The unfortunate yet necessary business of getting punched in the mouth
You learn a lot about yourself during your first fist fight. Especially when you know for a fact that the other guy is going to mop the deck with your face just because he can.
And that’s just the thing: It’s one thing to get into a fight you’re pretty sure you’ll win. It’s another completely to get into a fight even though you’re pretty sure you’ll lose, and still find the courage to stand your ground and see things through.
Close your eyes and hold that thought. We’ll come back to this in a sec.
Okay, so I know… this may seem like an odd topic for a blog that deals mostly with brand management, social media, business strategy, etc., but as I found with my “21 things” blog last week, there is a deeply human side to making inspired business decisions that we need to start focusing on a little more (not just here – in general). Why? Because business decisions don’t happen in a vacuum. People make these decisions. Human beings, with good days and bad days, filled with courage and plagued by cowardice, swelling with passion and weighed down by apathy. People as imperfect and flawed and riddled with self-doubt as you and I. Yes, the Steve Jobs, Jack Welches, Henry Fords, Walt Disneys, Bill Gates, Richard Bransons and Julius Caesars of the world are just as human as the rest of us, with their own problems, their own doubts, their own insecurities and their own challenges to overcome. But one of the things that separates them from the majority of people is their willingness to step forward even when the odds are squarely against them, and risk taking a very public and humiliating beating if things don’t turn out as they had hoped. But even they can come to a professional impasse if their “education” along the way skipped the essential rite of passage known as the boyhood brawl.
The first thing you probably need to get from this post is this: Because decisions cannot be divorced from the people who make them, who we are as human beings impacts those decisions at least as much as what we do professionally: A CEO is a role, not a personality trait. A general is a rank, not an emotional profile. A manager is a job description, not an indication of natural leadership. In other words, don’t let the cover story fool you: a title printed on a business card doesn’t reflect an individual’s ability to lead, inspire and show cunning any more than the size of their bank account or the make of their car.
What does a title really tell you about someone? If you live within a regimented corporate or military culture, it tells you something about where they stand in the pecking order and what power they yield over you and others, but that’s really about it. In matters of leadership, courage, integrity and mental fortitude, a job title doesn’t really tell you a whole lot about someone’s mettle. More to the point, a job title doesn’t tell someone a whole lot about themselves and what they are capable of when the chips are down.
The importance of dangerous tests and contests
Back in not-so-ancient times, boys were routinely tested as they grew up: Going into the woods alone for the first time. Climbing the tallest tree. Swimming across the river. Diving to the cold dark bottom. Catching your first fish. Killing your first fowl. Standing your ground against the older village or neighborhood kids. Tribal rights of passage. By the time a man reached adulthood, he knew exactly who he was. He knew his own strengths and weaknesses.
And the rest of the community did as well.
Via regular social tests and challenges, stars rose, stayed stagnant, or fell from grace. There was no hiding from it. The pecking order in human communities was always in flux, with the smartest and strongest leading, and others following, hoping for their chance to prove themselves someday and improve their position.
Only now, it seems that such personal tests, the ones that cemented not only reputations but confidence, self respect, courage and wisdom have fallen mostly by the wayside. Just for the record, graduating from kindergarten is not a rite of passage. Landing a 20% off coupon isn’t either. Neither is unlocking a fifth level prestige badge in COD Modern Warfare 2 on X-Box Live.
Here’s an observation. It isn’t a judgment. Just an observation: None of the people I have ever worked with or worked for while I was in the corporate world had ever been in a real fight. None had ever fought back when the bully shoved them in a locker or stole their lunch money. None had ever stepped in to help someone being mugged. None had ever finished a fight that some drunk jerk forced on them or one of their peers. And… coming from France – a country where little boys haven’t yet been taught that getting into the occasional fisticuff is a sign of deplorable behavior – I found this both surprising and unfortunate. Not because I find fights to be particularly edifying (I don’t enjoy them a whole lot, especially since I am not Chuck Norris), but because fighting – which mostly amounts to dealing with fear, confrontation, pain and the social pressures not to quit or lose – has been part of young mens’ “education” for tens of thousands of years. Like it or not, fighting each other is baked into our DNA. Men need these types of experiences in order to move from childhood to adulthood. Sport can be a decent substitute for some time, martial arts as well, but ultimately, nothing can truly take the place of actual combat. By creating an entire generation of men who have never experienced the fight or flight gauntlet of a knuckle duel, I am not certain that we are properly preparing young men for the types of mental and emotional challenges required of them in high stakes leadership positions.
Asserting yourself in a business meeting, negotiating a settlement, managing a takeover, speaking to investors, presenting to a crowd of bloggers and journalists, convincing banks to back your next venture, these things don’t go well unless you have a certain level of quiet confidence about you, the kind of confidence that frees your mind to get the job done rather than worry about whether or not you’re up for it.
Reassuring the American people that the country is safe, customers that it is still safe to bank with you, drivers that your cars won’t accelerate out of control and explode, investors and employees that your company is still a sound bet, and the public that you have the oil spill under control can’t be left to folks who haven’t tested themselves to find out what they are really made of.
Remember Michael “Brownie” Brown, the guy in charge of FEMA during the Katrina crisis? His impeccably pressed, perfectly white dress shirts? Not a hair out of place while the people of New Orleans drowned and starved to death? Nice guy, I’m sure. Smart too. Probably great with the whole IAHA Arabian horse thing, and corporate luncheons and country-club brunches, before being appointed to lead the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Except… Wrong guy for the job. Why? Hmmm. You tell me.
Now put a military officer – especially an Iraq or Afghanistan combat veteran – in his place to do the same job and see what happens. My bet: Night and day. The difference between both men? One made a point to put himself through the gauntlet time and time again. The other, not so much.
Rites of passage matter. They matter a lot.
Fight Club is only a novel. This is real.
If I am starting to sound like Fight Club’s Tyler Durden, so be it. There is a reason why Chuck Palahniuk’s novel struck a chord when it came out. As much as the novel itself may be an unapologetic exaggeration of the death of masculinity in modern times, its message is dead on target. And the impact that a generation of untested men in leadership positions has already had on the corporate world may be in great part responsible for some of the trouble we are in: Enron. Wall Street. The massive oil spill in the Gulf: All arrived at by decisions made by not by incompetent men, but rather untested, socially and emotionally incomplete men.
Think this is a stretch? Possibly. But consider that mid-life crises tend to happen to men riddled with complexes and self-doubt. Far more than an overcompensation or an indulgence brought about by professional success. Any decent Jungian psychotherapist can explain the link between mid-life crises and a common mother complex in men: Adult in form but not in heart. Boys whose bodies grew up but whose souls didn’t. The erosion of significant, terrifying, often violent rites of passage from childhood to adulthood, particularly when it comes to my gender, is a problem that doesn’t only impact divorce rates and Porsche sales in the US, but also the business world and the economy as a whole: A man who isn’t whole cannot effectively lead. He is a Fisher King, an impotent, lame-duck regent whose wound infects his entire kingdom and drags it down with him. When captains of industry are drawn drawn from among the ranks of untested men rather than those who can and should lead, the system breaks down: Exploration, experimentation and progress come to a grinding halt. Strategic planning takes a hit. Appearances begin to overtake substance. Nepotism prevails. Good old boys networks take root. Mediocrity, hypocrisy and corruption begin to poison corporate and political cultures. The safety of artificial comforts replaces strife. Warm cocoons of denial begin to form and thicken.
There is something missing in a man who hasn’t pushed himself far beyond what he thought were his own limits. Something we look for in leaders. Something without which our faith in a man cannot ever be truly realized. We all felt it in the school yard. On the playing field. In boot camp. And yes, in the board room. A phony is a phony. The real deal, however, walks wrapped in the knowledge of who he is as a man, because at least once in his life, he walked deep into the dark recesses of his cave and found what really lurked there.
Growing up in France in the 70’s and 80’s – and having been raised in a family of combat veterans and citizen soldiers – making it to adolescence without a few black eyes and busted knuckles wasn’t an option. Not that I was pushed to go looking for fights, but let’s say that certain circumstances were occasionally brought up around the dinner table as acceptable reasons to find out what I was made of. For many little French boys, playing cowboys, cops and musketeers wasn’t just play. It was preparation for an inevitable school yard confrontation that would determine much about the types of men they would later become.
A quick word about the French and silly stereotypes
Not that the French fight a lot or win a lot of wars, or anything. Aside from the Foreign Legion (mostly composed of foreigners at that) and a few key Police and military units, French culture isn’t exactly known for its warrior spirit. The Gauls were pretty solid warriors, but the Roman legions dealt with them in the end. Twice in the last century the Germans cut through our borders like a warm knife through butter. So yeah, sure, we invaded England back in the day, we’ve had bloody revolutions, and Napoleon helped us unlock our very own bloody conquests badge on Foursquare, but in general, the French are relatively well-behaved anti-violent people. Even our soccer fans are pretty tame compared to England’s. We also aren’t particularly fond of violence in sports and entertainment (Americans, in contrast, like their sports and movie heroes to be full-contact – while tennis doesn’t exactly require helmet and shoulder pads). We don’t really like guns. The French, as people of the world go, are not high up on the socially violent list.
Yet, in sharp contrast with many of my American peers who grew up on violent entertainment and a glorification of rogue warrior tales, my childhood and early adult years were not without incident. Starting with a few kids at my school trying to work the pecking order to their advantage to street thugs in downtown Brussels looking to score my wallet, from angry boyfriends looking to save face to drunk French soldiers aiming to prove themselves by knocking out a few sailors, I’ve had to deal with unfortunate contests of the knuckle-to-face variety a number of times. Before I go on with my tales of clumsy hand-to-hand combat, let me make it clear that I didn’t always prevail. I am not Jean Claude Van Damme. Quite the contrary. My roundhouse kick is weak. My karate chop is clumsy. My punch often misses the mark. So by default, the lessons in this post have nothing to do with winning or beating the odds. We’re talking about something else altogether today.
Which brings us back to that mouthful of blood thing. You learn a lot about yourself, shaking off the pain of a punch to the mouth. It’s a simple fight or flight reflex: Stunned and dazed, your blurry surroundings spinning around you, searing pain flashing across your face and a dull ache spreading deep into your skull, you are at once confronted with two conflicting emotions: The first – back off and hope the punishment is over. The second – get back on your feet and feed the other guy a Royal McKnuckle-with-Cheese sandwich out of principle, even if it earns you another trip to the cold, hard deck.
Fight or flight: DNA, tens of thousands of years of evolution, and the importance of not running away
Fight or flight. It’s a simple choice. And, as my friend Ben Schowe would say, “it’s just science.”
In terms of personal tests, this goes well beyond the simple (yet grueling) act of surviving boot camp, completing your first 5K, passing the bar, or completing an Ironman triathlon. In fact, in a very real way, getting into a fist fight teaches you as much – if not more – about yourself as summiting Everest or swimming across the English Channel.
Why? Because there is a huge difference between walking to the sidelines and running from a fight. You can quit Ranger school. You can quit an Ironman. On a mountain top, you can stop and turn back to base camp. But walking away from a fight once the first punch has connected, that’s a very different thing. It’s fight or flight in its purest form. It’s the difference between a dog baring its teeth and having another go at some melee carnage… or lying on its back with its tail coiled up between its legs.
In war, you can hold your ground and engage the enemy or you can throw down your guns and run away. Same thing. Except for most people nowadays, at least in the Western world, war is something other people get paid to deal with. It’s something that happens overseas and on TV. There’s no draft anymore. Violence is being erased from “civilized” civilian society. It has become entertainment. A stylized fantasy. You get to see the moves and hear the sounds, but you don’t get to feel the pain. And yet the pain has something to teach.
Like I said, you learn a lot about yourself during your first fight. And your second. And your third. What you learn is – what you learn first, anyway, is – whether or not you have any real fight in you. When that first punch in the face hits you and your eyes flash just as what feels like a brick flying at 500 miles per hour turns the entire front of your skull into a flaring, throbbing strobe of pain, you get your first glimpse of who you are. Before you even land on your ass, your brain is already trying to decide if you will simply lie down and hope the fight is over, or spring up and hit the guy back twice as hard and see how he likes it.
What my first fight taught me
I remember my first fight vividly: Second grade. Parc Monceau. The biggest kid in my class decided he was going to use the smallest kid in the class (me) to cement his Alpha status for the school year. Words were exchanged, shoves ensued, and next thing I know, we were rolling around in the dirt, scraping our knees and elbows, trying land a solid hit on the other. Planting a solid punch at that age would have surely ended the fight – to the delighted cheers of our classmates – and would have secured immediate popularity for whomever emerged victorious. As it turns out, neither one of us did. But the other kid, desperate to break free from the scuffle, accidentally head-butted me in the face, knocking me clear off him. I remember hearing the ugly thud sound of his skull bouncing off my cheek, my head snapping back, and my little French behind landing squarely on the hard-packed dirt. The other kids immediately fell silent and stared at us to see what would come next. I tasted blood in my mouth, from where I had bitten my tongue. I was surprised by the taste… And by the fact that I was more excited than scared.
Up until that moment, I had imagined that being on the receiving end of a head-butt would be the worst thing in the world. Yet there I was, realizing that the other guy wasn’t as strong, as mean, as dangerous or as invincible as I thought he was. And, equally important, realizing that perhaps I had more of a fight in me than I originally thought. Fighting back tears of pain and fear, I got back up, swallowed a mouthful of blood, and threw myself at him. Though he was a lot taller and bigger than me, I tackled him and knocked him to the ground. The rolling around and wild kicking and punching resumed, but before either one of us could land a solid punch, the fight was broken up by our teacher. We were both sent to the principal’s office – the dragon-like Mme Gomez – and sat there for about fifteen minutes before she finally called us in.
Those fifteen minutes were invaluable: The entire time, not once did the other kid dare return my stare. After a quick inspection of my knuckles and clothes, and after having pondered what punishments would follow both at school and at home, I looked over at him and caught him quickly blinking away. Feeling that I was still staring at him, he didn’t look up again. It was at that moment, not before, that I realized I had won the fight. Not because I had beaten him, mind you – I hadn’t. What I realized was that, for me, the real fight wasn’t against him. It was against myself: Fight vs. Flight. Flight lost. I wanted more. Test passed.
From then on, I knew I would never again be too afraid to stand my ground. That moment of clarity is something I have taken with me into every difficult, stressful situation since.
Going through something like this, as simple as it may seem, is a defining moment in a man’s life, and one that far too many boys today never get to experience, to their own detriment, and that of society as a whole when they eventually join the workforce.
To this day, I don’t remember a thing about what the principal had to say or what my punishment was. I grinned from ear to ear the rest of the day, beaming with pride and excitement at the realization that there was more to me than just pretend courage. Later, what I remember from being walked to my mother’s car by my angry teacher wasn’t the fear of punishment or the embarrassment of the public escort, but the looks of awe I saw in the other kids’ eyes. Still grinning at my scowling mother after my teacher explained what had happened, I hopped into her Autobianchi and told her my side of the story: He started. It wasn’t my fault. I was only defending myself. He got what he deserved. I took a skull to the face and it still hurt a lot, but it was okay. She lectured me all the way home, but I know that behind the stern threats of being sent to Jesuit boarding school if I couldn’t behave, was a quiet pride that I hadn’t punked out. Later that afternoon, my father inspected my swollen black eye, obviously amused by the entire incident, and probed me for details until my mother reminded him that the brawl wasn’t something to be proud of. Yet it was, and all three of us knew it.
The kid never bothered me or any of my classmates again. I don’t even remember his name anymore. It doesn’t matter.
Contests of this type happened again over the years, each one teaching me a little bit more about myself, until I graduated to the more subtle and underhanded type of political combat favored by many corporate types.
Leadership from the outside-in: Understanding the mechanics of the pecking order
Here’s the thing, and be sure not to underestimate the potency of the metaphor: We are all either lions or lambs. Men walk into a conference room, a basketball court, a bar, a gym, the first thing they do is size each other up. Hierarchies are established before anyone takes the initiative to speak. Body language, stress hormones, eye contact and behavior help determine the social order in a matter of minutes if not seconds. Before the lions begin to fight for the top spot, the lambs aremarked and set aside. Few of us ever talk about it, and for many men, the process is completely subconscious, but it happens everywhere men go. This has probably been going on since long before we lived in caves.
Care to see a fine example of the process? Watch the first twenty minutes of Ronin, John Frankenheimer and DavidMamet’s tale of trust and betrayal among intelligence operatives. In any group of men, a pecking order must be established before the group can function. Though the process now takes into account job titles and artificial leadership, lambs are not lions. A leader in title only is a liability to himself and the group he is responsible for.
Riddle me this: How can you earn the trust and respect of a company of professional soldiers if even one of them thinks he is more qualified than you to lead them all? If he thinks he is a better soldier, a better leader? Stronger, faster, tougher?
While you ponder the question, here’s something to think about: How is a group of men in uniform any different from a group of men in suits? Each culture may emphasize certain leadership qualities differently, but the principles are the same: If a leader is imposed on the group rather than arrived at by mutual selection, then the leader must prove his worth, or his tenure is doomed from the start. If the guy in charge, when sized up by the rest of the men in the room is found… wanting, you are looking at a dangerous level of inevitable dysfunction that will result in disaster somewhere along the road.
The weakest guy in the room can’t be the leader. Regardless of what his business card says, it just doesn’t work that way. You can’t get rid of thousands of generations of evolution just because we’ve decided to trade spears for pens and caves for cubicles. It may seem silly, but it’s also true and well worth acknowledging.
The true value of a mouthful of blood
I know this is going to sound strange, but a CEO who has put himself through the gauntlet – whether it was a fist fight, a combat tour in Iraq or a wrestling match against a great white shark knows how to be fearless in the face of uncertainty. He can look his competitor in the eye, say “bring it,” and mean it. He can look at an economic crisis as an opportunity to prevail against adversity and cement his company’s reputation by taking market share rather than merely hoping to hold on to what it has.
A man who has the confidence to stand his ground in the face of adversity, a man who has learned the value and excitement of fighting for something he believes in, a man who knows that no amount of pain or fear will weaken his resolve, this kind of man can lead any company away from defeat, towards success.
The guy who has never been punched in the face doesn’t yet know how tough he is. That man doesn’t know if he should get up or beg for mercy when his lip gets split. He doesn’t know what he is made of yet. Take him by surprise, upset his routine, put him in the hurt locker, and he sits there wondering what he should do next. He sits there stunned, gagging on a mouthful of his own blood, wishing he weren’t in so much pain. For precious seconds, he hesitates, not yet knowing what to do. Indecision: The antithesis of leadership.
The CEO, the Senior VP, the Director of this and that, untested, are all liabilities. Lamb playing at being lions.
The truth of it is this: What you learn fighting off bullies in your childhood, learning to stand your ground and take real hits comes back to either serve or haunt you later in life, when faceless enemies set their sights on your endeavors. Knowing that you can overcome physical adversity and survive your fear of the unknown arms you with the ability to make intelligent decisions in the heat of the moment. It teaches you to keep a cool head when everyone else panics. It teaches you not to retreat unless you absolutely have to, but to instead make your way through the storm and find calmer waters waiting beyond it.
The real beauty of it is that once the people who look to you for leadership realize that this is the type of leader you are, they will follow you anywhere. Their loyalty, their dedication, their support will be assured. And that, when it comes to building strong brands, isn’t something you can either buy or do without.
So parents, teachers, law enforcement personnel and passers-by, consider this: Next time two little boys decide to brawl, don’t stop them right away. Let them throw a few kicks and punches. Let them sort it out on their own, even if only for a few seconds. What they discover about themselves in those short, precious, terrifying moments could help shape them into formidable leaders someday. I know it sounds pretty weird, but trust me: They need to put themselves through it, black eye, mouthful of blood and all.
Cowards make lousy leaders. Give your kids enough space to learn not to be.