To hear Mr. Stuart Cunningham, 4th Degree Black Belt and Certified Instructor, rave about his Taekwondo students, you would think they were his very own children! Modest about his own contributions, "Mr. C" positively beams with pride about the energy, compassion and initiative shown by the young leaders he develops at his school, Cunningham's ATA Martial Arts in Bozeman, Montana. He believes those who possess leadership skills have a responsibility to use them "making the world a better place" by doing things and helping others. This altruistic attitude is not uncommon among school owners and Certified Instructors in the ATA, WTTU and STF, because it is central to the spirit of traditional Taekwondo: self-improvement for the service of others. Mr. Cunningham brings the teaching to life by requesting – and getting – real-world results from the Black Belts and color belts under his guidance – results seen around the corner and around the globe!
As in all Songahm Taekwondo schools, Mr. Cunningham's students learn to perform techniques and forms while receiving lessons in respect, courtesy, perseverance, loyalty and self-control – adoptable behaviors that can become personal character traits with practice, just as the physical techniques are retained and refined over time. Students set goals and reach them, acquire knowledge, skills, flexibility, balance and speed; they advance through the ranks, compete in tournaments and do other martial arts activities, but then there's something more: the critical next step in leadership development is "practical application" of what has been learned in class!
"The life skills and just learning how to 'give back' is something special about the ATA," he says. "At its core, this martial art is almost philanthropic: we make ourselves leaders so that we can help others. It's bigger than us. It's not about how many Black Belts we can turn out, but helping folks learn to change their lives by making better grades, losing weight and getting fit, and learning skills."
Students perform community service projects as part of their curriculum and rank testing requirements, so that their "internalizing" the Songahm life skills is shown externally. Their achievements range from simple gestures to astounding fundraising feats. All are made with humble yet confident spirits. Cunningham's ATA is one of several self-defense training facilities in Bozeman, but the only one that focuses on leadership and character-building in equal measure with the physical skills of martial arts.
"We're in the business of building 'good guys' – showing people how to act as leaders so they can go out and make a difference for somebody every day," he says. This was very important to Eternal Grand Master H.U. Lee and has always been taught in the ATA. "The best thing I can do is pass that along to others."
Mr. Cunningham finds inspiration from other leaders, particularly those willing to contribute to "the greater good." He recalls that as a boy, his hero was Jacques Cousteau, the famous marine biologist who brought mysteries of the deep to television screens for the first time. "I've always been inspired by people whose work is so interesting or important to them that their enthusiasm is contagious," he says. "You kind of get swept up in their excitement."
To demonstrate the power of inspiration turned into action, Mr. Cunningham points to fellow Bozeman-native Dr. Greg Mortenson, whose charitable work building schools in the most inhospitable, remote mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan continues to improve the lives of children and promote intercultural peace through education. His incredible story is superbly told in the New York Times Bestseller Three Cups of Tea and recently updated in Stones into Schools (in which Mr. Cunningham is mentioned). Reflecting the power of inspiration turned into action, one of Mr. Cunningham's students shared the vision, believed in the cause, and chose to take the lead in his school as his Black Belt community service project.
"One of my students raised enough money, matched by an anonymous donation, to actually fund the construction of one of Dr. Mortenson's schools through his Central Asia Institute," says Mr. Cunningham, a subject he discusses emotionally. "It's just so moving to know that an entire village now has a school – where there was nothing before – because of something we did."
Raising the many thousands of dollars necessary to building classrooms and pay teachers half a world away is a major league accomplishment for a modest-size group of martial artists in one American city, yet they are humble when speaking of it. The goal they set and met is a clear example of what can be achieved through leadership and cooperation. Students volunteer their time in other ways, directly and financially supporting other humane causes that run the gamut.
Mr. Cunningham is a leader who earns respect and gets results, due not only to his knowledge and ability, but because of his genuine care for people. He know that he and they can make a difference. The enthusiasm he shows for bettering our world reflects a combination of vision, values and experience that make him a model in his community and our association. Congratulations and thank you, sir!