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  • Writer's pictureJackie Bradbury

A Question of Authority

Thinking about martial arts culture and how we organize ourselves - rank, reputation, and today, how "authority" works in our schools.

Just to clarify terms - "authority" often has connotations of a rigid, top-down structure where dissent is disallowed or discouraged.  I do not mean it in that sense, although it can be that way.  I mean it as someone who's good at influencing others, or a leader in a particular area - in this case, in our school, art, style, or martial arts sub-culture as a whole.

After all, Dan Inosanto is a leading authority in the Filipino Martial Arts world (heck, in the martial arts world overall) but that doesn't mean he gets to decide anything for me, personally.  He can for people in his system or school.  But I listen to what he says, and always consider his words and his ideas seriously, even if I am not in his lineage.  He influences me and in that sense, he's an authority.

Okay, so how did he obtain that authority?

Well, authority comes about several ways in our world.  You have to have all of them in order to claim it.

The first is rank.  Authority is almost always derived from our rank structures and/or our roles in the dojo (which function like rank for systems without formal rank structures).  That is, a person with a higher rank has more authority - their word means more and their thoughts are taken more seriously - than a person with a lower rank.

Yes, yes, your group doesn't have rank.  I can tell you, if it's more than two people, it does.  It may not have a formal structure surrounding it, but it's there.

I think we can't avoid avoid it once we get more than a handful of people training. Someone takes a leadership role - someone has more experience in the style that's being trained and takes on the "teacher" role, or someone ends up being the one who organizes the training... and they end up being the person in charge, with the authority that goes with it, by consent of the group.

Often that person who ends up in charge is the person with the highest rank.  Not always, but I'd have to guess 90% of the time.

Of course, the larger the group, the more structured and hierarchical it tends to become.  I don't think I've ever heard of a large martial arts group - more than, oh, 30 or so - where there isn't a more formal structure of rank and authority in the group.  There is something about a larger group that makes it necessary, from a point of view of pure logistics.

Ultimately, someone has to be the leader and in charge.  Sometimes many someones, as the amount of responsibility is too much for a single person to carry.  There has to be a way to communicate to the entire group - especially new members - who has that authority.  Almost always it will be the higher ranks in the group with the authority, right?

As you can see, then, we've hit upon another important function of rank.  Rank is one way - a major way - we communicate those lines of authority and structure in our martial arts world.  Sometimes it's so clear and so formal and structured that you can create an organization chart to show those lines of responsibility and authority.  Other times, it's fluid and messy and not so structured... but it's still there.

The second aspect to becoming an authority is responsibility.  Often, rank and responsibility go hand in hand, but not always.  In any case, responsibility will be there in any group of people training.  Those with the responsibility often end up becoming leadership in a group.

After all, we do have decisions to be made, including:

✔ Curriculum and class content (what are we training today and why?)

✔ Obtaining and managing training space (even if it's just where to meet in a park)

✔ Day/time when the training group will meet

✔ Who will be instructing, and who won't be instructing

✔ If there are ranks or levels, what the requirements are for each

That's just off the top of my head.  I didn't even bring in such "trivialities" as uniforms or how to find new people to bring into the group!

Okay, so that's one aspect of how authority is derived in our subculture - by leadership and responsibility, which often goes hand-in-hand with rank.

Note: authority almost always comes with a measure of responsibility, too.  Dan Inosanto has responsibilities within his own organization and relationships, sure, but he also has a responsibility to all of us, too.  That main responsibility is to not embarrass us - he is maybe the most famous of all of us, after all!  If he does something embarrassing, it'll taint all of us.

Luckily I think he is well aware of this, and by all accounts he's a stand-up guy.

Combine rank and responsibility with the third aspect, reputation (I wrote about reputation HERE) and the generally understood hard work that goes into that... and you get "authority" in our world.

I didn't mention this part of it, and I really should: to be legitimate, authority and what goes with it (rank, responsibility, reputation) must come from the proof of hard work, effort, and skill.  In our world, it is not enough to just be hanging around a long time and to be able to speak our "language". The proof is always on the mat, either in how an individual person conducts himself OR in how those he or she teaches do.

That is, it's earned.  It can be degraded, if a person decides to not put in the time or effort after he or she reaches a certain point, or a person who claims to be a great teacher does a poor job in training students, or if a person falsifies his or her history in order to claim things they haven't done.

For example, it's not enough to have earned a black belt in a style 20 years ago, stop training for that time, and then step on a mat claiming that rank and responsibility and authority as if you hadn't left the mats at all.  You haven't put in the work in almost a full generation and you have no reputation, so guess what, you're a white belt until you prove otherwise in my book.  White belts have no authority in any martial arts schools (and rightfully so).

Authority is an integral part to our martial arts culture.  From influencers to decision makers, there's always someone functioning as an authority in our world - locally and globally.

Are you an authority?  How did you get recognized as such?  What are some of the downsides of how authority works in your neck of the woods?  Upsides?  Join in the conversation and let us know what you think!

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