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Primal Facie

I’ve only been punched in the face once.

Given my propensity for telling people what I think, this is nothing short of miraculous. She didn’t even hit me that hard. Which was down to her skill, self-control and character – I, to my shame, was about to learn a thing or two about mine….

The punch landed during my Green Belt grading in Kickboxing about 20 years ago. Part of the test is defending yourself from an opponent in a no-holds-barred 2-minute round. You can’t attack – defensive moves and blocks only. It was a tough gig – as it should be. The woman fighting me was a black belt – hugely experienced, and having a very good time provoking me. My coach was in the ring, clipboard in hand. About one minute in – tired, aggravated, under pressure, I dropped my guard. And paid for it.

My head rocked back – disbelief, shock, pain – followed by utter fury – and I promptly lost it; amid a flurry of kicks and punches, I felt the scruff of my neck being grabbed and my furious coach – the reigning world champion at the time – unceremoniously threw me out of the ring, telling me in a broad East Belfast accent to – ‘go get a f%^&@ing grip of yourself’.

It was a rude reminder that my primal brain ran the show under pressure. Everything I thought I knew about controlling myself meant absolutely nothing when reality took a swing at me. Tyson said it best – “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face”. My plan had been to stay locked in tight, chin down, hand ups, keep my cool, get my belt. Instead, I failed my grading – a year’s hard work blown up in the gap between theory and reality, between reaction and choice. Worse – I lost the respect of my coach, and a fighter I hugely admired. My own self-respect didn’t come out of it well either.

I meet a similar scenario with leaders in the business world – everyone has read the books, knows the theory, has watched the TED talk, knows how to communicate, to strategise, to lead. They have a game plan. They have self-awareness. So they tell me.

In years of teaching leadership skills worldwide, the most common reaction to almost every subject I taught was some version of “Yeah, yeah, I know this.” Knowing, however, is not the same as being able to apply that knowledge when it counts. The worst offenders are the MBA’s. The smarter we tend to be, the more pernicious this phenomenon is. I’d spend days with a team going over the theory, as they gently indulged me in case it might be useful to ‘someone else in the room’. We’d move to live action role-plays (the best forum for really learning) and watch the assured, theory-loving, brains-on-sticks get caught in the machinery of a difficult conversation, or feedback they didn’t like, or a failed rigid strategy for surviving a difficult moment. I saw more sweat in those rooms than I did in the gym. Under any form of incoming stress – feedback, emotional reactions, difficult questions, pressure from peers or those more senior – it helps to have worked with your primal reactions, and to know how to avoid going unconscious and reacting versus choosing the optimal response.

As a coach to CEO’s and senior leaders, my job is to help you know where you’re strong, and also to find the weak-spots in your game; then we work together to ensure those weaknesses don’t become fatal flaws. The punches are going to keep on coming – the reward for every level-up in martial arts is the guarantee of a tougher fight the next time out. Same applies in leadership. Get strong where you’re weak – or you may break at exactly those fault lines, at precisely the wrong moment.

So how to do that?

First up – check that you have enough of the right kind of discomfort. Not easy, but the right kind of oppositional force, where you can flex and build your leadership muscles without getting knocked out – is the fastest way to promote your agility, your timing, your reflexes. Calibrated correctly, it’s an amazing stimulus for growth. “Sweat more in practice, bleed less in war” as the Spartans are alleged to have said.

Ensure you have empowered enough people to tell you the truth. The more elevated your position, the more distorting the mirror becomes. Seek out solid feedback, take what you get, say thank you. Do not beat up on yourself – it’s impossible to win any contest where you’ve joined the opposing team!

Probably most importantly – how well are you resourced for when the hard hitting starts? To perform at your best – you must protect the primary asset. That’s you, in case you’re wondering. You would do well to have a lifestyle that would impress an athlete. The usual suspects apply – more sleep, less biscuits; you know the drill. But for most of my clients, the revelation is in discovering that real strength lies in a deep connection to their own heart. The great fighters all know this – in those moments of real consequence, when the pressure is really on, it’s the true source of power. It’s a seriously neglected muscle – I’d advise you to ensure you are leading and living in a way that will allow you to keep your guard up when you need to, but not atrophy your heart. That’s worth fighting for.

Let me know if you’d like some help improving your odds of going the distance – I’ve spent the last 20 years helping leaders to stay in the fight and not get thrown out of the ring.

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