Years ago, I was training for a mixed martial arts fight. I wasn’t a world beater, but I was a few years and a dozen fights into a professional fighting career in the minor leagues. I was preparing for a fight and a new guy showed up at the gym. Nice guy, good athlete, worked hard. He had good balance, wasn’t afraid to get in the mix, and this was his first go at organized training. He had been there a few weeks when he asked if I wanted to spar a few rounds. He told me he had never sparred before.
We geared up and got in the ring. I assumed he just wanted to work. While I wasn’t being a bully, he came at me hard so I hit him some. I’d let him get me into positions and then I would work out of them. Although he fought hard, he didn’t have much to offer. He was green.
Afterwards, we were pulling off gear and unwrapping our hands and I could see he was upset. I asked him what the problem was. I thought maybe he thought I went to too hard.
“I’m just pissed,” he said. “That sucked. I just got my ass kicked for three rounds. I mean, I always thought I was a pretty good fighter.”
“Based on what?” I asked.
“Well, I’ve never been beat up in a fight before, I just figured I’d be better than that.”
I asked him if he decided to play hoops against a good college basketball player, how did he think he would do. He agreed that he would get smashed.
“What do you think is different about fighting?”
See, no one is surprised when they struggle at something they have never tried before. We don’t expect to do well the first time we try hitting a baseball or playing a piano, yet we are surprised when when we don’t perform well in a fight or self-defense situation.
It is often the same with leadership. Like fighting, it looks easy from the outside. Lots of folks think they can do it just because they were born with certain traits or because they have a strong ambition. But when given the opportunity to lead, they often come up short.
Shel Silverstein, the poet, is often considered a children’s writer but has some thoughts for leaders as well. In Where the Sidewalk Ends, he wrote a poem called, “The Little Blue Engine.” It is another perspective of the Little Engine That Could story… the one that climbed the hill because, “I think I can.” But his version ends a little differently …
“He was almost there, when — CRASH! SMASH! BASH!
He slid down and mashed into engine hash
On the rocks below… which goes to show
If the track is tough and the hill is rough,
THINKING you can just ain’t enough!”
Most people find themselves in a leadership position, not so much because of their leadership prowess, but because of another reason: They started the company, they were good at something else (sales, police work, teaching etc.) or they knew someone who got them hired. Because they were good at one element of their job, they assumed they would naturally be good at the others.
Remarkable leaders know leadership takes intentional work. Remarkable leaders know it is a process. Although it is relatively simple, remarkable leaders also know it is rarely easy. Like anything else you want to be good at, leadership takes practice.
Like fighting, most people don’t want to put in the work it takes to be a leader. They want to look like one, dress like one and tell people they are one but not do the hard part, actually leading.
But there is a difference in fighting and leadership too. While anyone can train hard, develop skills and become a better skilled fighter, there is a ceiling based on genetics, injury, and athletic ability. Lets face it, not everyone, no matter how hard they work, could become a UFC world champion.
But leadership has no such ceiling. It doesn’t matter how big, strong or powerful you are. What matters is how consistently you apply the principles of intentional leadership. It is not limited by what abilities you were born with but, instead how much deliberate practice you get in. Although there isn’t a ceiling, you’ve got to put in the work. Not just think you can.
Here are three ways you can start practicing leadership today:
1. Write out your goals. Leaders are going places, and they know where they’re going. Write out a specific, measurable, time-bound goal in each of these areas of life (career, financial, family/relationships, fitness, personal). Then write down a simple plan that you can follow in order to accomplish each one. Not sure where to begin? Start here.
2. Start reading. Leaders are readers. If you don’t read books, or listen to podcasts or audio books, you are limited to the things you can learn through your own personal experience. Reading books about interesting people doing important things will expand your scope, inspire you, and will remind you that you really can accomplish big things in life. Not sure where to begin? Start here.
3. Find a mentor. Leaders learn from leaders. If you want to become a better leader in your own life, hang out with people who are already doing it. You will benefit from watching and listening to someone who has already accomplished the very thing you desire. Nobody becomes a remarkable leader on their own. Find a mentor who is willing to help. Not sure where to begin? Start here.
I’m not sure what happened to that guy after the sparring match. I remember he continued coming for a few weeks and then disappeared altogether. It is too bad, he was a great athlete. He may have been able to develop into something great in the ring. He just needed to work at it.
Don’t let that happen to you. Get clear what you want your life to look like. Set goals. Learn from others. Find a mentor. Remember, when it comes to the important stuff you still have to put in the work. “THINKING you can just ain’t enough.”
Rick Randolph is a former corporate manager/entrepreneur/business owner/MMA fighter/police officer/defensive tactics coach, and is presently a CrossFit coach with CrossFit Anywhere, a father of Luke and Addie, a husband to Sally, and a leadership coach with Forging Leaders. You can contact Rick by clicking here.