5 Leadership Lessons I Learned from Boxing

By July 14, 2016Leadership



I started boxing a month ago. It’s an incredible workout, both physically and mentally. If you’re a leader looking for something you can do to stay (or get) fit and healthy (I burn anywhere from 500-1,200 calories each workout), you should check it out too.

Beyond the physical workout and the mental benefits of strenuous exercise, there are 5 key leadership lessons I’ve learned from boxing.

“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” – Mike Tyson. As fighters prepare mentally for a big fight, they spend countless hours training. If you were to watch this training, you might think that it’s all physical. That the fighter is practicing random jabs, hooks, crosses, etc. In reality, that fighter is preparing mentally and building a plan for that fight. However, as Tyson so famously put it, that plan can change significantly once the first punches are landed. In business, the same is true. You can (and should) spend a good amount of time planning and preparing. But you also need to realize that success is created through agility. There will be times when you create an amazing plan, then an outside force (a client, vendor, partner, natural disaster, etc.) comes into the picture and dramatically changes the landscape for you. Don’t freak out. That’s life, and that’s leadership. Success is created in your response — how you navigate that need to change your plan and adjust for the reality on the ground. That’s the important part.

Technique trumps brute strength. Boxing is all about technique. After all, they don’t call it the sweet science for nothing! The same is true in leadership. If you rely on position and power to get things done, your ability to impact change and make great things happen will be dramatically limited. Instead, if you focus on your leadership technique — on building strong relationships, fostering collaborative dialogue, and bringing people along instead of dragging them along, you’ll be so much more effective!

Success requires constant training. As a boxer, if you aren’t continually training and developing your skills, your strength, speed, agility, etc., you’ll never be successful. You may still improve a little, but you’ll never be a champion. In leadership, if you aren’t constantly developing your leadership muscles (by reading, listening to podcasts, attending training events, etc.), they’ll atrophy. You might be able to tackle one or two challenges, but you won’t be able to sustain major change or innovation without having trained for it.

You need a great Cornerman (or woman). In combat sports like boxing, the Cornerman’s job is to coach, encourage, guide, and support a boxer through the duration of a fight. This person isn’t in the ring fighting alongside the boxer, but instead standing just outside the ring helping the fighter to navigate toward success. In business, a great Cornerman helps you uncover your blind spots, discover new opportunities , and help you identify and protect against your weaknesses. This is the person who always shoots straight with you, no matter the situation. The person you can rely on to always give you the guidance you need to be successful.

The fact that you’ve been knocked down is interesting, but the length of time you remain down is important. – Austin O’Malley. No matter how well trained, how prepared, and how physically and mentally superior a fighter is, there will come a time when she gets knocked down. And fighters know this. But what they know at an even deeper, more visceral level, is that they need to get back up and into the fight. The same holds true for leadership. No matter how smart, how strategic, how prepared you are as a leader, at some point you’re going to get knocked down. A major client will fire you. A key employee will leave your team. You’ll make a big mistake personally. You will get knocked down. Expect it. And understand that the people you lead, your clients, and the other leaders you partner with really aren’t interested in that fact. They all know you’re going to get knocked down. What’s important to them (and to you!) is that when you get knocked down, you take a minute to dust yourself off, and then you get right back in the fight. Your ability to be resilient in the face of adversity is the key to your leadership success.