The Karate Kid, 1984

The Karate Kid is a coming-of-age story about, Daniel LaRusso (played by Ralph Macchio), a high school sophomore from Newark who is transplanted to the valley city of Reseda, California when his mom gets a new job.  On his first night in town, Daniel tries to make friends with the local high school kids at a beach party. He hits it off with Ali Mills (played by Elizabeth Shue), a cheerleader and rich girl who happens to be the ex-girlfriend of Jonny Lawrence, leader of the Cobra Kais.  Jonny (played by William Zabka) and his karate dojo sidekicks show up drunk on motorbikes and break up the beach party when they see Ali talking to Daniel. Jonny breaks Ali’s stereo when she won’t talk to him and then picks a fight with Daniel when Daniel tries to come to Ali’s rescue.  From that point on, Jonny and the Cobra Kais torment and bully Daniel whenever they get the chance, getting him kicked out of soccer tryouts on the first day of school and running his bicycle of the road on his way home from school.  Daniel gets revenge at the school’s Halloween dance when he rigs a hose to go off in a bathroom stall and soak Jonny and some pot the Cobra Kais were planning to smoke.  The gang catches up with Daniel just as he’s about to make it home to his apartment building and take turns beating him until he’s close to death.  Before Jonny can deliver the flying side kick that would surely kill Daniel, Mr. Miyagi, the wise old Japanese maintenance man from the apartment complex, comes to the rescue with an effective display of martial arts, single-handedly incapacitating the Cobras. 

After nursing Daniel back to health, Mr. Miyagi agrees to teach Daniel karate for self-defense (not for revenge on the Cobra Kais) and accompanies him to talk to the sensei of the Cobra Kai Dojo, Kreese (played by Martin Cove).  They come upon Kreese in the middle of training the Cobra Kais and hear him instructing them that “mercy is for the weak” and then observe him leading them in chanting the dojo mantra, “Strike first; Strike hard; No mercy.”  Kreese tells Mr. Miyagi to stay out of his students’ business when Mr. Miyagi asks that the students leave Daniel alone.  Kreese and Mr. Miyagi then strike up a bargain, agreeing that if Daniel enters a karate tournament with the dojo all fighting will cease until the Cobra Kais meet him on the mat. 

From that moment on Mr. Miyagi takes Daniel under his wing and not only trains him in karate, but to also teaches Daniel valuable life lessons found through the wisdom of eastern philosophy.  Memorable moments from Daniel’s rigorous training include the now famous “wax-on, wax-off” scene, lessons in balance (for karate and life) on the bow of a fishing boat, and catching houseflies with chopsticks (a lesson in patience- “Man who catch fly with chopstick achieve anything”).

The movie culminates with the tournament, where Daniel performs well enough to advance to the final rounds.  Despite incredible odds and the unethical fighting tactics of the Cobra Kais, Daniel wins his way into the championship match against Jonny.  The persistence and courage Daniel displays throughout the tournament and the final match earns him the respect of the crowd and ultimately the respect of the Cobra Kais, especially Jonny. 


Lessons Learned

The Karate Kid has many applications to leadership theory and practice, the most prominent being the leadership function of the teacher-student relationship between Mr. Miyagi and Daniel.  Mentoring programs have become a popular way to develop a company’s human resource capital and future leaders.1  Mr. Miyagi illustrates the fundamentals of great mentoring and we see the relationship evolve according to mentoring stages outlined in the literature

Ideal mentors are described as role models that provide developmental opportunities and psychosocial support to their protégés1 and research has also shown that mentors who display transformational leadership characteristics provide more effective mentorship.2  Mr. Miyagi displays a transformational approach to leadership mentoring in that he is nurturing, fosters ethical decision-making with Daniel, and has a mystique and charisma about him through his inspiring words and actions (recall the scene at the beach with the beer-drinkers and the bottles on the antique truck).  He finds unique ways to teach Daniel lessons of work-ethic and humility and rewards Daniel for his progress (what if all mentors could give their protégés a ’47 Ford Coupe?). 

Their relationship evolves through two of the four phases of mentorship, Initiation (in which the relationship is formed) and Cultivation (in which the people in the dyad learn more about each other’s capabilities).3,4 In the Initiation phase we see Mr. Miyagi make the decision that Daniel is worthy of his teaching and deserves special attention and we see Daniel beginning to respect Mr. Miyagi as a competent teacher.  In the phase of Cultivation we see Miyagi taking a personal interest in developing Daniel and protecting him and we see Daniel learning about the benefits of listening to Miyagi’s instruction (who could forget the scene, “Show me sand the floor; show me wax-on, wax-off” when it all makes sense to Daniel).  Overall, the psychosocial functions a mentor is supposed to provide their protégés (role modeling, acceptance, confirmation, counseling, and friendship)4 are astutely illustrated in how Miyagi interacts with Daniel throughout the movie.  
The movie The Karate Kid is truly a great metaphor for good triumphing over evil and emphasizes lessons of moral virtue, trusting in yourself, and finding your inner strength for achieving your goals.  As leaders are expected to take on mentoring roles more and more, the metor-protégé dyad of the movie’s two main characters can teach us much about what great mentoring should look like.  If only we all could have a “Mr. Miyagi”!


Discussion Questions

* What techniques does Mr. Miyagi use to teach Daniel some basic karate blocks?  Is Daniel learning more than just karate from these strategies, and if so, what lessons is Mr. Miyagi teaching?


*What would’ve been Daniel’s possible path had he not found a mentor like Mr. Miyagi?

* Compare and contrast Mr. Miyagi’s coaching style to ‘s coaching style. Give some good leadership examples and poor leadership examples exhibited by the two men in their interactions with their protégés throughout the movie.

* During the movie, Mr. Miyagi spouts wise anecdotes from eastern philosophy that leaders can refer to when faced with moral challenges, adversity with a competitor, and self-development in general (e.g., “never put passion before principle”).  While watching the movie, record as many of these quotes as you can and discuss with your team the ones you think are most important. 

How can you and your team learn from these and apply them to your own lives and situations?

* Mr. Miyagi teaches Daniel to take the moral high road with karate (use it for defense only) rather than to use it for revenge (the easier, unethical solution for dealing with his adversaries [e.g., “Karate here (points to head); Karate here (points to heart); Karate never here (points to stomach)”]. 

Give some recent “real world” examples of people who have used their talent or leadership abilities in unethical ways  (in business, science, education, politics, etc.).  How can you encourage and reinforce ethical decision-making in your own team members as a mentor?


 Competencies Addressed

Goal Orientation

Work Ethic







Personal Resiliency


Self Confidence

Self Awareness


Nurturing Relationships

Mental Focus

Orienting Others

Setting Goals for Others

Taking Charge


Coaching, Developing, & Instructing

Reinforcing Success


Providing Feedback


Courage of Convictions

Resolving Conflicts / Negotiating

Responsibility for Others

Intelligent Risk Taking

Decision Making

Creative Problem Solving

Sensitivity to Situations

Challenging the Status Quo

Seeking Improvement

Valuing Diversity

Reinforcing Change

Avoiding Exploitive Mentality

Adopting Beneficial Values for Society

Providing a Good Example

Honesty and Integrity




1.  Sosik J. J., & Godshalk, V. M. (2004). Self-other rating agreement in mentoring. Group and Organization Management, 29, 442-469.


2.  Godshalk, V. M., & Sosik J. J. (2000). Does mentor-protégée agreement on mentor leadership behavior influence the quality of mentoring relationships? Group and Organization Management, 25, 291-317.


3. Kram, K. E. (1983). Phases of the mentor relationship. Academy of Management Journal, 26, 608-625.


4. Kram, K. E. (1985). Mentoring at work: Developmental relationships in organizational life. Glenview, IL:  Scott Foresman.