future? These are ontological ques-
tions—questions of existence and
It is widely recognized that people
crave meaning. They need to make
sense out of and derive value from
their circumstances, their tragedies,
and the changes that occur in their
lives. Curiously, though, the concept
of personal meaning, although com-
monly recognized, has been described
in various ways.
Among the dictionary definitions
of meaning are “significance” and
“purpose.” Religious existentialists
may see meaning as an acknowledg-
ment of human insufficiency in the
face of both death and life, alleviated
only by a willing submission to God.
For atheistic existentialists, meaning
may be the clear-headed acceptance
of self-chosen existence in a neutral
world. For theologian Paul Tillich,
meaning was the courageous affirma-
tion of one’s essential being in spite
of desires and anxieties. Logothera-
pist Joseph Fabry defined meaning as
the freedom to become. And these
definitions are just the tip of the
This broad range of constructs that
seem to be only semirelated contains
a number of commonalities that have
applicability to organizational life. I
will explore these constructs from
two perspectives: that of an organiza-
tional psychologist who has been
with CCL for six years and that of a
practitioner of aikido, a Japanese
martial art that emphasizes harmony,
peace, and the dynamics of move-
I have had a number of roles at CCL,
including trainer, researcher, and
manager. Before coming to the
Center I had a varied career in teach-
ing, the ministry, and consulting in
change management and personal
transformation. My primary focus has
been, and continues to be, on the fac-
tors that affect meaning at the indi-
vidual and group levels.
Described as “moving Zen,
aikido is a contemporary martial art
that speaks to the violence and uncer-
tainty of our time. Its founder,
Morihei Ueshiba, known as O’Sensei
(Great Teacher) to his students, called
it “the art of peace,” for it is a way to
deal with aggression without vio-
lence. In Japanese, aikido means “the
way of harmony with the force and
principle of nature.” O’Sensei
believed that energy is more fruitfully
directed toward building inner
strength and learning how to harmo-
nize with others than toward fighting
with them. I have found aikido to be
highly beneficial in many areas of
life—teaching, counseling, conflict
resolution, parenting, and of course
leadership and leadership develop-
Blending my interest in meaning
creation with the physical and
metaphorical training of aikido has
been highly instructive and signifi-
cantly humbling. Here are some of
the personal lessons I have learned:
Metaphorical lessons have no
meaning when you’re flying toward
the wall after being thrown.
Some techniques require a life-
time to master. Each practice brings
new and deeper lessons—some of
which need to be repeated ad nau-
My body doesn’t move as it did
when I was younger. Learning to
compensate is good for me but very
hard on the ego.
Now let’s turn to meaning making.
Within most of the definitions of
meaning is the implication that one is
able to affect one’s own destiny. The
individual’s impact on destiny
appears to be in service to a greater
cohesion or connection to one’s core
self. This connection is what is expe-
rienced as meaning. However, taking
the road to this cohesion and resultant
meaning requires intentional personal
action. Aikidokas—practitioners of
aikido—speak of mindfulness in our
Editor’s note: Issues & Observations is
a venue for CCL staff members and
associates to express their personal
views about leadership.

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