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Take These Leadership Skills From the Boxing Ring

In five years of boxing, I've discovered benefits beyond the physical ones from my trainer, Eric Daniels. Here's what to take back to the boardroom from the gym.
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I was more than a little intrigued to read Christine Lagorio's June feature in Inc. about Michael the Boxer, and his success in training Silicon Valley techies, programmers and entrepreneurs to box. In the article, the boxing newbies waxed poetic about the benefits they received from the sweet science (i.e. "You don't think about code. You don't think about work. You think about the best way to hit a bag. It makes me less neurotic," said David Chen, co-founder of NunaHealth). To which I respond with a hearty, "Amen, brother. Amen."

As someone who's been training with a boxer for two years, I've discovered other benefits that transcend the physical, psychological, and emotional ones. In fact, I've learned five key leadership lessons from my trainer, Eric Daniels. (Note: I'm using some of Eric's exact phrasing to explain his tips as well as how I've applied them to lead my firm, Peppercomm):

1. Build Muscle Memory

Eric insists I repeat the very same punch (or the very same defensive move) hour after hour and day after day. Why? He'll tell you it's critically important to build muscle memory so that, in the heat of battle, your muscles will respond instinctively.

Muscle memory is equally important in business, especially when times are tough. We recently lost a large client for example. But, having weathered countless storms in the past, I relied on my muscle memory to kick in. So, despite the loss, I maintained the same even-keeled, self-deprecating sense of humor when interacting with employees. I wanted them to know we'd be just fine.

It's critical that leaders neither get too high on the sweet smell of success nor laid too low by the misery of defeat. By drawing on muscle memory from previous experiences, a leader can maintain an even keel during the most intense moments.

2. Enjoy the Oxygen

Eric gives me a 30-second break in-between agility drills, weight-lifting, jump-roping and, of course, sparring. During those oh-so-brief seconds, he exhorts me to "Enjoy the oxygen." And, I do. Eric's taught me how to breathe using my diaphragm, and to lower my heart rate during breaks.

So many leaders are so caught up in the heat of the moment that they never stop to take a deep breath, step back, and appreciate what they've accomplished.

I liken Eric's oxygen moments to smelling the roses. So many leaders are so caught up in the heat of the moment that they never stop to take a deep breath, step back, and appreciate what they've accomplished.

Eric's advice to enjoy the oxygen assures I'll be better rested for the remainder of my workout. Pausing to occasionally smell the roses helps leaders persevere over the long-term (especially when encountering those unexpected speed bumps mentioned above).

3. Know That Confidence Can Be Quiet

Eric always advises me to use my newfound boxing skills wisely. "It doesn't give you a green light to punch out the first drunk you run into," he'll warn me. Instead, boxing instills a quiet confidence that, should a situation suddenly go South, I now possess the physical wherewithal to protect myself (Note: I sometimes drop that hint with slow-paying clients). 

I'd liken quiet confidence in business to the knowledge that, in a competitive bid, you've repeatedly beaten the biggest, and the best, in your industry. In our 18-year history, Peppercomm has bested every top 10 firm in our field to win the likes of GE, GM, Yahoo, Whirlpool, and TGI Friday's. When a leader (and his team) know they've already beaten the best, they bring a quiet confidence into every new business pitch. And, if you've yet to beat the Walmart of your industry, trust me, you will. The race (and the bout) belongs to the swift and nimble. 

4. Anticipate the Next Move

Eric has schooled me to not only think one punch ahead but also, critically, to try and anticipate my opponent's. That said, and as my lips, eyes and nose can attest, I've often failed miserably to anticipate Eric's next punch.

But, in the office, I've done a better-than-average-job of anticipating other PR firms' next moves. I do so by being positively maniacal about reading my industry trade press, scrutinizing my top competitors' websites for tips and, critically, wining and dining industry influencers who always have the inside word on who's doing what.

I'm not interested in ripping off an idea by, say, Edelman, Fleishman, or Burson but, rather, thinking what our unique riff on that idea might be.

As a result, we've launched such non-traditional services as: media training for sales people, stand-up comedy training for executives, and "a next-generation version of mystery shopping for clients in all industries. And, it's all because I practice what Eric Daniels preaches: anticipate your next move (as well as your opponent's). 


5. Put Accuracy Before Power

Every now and then, I'll really lay into Eric with a solid left hook or right cross. He'll stop me dead in my tracks, and advise me to knock it off. "Focus on accuracy, Steve," he'll warn me. "Power is useless if it misses its target."

"Power is useless if it misses its target."

That's a superb analogy for any entrepreneur who's chomping at the bit to launch a new product or service, and dazzle the world. The best planned product or service will fail miserably if it doesn't solve a customer want or need. 

That's why we take pains to listen to prospective clients before we formally launch a new service offering. If we're not solving a problem that's keeping customers up at night, then all the marketing muscle in the world won't matter. 

Follow the Eric Daniels school of boxing's five business tenets, and the odds are good you'll find yourself a serious contender for the title, if not the newly-crowned champion. 

Last updated: Jul 10, 2013

STEVE CODY | Columnist

I'm a climber, comedian, and dog lover. But not necessarily in that order. I also happen to be co-founder and CEO of Peppercomm, a strategic communications firm headquartered in NYC, with offices in San Francisco and London. I publish RepMan, a daily blog, and have had the opportunity to appear on CNBC, MSNBC, NPR, and a host of other top-tier media over the years. scody@peppercomm.com

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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