Bow To Your Sensei: Respect the Walk


No, this isn’t a plug for any corporate self-improvement program.  It’s not about kids in a YMCA class either.  And please don’t start the bad Pat Morita impersonations.

While it can immediately conjure references to a martial arts instructor of some sort, in Japan the word “sensei” can also be heard in elementary schools as well as in karate dojos since it carries the generic meaning of teacher.   A deeper study of the word finds traditional definitions centering on the concept of “one who came before” or my personal favorite, “one who has already walked this path” – regardless of what the proverbial path may be.

Transition: Ever been “the new guy” at an office?

Once upon a time in my active duty days with the US Air Force I was the new guy at Lajes Field in the Azores, a Portuguese island chain in the middle of the Atlantic.  On one of my first shifts at this new location, in a new country, with new co-workers, was to supervise tasks that were still new to me there.

I was not going to be that guy so many of us loathe.  You know, new guy with a little rank over the others who comes in barking orders like they’ve been there since the dawn of time.  Not me; hated that, break the cycle, don’t contribute.  So on a job we were responding to, I told this so-called subordinate to run things like it needs to be done.  Regardless of rank he had the knowledge…and I was to be his assistant.  Admittedly there was some risk in that I would still be held responsible should something go wrong by virtue of my rank, but it was manageable in that no lives were hanging in the balance so I went for it.

Afterwards, my rank-inferior but task-superior co-worker pulled me aside.  He was blown away by my willingness to defer to him and I now had the best kind of respect, the earned kind.  The collateral damage was in his sharing my behavior with his peer group so I had their respect before even starting to work with them.

Assistance: We’ve all been lost, or at least someplace new.

Some of us will “be independent” and find our own way via a map or most likely a GPS application on our cell phone.  However, those maps were made possible because someone has already walked that route, even if it’s the unmanned Google-mobile.  Some of us will put our pride aside to stop and ask for directions.  I find it interesting that we defer to a stranger with no vested interest in our success in hopes that they know the lay of the land, in hopes that they’ve been here before, but we often struggle to defer to those we know or work with, most likely due to pride.

I wish everyone nothing but success as we navigate 2015.  Enjoy with optimism whatever twists and turns the New Year lays before you.  And as you continue to chart your professional journey, don’t forget to respect the “walk” of others, too.  You never know where your next Sensei may be lurking, and their experience just may be tied to yours.


Paul Grugin is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.


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Russell Irving

Paul, this is an outstanding piece. You tackle what, as you point out, is so very difficult for many folks. They allow pride and ego to get in their way, without realizing that there is a price to pay for that behavior. Kudos!

Dijon Rolle


Excellent piece! Really enjoyed reading it. Humility goes a long way in every workplace. How you start is how you finish.