aikido and the art of administration

One of the (very many) aspects of aikido that I enjoy is the multiple attack situation. This is exactly what it sounds like: one person being attacked by several people, sometimes armed with bokken or jo or tanto, sometimes unarmed.

Let me unpick the previous paragraph a bit. What could possibly be enjoyable about being in the middle of a group with (gently) nefarious intent? Part of the joy is of course coming out the other side, having successfully dealt with the situation. But part of the joy is the process of learning how to be in that sort of situation and not panic.

I’ve been reading some coaching literature of late, and one idea, memeplex perhaps, is the joy of exploring the ugly zone. The ugly zone is where we practice without being proficient; where we practice without the fluidity we sometimes have; where we practice when we are wanting to learn something we don’t yet know.

For me, every multiple attack practice situation is a trip to the ugly zone, and a trip that I look forward to. I always learn something. And I always walk away smiling.

So what does this have to do with the art of administration? Because there are times that administration resembles a multiple attack situation. Emails come streaming in, each demanding some attention or all attention; people come to the door or drop a phone call, just wanting to have a quick word about something; meetings and the scheduled events of the day. It can be a remarkably interesting mix of the everyday and the unexpected and unplanned for.

So what can aikido teach us about dealing about this dance between the everyday and the unexpected in the life of the administrator?

In one way, I’m not so sure, because I’m not sure what the ugly zone would be for the administrator. One of the issues we sometimes have is that we don’t have the opportunity to practice in controlled but interesting situations, as we might in aikido. So for instance, I have never been part of a practice session for a new committee chair where the awkward and unexpected arises and needs to be dealt with on the spot.

More generally, I haven’t seen a training programme for academic administrators, those coming from the academic side, that deals with the situations in which we often or rarely find ourselves. And so, as sometimes happens with these things, I now have something else to put on the list of things to talk to people about.

But there are other lessons from aikido that are relevant. When I am surrounded by attackers, they cannot all get to me at once. They get into each other’s way, and this sometimes happens with the task of administration. After all, human bandwidth is finite, and we can only pay attention to some many things at once.

There is something that can happen, both in aikido and in administration. This is akin to what happens to a computer when it is running so many processes that it spends all of its effort swapping bytes in and out of its memory. The computer scientists, I’m told, refer to this as thrashing, and it’s a remarkably appropriate term.

I have on occasion found myself administratively thrashing, and I’ve also found myself on occasion thrashing in aikido,

And so, we consider ways to get out of our cycles of thrashing, and that’s difficult. In aikido, we find ourselves surrounded and unable to move. Administratively, we find ourselves in inbox that seem to be exploding and a diary that resembles a brick wall. And this is the question I’m pondering. The only real option seems to be to not start thrashing at all, but what to do when that’s not one of the options available?

~ by Jim Anderson on 20 October 2019.

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