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Unexpected Leadership Lessons From The World’s Top Cage Fighters

Doug Merlino spent two years studying the best mixed martial arts fighters in the world to find out what makes a top competitor.

Unexpected Leadership Lessons From The World’s Top Cage Fighters
[Photo: Mary Nichols/fuseboxradio]

Florida’s American Top Team is a legendary mixed martial arts gym that’s home to some of the world’s best MMA fighters. In the two years I spent there researching my book, I earned a high-level education in the mental habits that distinguish great competitors.

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Among the dozens of professional fighters at the gym, the consistent winners followed routines that clearly stood out from the pack. With effort and discipline, those lessons can apply to nearly any pursuit. Here are five of them.

1. Know What You’re Fighting For

Mirsad Bektic, a fighter I followed closely, is now a rising star in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). Bektic was a war refugee—born in 1991 in Bosnia, his mother fled the country with him and his brothers when he was a baby. The family immigrated to Lincoln, Nebraska, where Bektic began to fight as a teenager. He was inspired to become an example of strength and courage for his family and other Bosnians.

This gave him an edge. Armed with that sense of purpose, Bektic adhered to an intense training regimen and managed to push through severe setbacks that would have finished other fighters. In his UFC debut, for example, Bektic received two illegal knees to the head. Though dazed, he went into autopilot, falling back on his intensive mental preparation and desire to win for the people around him.

No matter what you’re up against in life or at work, it’s always crucial to know why you’re up against it. Believing that your effort serves a purpose that matters to you has been shown to be one of the key drivers of motivation. Other fighters had less defined reasons for fighting than Bektic did—they enjoyed the lifestyle, liked the limelight, or simply didn’t see any better job options. While they may have been physically talented, these fighters often gave up when their fights got too hard.

Other things being equal, the person with the most-defined reason for competing will always go home the winner.

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2. Understand Your Skills And How They Fit Together

Unvarnished self-awareness about your strengths and weaknesses goes a long way. MMA fighters have to know not just a dizzying array of techniques–kickboxing, wrestling, jiu jitsu–but how to combine them effectively. For many leaders, the temptation (and plenty of the management advice) is to hone what you’re good at and surround yourself with people who can fill in for your deficiencies.

And for some, that works wonderfully as a business practice. But it might prevent you from really developing your leadership abilities. The best fighters relentlessly review their performances and see where their skills are lacking. After a fight, they spend several weeks working on areas that need improvement, gradually incorporating these new skills into their repertoires. That’s the best way to constantly add new weapons for opponents to worry about.

3. Staying On Top Is As Hard As Getting There

Daniel Straus started about as low as you can get in the sport, working his way up from small-time fights in Cincinnati to the Viacom-owned Bellator promotion. After winning its featherweight belt in November 2013, he lost it just a few months later, when a mistake led to his getting caught in a submission hold.

Afterward, he told me it was a relief. He had geared his whole life around winning the championship. When he finally had the belt around his waist, he was no longer the underdog. The pressure of being on top was overwhelming—being a champion didn’t fit with his self-image. The loss had put him back in the more comfortable position of being a challenger.

Business leaders know, too, that when you reach the top, you’re exposed to a new level of scrutiny. That can be too much to handle, especially since it’s so difficult to prepare for in advance. But while it’s important to envision yourself as a champion from the beginning, you need to think about what you’ll do when you actually are.

4. Respect Your Competitors

Those who aren’t familiar with MMA are often surprised that nearly all fighters embrace at the end of their fights—especially considering the sport is a zero-sum game: The fighter who wins gets more money and a chance to advance their career; for the loser, it’s almost always a step back.

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But the business arena can be similarly black and white. When your competitors succeeds, often your company stumbles. But it’s those high stakes that drive innovation and push every contender to do their best.

Elite fighters, who train for years to perform at their highest level, understand that they can’t dance without a partner. Top performance is only possible when both competitors bring everything with them into the cage. Your competitors do you the favor of pushing you to your limits.

5. No One Is A Natural

In MMA, it’s common to call top performers “beasts”–a term reserved for those who’ve hit another level or managed to “beast” their way through a major challenge.

It’s a seductive idea, but it’s something of a fantasy. After spending two years with some of the world’s best fighters, I saw that the ability to go “beast” was a direct result of months and years of amount of training and preparation—mental and physical.

The best left nothing to chance, preparing themselves for anything that might happen once the bell rang. Natural talent plays a role, but it takes an enormous amount of hard work and effort to develop it. Ask any successful business leader or hard-driving startup, and they’ll likely tell you the same.

Doug Merlino received master’s degrees in journalism and international affairs from the University of California at Berkeley. His is the author of Beast: Blood, Struggle, and Dreams at the Heart of Mixed Martial Arts.

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