El-Java Abdul-Qadir on leadership: Five traits to make you great

El-Java Abdul-Qadir says he was never afraid of working hard or wearing many different hats when he was growing up in The Bronx.

That’s still the case.

In Syracuse, Abdul-Qadir is director of the South Side Innovation Center, owner/operator and chief instructor of Excel Martial Arts Training Center on Nottingham Road, and adjunct professor at Syracuse University (where he has also been a boxing instructor). He’s also a coach of Team USA in martial arts, competes internationally, and holds world titles.

He is a seventh-degree black belt in Shotokan karate. Any others?

“I do other martial arts, and I hold the rank of black belt in Tae Kwon Do and Ju-jitsu and a couple of other styles. But my base style, my traditional style, is Shotokan karate. At Excel Martial Arts Training Center, we teach traditional karate. We teach Ju-jitsu. We teach sport martial arts, which includes different types of competitive kickboxing and point fighting and things like that.”

SSIC is a project of SU’s Whitman School of Management. It opened April 1, 2006, in a former warehouse of Dunk and Bright at 2610 S. Salina St. Since then, it has helped hundreds of aspiring business owners and businesses. It rents space and acts as a business incubator, holds classes, matches consultants to startups, and provides counseling, training, and mentoring.

Abdul-Qadir’s leadership advice draws from his martial arts experiences and from the five practices explained in the book “The Leadership Challenge.”

“Those five resonate with me so much because I can think back to my time growing up at the dojo in The Bronx or my time as senior patrol leader in our Boy Scout troop or in any of the positions that I’ve had since then …

“The five things I’d like your readers to remember are concisely: Model the way, inspire a shared vision, challenge the process, enable others to act, and encourage the heart.”

What’s your advice for effective leadership?

I need to give you some background. I got my undergraduate degrees from SU in biology and psychology and I got my master’s in social work. I held several jobs as I started my Ph.D. I worked as a mental health therapist at what was called the Onondaga County Pastoral Counseling Center. I was the director of teen services at the Boys and Girls Club of Syracuse – that was actually a full-time job while I was doing the master’s degree. Post-masters, I worked for the Dunbar Association. My work at SU started about 2002 in student affairs.

Then my Ph.D. advisor retired. I had already jumped through so many hoops that I felt I couldn’t jump through another hoop for someone and start over. I left and got a position at Temple University in Philly.

At Temple, one of the things that we did was a leadership retreat for student leaders. One of the books that we used to develop the program was “The Leadership Challenge.” James Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner are the two authors. They interviewed a whole bunch of successful leaders and had them talk about experiences they thought leaders might want to know.

They explained five practices of exemplary leadership. Is it OK if I tell you those five practices and explain what they meant to me?

Yes. Please do.

The first specific exemplary characteristic is model the way. It means walk your talk. Don’t just talk about it, be about it. You can show me better than you could tell me. When a parent says to their kids, smoking’s not good for you and you shouldn’t smoke, but they’re smoking a cigarette, that’s not modeling the way.

In my dojo, when we bring on new students, I put them in a class with senior students because those senior students can model the way. It’s important to establish the culture you want, so the new students see senior students and learn the character development and they understand the hard-work ethic. Someone is modeling the way.

The second one is inspire a shared vision.

You want to get people to think about the future and what a successful future looks like. You get people on track with you. If I don’t know where we’re going, why am I going to follow you as a leader? Communication obviously is very important, but what are you communicating?

So you paint the picture of what a successful future looks like. When I’m coaching Team USA, we talk about the conversation we’ll have at the end of an upcoming competition: This is how many gold medals we won. This is the fruit of our hard work, our hard labor.

You inspire a shared vision so that people can know what success looks like. That’s the reason why we’re doing this extra set. That’s the reason why we’re staying up late and finishing this report. That’s the reason why we’re doing what we’re doing. There’s gotta be a why.

The third one in the book is: Challenge the process.

For me, this means you don’t want to be afraid to change. When I’m asking clients at SSIC what they are doing differently because of Covid, I don’t want them to say they’re doing the same things. They’ve got to be ready to pivot. That’s challenging the process. Yeah, this is the way that you’ve always done it, but things are different now.

Don’t be a person who’s just going along doing mundane things. As a leader, see if it’s necessary to go in a different direction. You might find out that what you’ve been doing works. Then stay that way. But you’ve gotta be ready to move as change happens. It’s so important for the leader to think that way because people are comfortable saying: Well, this is the way we’ve always done it.

When I went to Temple University, I became the associate director for student activities. I was the leader for all these graduate students and all these administrators and other folks. But I’m the new guy. People would say to me: Hey, that’s not how we’ve done it. Or, this is how we did it last year.

I would be like: All right. Happy New Year. (Laughter) We’re doing something slightly different than what we’ve done before.

As a leader, do not be afraid to challenge that process.

Let me interrupt. You don’t necessarily challenge values and principles. You mean challenge the way you’re living up to those values and principles. Am I right?

That is exactly right. The mission of SSIC is to have a positive impact on the economic development of this region through entrepreneurship. When we do things, that is our why. When I’m deciding whether to let this group rent a space or whether to help a certain kind of business to develop, I think: Our mission is to have a positive impact on the economic development of this region through entrepreneurship. Is this activity consistent with our mission?

The how is completely different because there may be other resources that are available. And what I would have done before to have a positive impact on the economic development of this region through entrepreneurship might be different from what I do now because circumstances have changed.

You gotta be able to anticipate change and you gotta be able to move with the cheese. That’s a reference to the book “Who Moved My Cheese?” You can’t just sit around and wait for this thing Covid to be over. Being innovative, needing to pivot, recognizing a new kind of opportunity exists – all of those things are important.

At Excel, I transitioned our classes to being online. It was a little weird to many people in the beginning. But, because I do martial arts with folks who are literally overseas, I was familiar with doing a seminar or teaching martial arts on Zoom. When circumstances change, you gotta be ready to move with the cheese.

The fourth one is enable others to act.

You’ve gotta be able to build trust, and you’ve gotta be able to foster collaboration. It’s also a matter of recognizing and rewarding folks.

Enabling others to act recognizes and appreciates everybody’s role. A leader recognizes the strengths and weaknesses of everyone and is able to delegate, or recognize when someone needs encouragement. The leader enables them to be successful.

I tell students all the time that I learn as much from them as they learn from me. They make me think about things differently. My students would go to New York City and see me train with my instructor. I’m a seventh-degree black belt, their leader and instructor, and yet I have an instructor. It lets my students know that you can always learn.

Can I tell a brief story?

Yes. Please do.

It was about 15 years ago. I was competing at a tournament, two matches of fighting, in Canada. I didn’t have my instructor or my teams or anybody else with me.

A gentleman watching realized that I didn’t have a coach. Fortunately for me, this gentleman was Steve “Nasty” Anderson. He was a world champion in martial arts. He knows of me because I’m also a world champion, but we’ve never met. He’s an older guy then. He recognizes me and thinks: El-Java’s here in our city, and he doesn’t have a coach.

So he gets behind me, and he’s coaching me. I hear him say: Change sides!

I have no idea what he’s talking about. He doesn’t really know me, so there’s no real history there. I recognize who he is, but when he says change sides, I literally don’t know what he’s talking about. I’m trying to figure him out, but I’m also focusing on the guy punching at me. (Laughter)

Eventually, I did end up winning, but I left the match bewildered. So, I go to him for advice, and that’s an important lesson – it is OK that you ask for advice.

So I go to Steve Anderson, and I say: You were telling me to change sides. I didn’t understand what you meant, and I would like to understand. Could you please explain this to me?

He says: Yeah, listen, as martial artists, we train on both sides. We want to make sure that we’re balanced. But as a competitor, when you’re competing in martial arts there is a side that you’re better off of. Whenever you were fighting on your left side, the guy would score on you. When you were on the right side, you would score. And you’re thinking that you’re just going back and forth with scores, just going back and forth. I was trying to tell you to fight on the side that I think was good.

I was already winning a lot, but after I heeded that advice, I won more.

I link that story to my fourth point, enable others to act. You’ve got somebody who can kick well. Fighting on the other side is someone who can punch very well. How do you coach in that situation? It’s like that in business. You have one person who is really good at building websites, and you have another person who’s really good with communication, and then another person who’s really good with math.

You have to identify someone who’s good at that thing that you’re not good at and put them in the right position. See what strengths and weaknesses that person has and put them in a position to be successful. At the same time, you gotta be able to challenge them and support them. Enable them to act by expecting them to rise to the occasion and let them know you will be there for them if they need assistance.

Finally, the fifth practice is encouraging the heart.

Leaders encourage the heart. Maybe someone is motivated by public recognition. Maybe they need that award. Maybe they need to step in the front of the class and lead the exercises today.

You have to create policies and procedures. Obviously, you don’t want to put your business at risk. But be flexible and encourage the heart. You encourage the heart by doing things that show compassion and flexibility. When you show a balance between the rational and the emotional, they recognize that you are a real person.

Do you have a story with an example?

The owner of a company came in to do a speech at SSIC. He describes an employee who was coming late to work. He just sees that she’s late and thinks she’s not respecting him or her work. He wants to maybe let her go.

He said one of his advisors told him: You don’t know what she’s going through. There could be other circumstances happening here. You might want to talk to her.

Without telling you his whole story, he said: Once I really realized that I needed to think differently, and once she realized that I did care about her as a person, we were much more successful. She grew in the organization to leadership positions.

He made her successful when he recognized that she literally can’t be there every day at 8. She stays later, obviously, and he said she was amazing during that time. He was able to make a minor change to keep someone who became a great employee. She’s committed to the company now. She realizes that he didn’t have do all that, but he encouraged her heart.

The weekly “CNY Conversation” features Q&A interviews about leadership, success, and innovation. The conversations are condensed and edited. To suggest a leader for a Conversation, contact Stan Linhorst at StanLinhorst@gmail.com. Last week featured William Sunderlin, scientist and instructor, drawn to Central New York by its deep history for social justice.

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