From the Octagon to the Boardroom: Leadership Inspiration from Mixed Martial Arts

By Arvin Patel, EVP & CIPO at TiVo, Entertainment + Tech Thought Leader, Forbes Contributor

Judging from my appearance — eyeglasses and business suits — most people might assume that I’m a mild-mannered technology executive. But along with my career background as an attorney, and my life as a proud parent and husband, I also have a passion for Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). I don’t just wear suits, I wear boxing gloves too!

I have been training in MMA since the early 90s and am presently a board member for the American Kickboxing Academy, one of the top-ranked MMA gyms in the United States. Training in MMA has helped me to take my physical and mental fitness to the next level. It’s an exhilarating sport, and there’s a special feeling of competitiveness and camaraderie that MMA fighters get to experience.

But perhaps the most surprising benefits that I’ve gained from practicing MMA have come from outside of the gym. Training in MMA has also given me some unique inspiration to be a better leader — at work, and in life.

So… what can MMA teach us about leadership?

Discipline

MMA fighters have to be disciplined. You need to strengthen your body as well as your mind. For every minute that UFC fighters are on TV plying their trade in the Octagon, there are hundreds of hours of dedicated, unglamorous hard work happening off-camera in weight rooms and boxing gyms — working with dumbbells, medicine balls, and speed bags.

One reason why MMA is such a great sport is that it requires you to commit to an ongoing practice of physical and mental discipline. You don’t get into this sport to simply deliver roundhouse kicks and knockout punches. MMA fighters must develop a certain joy for the process of getting stronger: doing all the little things along the way that help them strengthen their core, improve flexibility, and learn the precision techniques that help them become their best.

It’s similar to the way that much of leadership happens away from the spotlight with a lot of the real work going on behind the scenes: paying your dues, spending the time to strengthen your skillset, and helping the people around you to be their best.

A big misconception that people sometimes have about MMA is that this sport is all about getting out your aggression. The reality is different: MMA helps people focus and hone their physical strength. It disciplines them so that they get the most out of their abilities.

The same is true of leadership. Too often, people assume that to succeed in business, you have to be tough and ruthless. The reality is so much more nuanced. Different styles of leadership and different personalities can be successful in business; sometimes the most successful business leaders are good at observation and self-discipline. In business, you can be the meanest, toughest person in the room but that doesn’t mean you’ll always win or always be respected.

Diversified Skills

Another reason why I respect MMA so much as a sport is that it requires such a diverse set of skills, combining elements of boxing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, judo, Muay Thai kickboxing, and wrestling. The best MMA fighters tend to be good at a lot of different things. Every time you step into the arena as an MMA fighter, you need to be ready to anticipate a variety of attacks and parries.

Good leaders, like good MMA fighters, also tend to develop a diversified set of skills while simultaneously playing to their strengths. Not everyone in MMA is a great puncher; some fighters have a better reach than others. Some fighters are better at using their legs, pinning their opponents, or overpowering their opponents on the ground. Not all leaders are charismatic or inspiring speakers; some leaders are better at maneuvering behind the scenes to build influence within their organization. Some leaders are better sales people, others are better technicians. Some leaders have a knack for identifying top talent and recruiting people to join their teams, others are better at developing people and getting the most out of the available talent pool.

Whatever your strengths may be, as an MMA fighter or as a leader, it’s important to capitalize on them while managing your weaknesses.

Resilience

MMA is a tough sport! You need to be physically and mentally resilient to keep competing and overcoming pain and adversity. Many of the successful leaders that I’ve met in my lifetime have a sense of resilience that is often honed from intense physical activity. Whether it’s MMA or distance running, cycling, basketball, or some other competitive sport, many business leaders have an innate need to test themselves physically — not just for the health benefits, but for what we learn about ourselves and to enhance our resilience along the way.

In business, in career, and as leaders, we all encounter adversity and setbacks. Not only is it inevitable, it’s desirable; if you’re not taking risks and going out of your comfort zone, you’re not trying hard enough. The real measure of a leader is not how well they perform when everything is going great, but how well they respond to setbacks, downturns, bad news, and crises.

Mindfulness

Through looking at Buddhist tradition, such as Shaolin Kung Fu monks, we can see that there is a reason for the connection between mindfulness and martial arts. There is an element of mindfulness to MMA, which also correlates with my interest in meditation practice and mindful leadership.

Practicing MMA has helped me to develop a set of mental skills that in turn help me to live more in the moment. It’s helped me be more focused, more patient, calmer, more attuned to what’s going on with my body, and more spiritually centered. Martial arts practice is a great way to develop and perfect self-control and self-discipline.

Even if you don’t consider yourself to be a “fighter”, you can still benefit from the unique set of skills and experiences that come from training in mixed martial arts. This sport can hone your body, sharpen your mind, and help you expand your skill set — and in turn become a better leader in your career.

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