5 business lessons from studying longsword

Ben Kerr and Keith Farrell
Ben Kerr and Keith Farrell posing for a photoshoot, with suits and swords. Photo by Reuben Paris, 2010.

This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 27th March 2015. It has been modified a little for reposting here.

For the last several years I have been running my own business. For a few more years, I have been learning Liechtenauer’s longsword fencing methods. Recently, I have noticed several parallels between my studies of longsword and the business lessons I have learned from being an entrepreneur. The same lessons would also be valuable for someone considering the idea of opening up a new martial arts club, perhaps even with the idea to run it as a business.

1: Do not be frightened.

It is written in Liechtenauer’s Zettel that:

If you are easily frightened,
You will never learn to fence.[1]

The rationale is that if a fencer is a coward, or is easily frightened, he will not have the bravery and courage required to assert himself forward into the fight. Since one must go forward in order to strike at the opponent, the inability to do so is a huge problem for fencers.

Similarly, being scared of rejection, or being frightened to undertake a difficult task in business means that the business cannot develop, or loses access to helpful opportunities. I have won several fencing matches by displaying courage and asserting myself, and I have won several business opportunities by have the courage to approach a person or make a request.

Master yourself, show courage, and do what must be done to secure victory or a good business opportunity.

2: Seize the Vor and avoid being passive.

Liechtenauer’s Zettel also says that:

No master can defend himself without danger.[2]

The rationale for this statement is that if a fencer tries only to defend himself with parries, then eventually an attack will get through his defences and the fight will be lost. If a fencer keeps his opponent on the defensive, then the fencer is more likely to win and remain safe, because it will be one of his own attacks that penetrates his opponent’s defence.

In business, if you wait around for people to discover your company, product or service, and wait for people to come and buy things from you, then there is the danger that no one will actually find your shop or make any purchases, or at least not in the quantity necessary for your success. Instead, a business needs to go out into the world and make sure its presence is felt, or at least known about, and must be proactive in order to secure victory (or sales).

Being passive is a successful strategy neither for business nor for longsword fencing.

3: The five “master strikes”.

One of the core ideas of Liechtenauer’s longsword system is that of the “five strikes”, sometimes called the “master strikes”:

Learn five cuts from the right hand.
he who can defend himself with these,
he should be praised,
for his art rewards him well.[3]

In fact, Ringeck makes the assertion that a fencers does not need any other techniques, just these five:

Mark well, the teaching verses present five secret cuts, which many swordmasters do not know to speak about. You will learn not to strike any other cuts when you come from the right side against one who stands against you in defence.[4]

Although Liechtenauer system is huge, and contains many different techniques, it is clear that these five strikes are the most important, and that they give the fencer the best chance for success.

In a similar fashion, a business may have fingers in several pies, and may have several streams of income, but there will only be a few of those that are of critical value to the company. A business could lose one or two less important streams of income without folding, and could let a handful of projects fail, without having to shut down and close its doors. However, it must put effort and resources into maintaining and developing its core activities and streams or revenue.

To recreate Liechtenauer’s longsword system effectively, one must learn to prioritise the critical techniques such as the five strikes, and to regard the rest of the techniques as interesting and sometimes useful, but not of core importance. Similarly, to build a business effectively, one must learn to identify what activities are of critical importance and what activities are merely nice but relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Then the appropriate effort and resources should be spent on developing and maintaining the critical activities, so that the company remains strong and healthy.

4: Accept feedback on where you can improve.

When learning to fight with the longsword, fencers will lose matches against more skilled opponents, and will have difficulty making techniques work as effectively as their instructors can demonstrate them. Fencers need to learn from their experience of losing a match, to identify what went wrong and what they need to do to improve. When participating in lessons, fencers need to ask their instructor for help when a technique is not working properly, and need to alter their performance to take into account the feedback and coaching from the instructor. Fencers who demonstrate such willingness to learn will be those who develop most swiftly into skilled practitioners in their own right.

Similarly with business, one often finds a situation where something like a website or a service is not working as successfully as it could, or where customers prefer to buy from a competitor for some reason. If a business is able to ask for and then accept feedback or coaching on how to improve its systems and methods, then it will be able to improve its systems and services, and will be able to grow more swiftly with a more satisfied base of customers.

Just as it is important for a fencer to accept the advice given by a more skilled practitioner, and work hard to integrate it into their performance, a business must also accept good advice and work to integrate it, even if the advice is not pleasant to hear, or requires a change of course. Asking for feedback and then ignoring it is a rookie mistake made by less able students; that is not a behaviour that a business can afford to adopt.

5: Be prepared to change how you understand things.

Over the years of studying and interpreting Liechtenauer’s longsword, I have gone through many iterations and variations of how I understand any given technique and its place in the overall system. Even something so very basic as my Oberhaw (a simple descending cut) has undergone several major revisions in terms of body mechanics, starting position, and what I hope to achieve with the technique in a tactical sense.

Whenever I have seen a better interpretation of a technique, I have been swift to assess its merits and work out how to integrate it with how I already understand the technique and its place in the system. Sometimes it results in just minor modifications to my technique, but sometimes I adopt a new interpretation in its entirety, and let it completely replace my previous interpretation.

In a similar fashion, when I started running my business, I had some ideas about how everything should work. Over the years, I have changed my understanding of what my business is trying to achieve and how best to do that, and I have adopted new models and methods to improve the effectiveness of my work.

People who remain closed-minded and refuse to accept any other point of view or interpretation as valid tend to be those who become out-of-date and irrelevant to the historical fencing community. Businesses that refuse to adapt to a changing market are those that go out of business.

It is important to believe in the correctness and effectiveness of what you do – but also to be able to assess the merits of new interpretations or ideas, and to integrate them into your fencing or business where appropriate.

Conclusions

Obviously fencing with a longsword and running a business are two quite different activities. They both require different strategies and techniques to achieve success, and of course “success” is defined quite differently for each activity!

However, I believe that by learning lessons from my study of the longsword, I have been able to improve myself as an entrepreneur, especially in terms of my ability to modify and adapt my business as new and better ideas and models come to light.

If you appreciate the ideas and insights from this article, and would like to support further articles on this blog, please buy a copy of one of my books, through the online shop in this website.

Footnotes

[1] Sigmund ain Ringeck. MS Dresden C487. C.1504-19. Translated by Keith Farrell, 2013. Folio 14v-15r.

[2] Ibid. Folio 23r.

[3] Ibid. Folios 16v-17r.

[4] Ibid. Translated by Keith Farrell, 2011. Folios 16v-17r.

KeithFarrell

KeithFarrell

Keith Farrell is one of the senior instructors for the Academy of Historical Arts. He teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events, and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers. He has authored "Scottish Broadsword and British Singlestick" and the "AHA German Longsword Study Guide", and is one of the regular contributors to the Encased in Steel online blog. He has been a member of HEMAC since 2011, and was awarded a HEMA Scholar Award for Best Instructor for research published in 2013.
KeithFarrell