7 Things Cobra Kai Can Teach Us About Leadership


Cobra Kai is one of the most popular digital programs in recent times. With good reason! It has recaptured the imaginations of those who loved the original Karate Kid trilogy. Moreover, while a little over the top at times, the show is pretty good.

However, as I watched it, I found myself getting rather frustrated about several themes. Though, I suppose drama television would not be drama television if people just did what they were supposed to do. That being said, I had to ask myself, “What can the Cobra Kai series teach us about leadership?” Well, there are several things, actually.

Sure, Daniel and Johnny are the leaders of their dojos. We could talk about some of their instructions, but that would be too easy. I wanted to dig a bit deeper. So, here are seven things that I think the Cobra Kai series can teach us about effective leadership.

Address the Past and Move on

The ongoing rivalry between Daniel and Johnny makes for a great drama, but that is precisely what it is, drama. In real life, there will be those who do us wrong, and there are going to be situations that are not ideal. Leaders need to understand that holding on to the past keeps us from moving on to the future. Let it go already!

Emotion Drives Bias

Both Daniel and Johnny are very emotional about their past experiences. Despite Johnny’s change of heart, Daniel sees Cobra Kai and anyone associated with it as a threat to himself and his community. Furthermore, despite the years that have passed, Johnny sees Daniel and anyone associated with Miyagi-Do, symbolizing what tore down his status and took his love and his promising life.

Emotion drives bias. And because of this, neither Daniel nor Johnny can see the truth for what it is. This is a powerful example of how leaders must learn to mitigate their emotional ties to see the situation before them through the proper lens.  

We Should NOT Jump to Conclusions

The Cobra Kai series likely would not be a series at all if it were not for the repeated (wrong) conclusions that most the characters jump to. Of all the characters, Daniel is probably the worst. Daniel jumps to the conclusion that Johnny is up to no good, he jumps to the conclusion that Johnny was responsible for trashing his dojo, Daniel jumps to the conclusion that Robby is a bad seed (several times), etc. However, he is not the only one. Sam, Miguel, Robby, and Tory are probably in the best shape of their lives with all the jumping they do in the series. Furthermore, while it makes for good television, it is a horrible way to lead your life.

As leaders, jumping to conclusions is one of the worst things we can do. To be clear, it is actually a form of cognitive distortion. Meaning, you can overinflate something small, miss significant facts, and so on. The threat here is that the conclusion is often a negative assumption that is usually not supported in any fact or reality. Often, we have a small piece of a very big puzzle. The thing to remember is that there is a difference between good and wrong information and positive and negative information. However, we will always make horrible decisions based on negative/bad information. In other words, get as many facts (without emotional bias) as you can before making your thought-out decisions.

Be Open and Transparent

When Robby took the Medal of Honor and was not upfront with Sam, that hurt trust. When Johnny had a change of heart but could not be honest about it, it did nothing for him. There are plenty of examples throughout the show that demonstrate what a lack of transparency will do for trust. Our lesson here is, “Do not do it like that.”

Trust is built via transparency, keeping people informed, and participating. Be open, be honest, and call a spade a spade once you have as much information as possible. I tell my students, “URUBU.” This means that you are you… so be you! Trust is critical, and nobody will trust you if you hide things from them.

Be a Good Listener

Again, Daniel is probably the worst offender on this one, to the point that I have seen numerous people rooting for Johnny because of how annoying Daniel can be at times. One part that comes to mind is when Sam is trying to talk to Daniel, but Daniel says, “I do not want to hear it.” Great parenting, Daniel. Moreover, look at what happened as a result.

Leaders cannot acquire the information to make a solid decision if they are not listening to the person trying to give the information. Furthermore, we cannot listen to the spirit of what is being said when we have allowed our emotions to take control. The solution is simple. If you want useful information, then act like you’ve been there before. Listen intently, do not freak out when someone trusts you enough to share important details with you, and be strategic with the information you’ve been provided.

Listen to the Spirit of What is Said

Numerous times throughout the show, Johnny makes it clear that he is having a change of heart. In several instances, he pretty much said just that. Daniel, Kreese, Robby, etc., they did not want to hear it. Again, great for the show but a horrible example to follow in real life.

Look, sometimes, we are not going to like how the message is delivered. Sometimes, people will use words we do not like, or they may share them in a tone we do not like. As leaders, we must hear the SPIRIT of what is being shared. For example, if someone is panicked because someone’s life is in danger, I am not going to focus in on their foul language or poor grammar as they attempt to express the importance of the situation. Instead, I am going to listen to the spirit of the urgency being portrayed.  

The same is true in all settings. Sure, it would be nice if people could share exactly as we ideally receive, but this is real work. Furthermore, sharing and opening up are sometimes difficult, especially when someone realizes they are wrong about something. We do NOT want to punish someone for being open and honest. We want to reward that type of behavior.

Be Patient

Throughout the show, there were numerous examples of characters who wanted instant gratification. There are probably too many examples to mention here. Of course, it makes sense. Many today expect the same thing. Unfortunately, instant gratification is not always an option and is not always the best idea.

As a viewer and a leader, we must learn to be patient. Play the long game. It is about the ultimate vision. Life and leadership are more like chess, not checkers. Why is this important? Well, because the next season is not due until sometime in 2021, and we still do not know where in the year it will drop.

Have patience. Breathe in… breath out. It will be here before you know it.

Do you like learning about leadership through cinema? Then you might also like my article titled “The Guardian: A Leadership Lesson” or “John Nash – Beautiful Mind.

Learn more about Cobra Kai by visiting the official page on Netflix.