Leadership lessons from the boxing ring

Administrators sometimes must prepare for battle when working for students
By: | Issue: February, 2019
January 17, 2019

As in boxing, leadership is fraught with sudden surprises, some of which, if not anticipated, can deliver a hard blow.

When negotiating, leaders must achieve a complex balance between the  myriad interests of multiple parties. It’s a continuous give-and-take of compromise, shared values and, hopefully, win-win agreements.

The work of William Ury, author of Getting to Yes, provides direction for leaders who seek better outcomes from tough conversations and negotiations. There are, however, times when we need a good metaphor to provide a mental frame to navigate the complex dynamics of leadership. Using boxing as a metaphor to understand, prepare and respond to situations can provide a greater level of clarity, and maybe even a little solace.

Know your opponent

The importance of preparation cannot be overstated. To walk blindly into negotiations or a hostile meeting without scoping out the competition, or the other party’s perspective, is akin to getting into the ring with Mike Tyson, thinking he is just another boxer. You’ll be floored within the first 30 seconds. The thoughtful leader scopes out the competition, from how they move and use the ring to their footwork, strengths and weaknesses. If you have a challenge with a staff member or parent, do your homework and find out about that person before you meet.

Can you take a hit?

Let’s face it: Leadership can be a brawl. Sometimes, you’ll get the proverbial right hook to the nose. The true champion doesn’t fall to the canvas and curl up in a ball. Rather, a champ takes a moment to cover up, sometimes leaning against the ropes. The same goes for school leaders. Hits come with the role, but not fighting the good fight for students is akin to giving up. Fighters don’t do that, and leaders shouldn’t either.

Find a good coach

A boxer needs a good coach to help refocus, keep the vision clear, and drain any cuts around the eyes that might cause swelling. Rocky Marciano was known for throwing a strong uppercut that seemed to come out of nowhere and could catch his competition off guard. As leaders, the support of an effective coach is essential to help us remain mindful of the uppercut and how to deflect it. Every leader needs to have those trusted confidants who can allay concerns with purposeful conversations and thoughtful feedback.

Have a game plan, and adjust when necessary

All successful boxing matches—just like strategic plans and annual goals—necessitate thoughtful and focused planning. In boxing, this means having a strategy and adjusting. Skillful planning requires flexibility. Know that your opponent has a plan, and think through what their approach might be before heading into the ring.

Leadership, like boxing, needs a solid game plan, especially when facing unexpected blows that may knock you off your feet. A clear plan, with some level of flexibility, can be adjusted and still deliver a win.

But no matter how hard you work and train, you may get a left jab that you didn’t see coming. That is part of the job. You will get hit, because leadership is a contact sport.

Have a fight plan for the work you need to complete in your school or department, create an approach that works for the staff you have, and be diligent in the fight. After all, when you realize you’re fighting for students, it’s worth the effort.

Lisa Gonzales is immediate past president of the Association of California School Administrators and assistant superintendent in Dublin USD. Charles Young is superintendent in Benicia USD.