Leadership : A Simple Bright White Belt

Prof. Thomas J. Vanderbeck has written and taught 150 courses in organizational leadership and education at the University of California (Berkeley, Santa Cruz, Irvine, and La Jolla), California State University (Hayward, Stanislaus and San Marcos), San Diego State University, and the Universities of Alabama, Georgia, Houston, Northern Kentucky, North Carolina, South Florida, and Utah.

Clients include America On Line, Bose Stereo, Hewlett-Packard Printer Design, Lenoir Police Department, Parke-Davis Pharmaceuticals, Premier Commercial Builders, San Diego Crime Commission and TRW Aerospace.

Originally, Tom worked as an electrician with his father at Vanderbeck Electric in Glen Rock, New Jersey; and later built models and special effects for Neil Diamond, Barry Manilow, and the Spruce Goose Project in New York City.

Thomas James Vanderbeck, High Performance Leadership

University Heights, San Diego, CA  USA

TVELM@Cox.net    Home: +1 619-546-6626 (Noon to 8pm, PST)


A few years after graduating from university, several of us collaborated in creating an eclectic school in which we could teach dance, meditation, yoga, and other subjects for self expression, health, and well being. We rented a storefront and made a large sign that proclaimed, “Another Roadside Attraction,” after Tom Robbins then popular book.

One day, our Aikido instructor, Rick, and I discussed practice, mastery, and teaching.

He described his sensei, or training master, to us as a short, slender Japanese man with a very stern attitude and strict rules for proper etiquette in the dojo, or practice hall. Early in his training, Rick had once neglected to remove his street shoes and then casually strolled into the dojo, and greeting his teacher informally, - “Hi there, Morihei!”

Sensei immediately and sternly admonished Rick to go back outside, adjust his attitude, turn and face the entrance to the dojo, bow; and to then re-.enter silently and bow.

Ten rigorous and self disciplined years later, at the end of an evening in which he ceremoniously received his black belt; Rick was leaving the dojo when his venerable teacher took him aside. Rick respectfully greeted his master, “Good evening, Sensei.”

“From now on, Rick, you may call me Morihei. You have demonstrated your mastery of Aikido. There will be no more formality between us. If you are free this evening, I would like you to come to my house. I will make a pizza and we’ll drink a few of my excellent home-made beers.” So, they walked several blocks to Morihei’s cottage.

Rick was surprised to find that his Sensei was a very warm, open, and genuine fellow with a fine sense of humor. He told Rick of how he began Aikido at age nine; and then regaled him with many personal and sometimes amusing stories about his student years, becoming a journeyman practitioner and continuing his studies, earning the rank of sensei, and most important, of how a master must keep learning, continue practicing, and commit to the loving (ai) energetic (ki) way (do) of being - the path of harmony.

Following dinner, several brews, and some good conversation, Morihei smiled and announced to Rick, “I have a special gift to present to you.”

Morihei reached under a pillow on the couch, and brought out a simple rosewood box. Grinning happily, he said, “This will be only the second time in my long life that I have had the privilege and honor of presenting this gift to one of my students.” He then bowed to Rick, reached forward, looked Rick directly in the eyes with a big smile, and formally handed the box to him with both hands.

Saying, “Thank you, Morihei,” Rick accepted the gift and placed it on the table between them. Opening it, he found a very simple, bright white beginner’s belt.” Sensei, I don’t understand. Just this evening I was awarded the black belt of a master.”

Morihei chuckled. “Rick, your black belt was hard won and honors your status as a master practitioner. You are only the second of my students who has demonstrated the warrior spirit and your readiness to begin learning the true nature of Aikido. So, you have earned this simple bright white belt. Let us enthusiastically celebrate your new path in becoming a Sensei, or master teacher. Then, like me, you will become a servant leader of advancing Aikido, and the enlightenment and empowerment of your students.”

“Now, finish your beer, go home, enjoy a few moments of celebration and pride. We’ll meet at the dojo next week. Wear your black belt. The less experienced students in our community and the ego-driven belt climbers will be confused and disoriented if you wear this simple bright white belt. Maybe you can tie it ‘round your waist with your bath robe?”


Copyright Thomas Vanderbeck, 2015

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