Earning a master's and a black belt

By Greg Teachout, 2018 MSU StratCom graduate

The friends John Cucci met on his second mountain tend to fall into two camps: martial artists and communications professionals.

Most mornings before the pandemic, you could find John plunging his fists through the still-chilly air in Chicago’s North Shore Dojo in a precise sequence, the smacks of his bare feet on the blue mat sounding off the high ceiling; afternoon saw him doing consulting work for major commerce companies in his condo down the block from Wrigley Field. In the evening, he hit the books and talked with his classmates in the Strategic Communication Online Master’s Program, from which he recently graduated.

John’s presence in the program could be a curiosity, at first. After a decades-long legacy of professional success, holding advanced positions at AT&T, MCI, and Dun & Bradstreet, many people would be living a life of relaxation and luxury. But that’s when John turned his eye toward the summit of the second mountain.

Second mountain

In the parlance of author David Brooks, life’s “ first mountain” is about attaining familiar goals: wealth, status, achievement; the more elusive “second mountain” is reserved for those seeking meaning through service to others. Brooks contends that climbing the second mountain gives us serenity not possible on the first.

John’s second mountain takes the form of mentorship in two very different spheres of knowledge: karate and strategic communications. And in each space, he remains both teacher and student.

At North Shore Dojo, John is a mentor to children who are using karate to combat physical and social challenges ranging from autism to cerebral palsy, often with astounding results. He sees an apt metaphor in the black belt often tied around his waist —a black belt that frays and lightens until, one day, it is again nearly beginner white.

“John has been with me about five years, and he’s one of the hardest-working guys I’ve had,” says Sensei Jeff Kohn, who is a seventh degree blackbelt and the owner of North Shore Dojo. As a renowned master and trainer of world champions, Sensei Kohn has an eye for the habits that produce greatness. “John came in and wanted to learn,” he says. He’s a guy who gives one-hundred percent. It’s a privilege to have him in my school.”

John’s role as a guide at the karate school is part of the karate tradition, explains Sensei Kohn. “His title is Shodan, or a first degree black belt. When he comes and works with the kids, he’s working toward a level they call Sempai, which is a helper of the students.”

“Becoming a Sempai has taught me how to be a little bit more humble,” says John.

There is a harmonious energy in the dojo, where everyone—even Sensei Kohn—is both teaching and learning every day. There are symbolic nods to this harmony everywhere: John wears the same bright white gi (karate garb) as Caleb, a determined seven-year-old with a once-grim medical prognosis. Doctors had told Caleb’s parents he would likely not walk normally due to complications with his legs. Sensei Jeff Kohn hears this sort of gloomy assessment often. He has learned not to trust it.

Under the tutelage of Sensei Kohn and John, Caleb has made great strides. For Kohn, John has become a right hand man, entrusted with supplementary coaching duties and helping students improve their demanding training exercises, or katas. Late morning often finds John watching with intense concentration as Caleb runs down a balance beam, leaps off, and somersaults. After a brief rest, John is on his knees with foam strike pads, encouraging Caleb as the child throws punches into John’s padded forearms.

When John began his quest to obtain a black belt, he was still on the first mountain. But meeting the kids of North Shore Dojo and Sensei Kohn propelled him firmly to the summit of the second.

"Learning leader"

A similar journey occurred for John in the MSU StratCom program.

Initially, getting his M.A. in Strategic Communication was a bucket list goal. He had always wanted to be a Spartan, and he knew learning about analytics could help him in his consulting work.

After excelling in the program and earning his degree, MSU StratCom leadership asked John to be a mentor in ComArtSci Dean Prabu David’s signature class, “Catalyst Thinking in the C-Suite.” As someone with decades of experience in the C Suite and an alum of the program, John was honored and eager to share his wisdom with working professionals, some of whom are imagining themselves as leaders for the first time. And of course, John is just as excited to keep learning.

“I’ve always thought of myself as a learning leader,” says John. “Since I was no longer in the corporate world, I wanted to learn more about the science and the application of communications, thinking it would enhance what I was doing on the consulting end. It’s also really helped me network with a whole different group of people.”

Sensei Kohn’s philosophy for karate excellence, honed over forty years of practice and study under masters in Japan and Olympic competition, is simple: break things down to their simplest parts, understand how those parts fit together, and practice putting them back together relentlessly. John uses this strategy to practice the complex, balletic movements of his katas; in Dean David’s class, he found himself disentangling complicated leadership models and reassembling their discrete parts to create a conceptual leadership model of his own.

Now, just like at the dojo, John got what he thought he came for, but he’s still practicing, teaching, and giving back as a mentor.

“Karate is a continual process of improvement, not unlike the graduate degree,” says John. He enjoyed seeing these thematic similarities and the convenience of being able to pursue karate and his master’s at the same time. “The online option really made a lot of sense for me. It kept my family intact. I actually finished the Crisis Communication class in Florence, Italy, while on vacation.”

Having earned both degrees, John is anything but complacent. He knows he has more left to do, but he is less focused on the ascent itself. He’s keeping a watchful eye out for people like Caleb on his second mountain and lending a hand to those he encounters on the journey.

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