I was in the sixth grade and my brother was in the seventh. Dad, a Marine Corps veteran who saw plenty of action up close and personal during World War II on the beaches of Saipan and Iwo Jima, decided that we should get boxing gloves for Christmas. What could go wrong?

In Dad’s defense, he had seen the whole world go crazy. He had gone half way around the world and put life and limb in deadly combat for the cause of freedom. He wanted his boys to know how to fight, should it become necessary.

Dad had boxed in the Marines (let that sink in for a moment). He was 5’ 10” of sinew and steel. He was one of those men who, when you were in his presence, made your caution light go on. Surely, he was qualified to be a sparring partner/coach for a couple of middle school boys. Again, what could go wrong?

My brother, the elder, went first. For a while, there was no visible reason for concern. Soon, however, Dad was getting frustrated with the relative lack of aggression; he had been accustomed to much more, both in the ring and in the war. As his frustration peaked, he dropped his arms and, in disgust, said, “Just hit me!” This was a throwaway statement that my brother took as a direct order. With Dad’s guard and readiness down my brother got in a lucky punch, a little below the belt.

Dad reacted. Without thinking first.

As I helped my brother up from the floor, he was still a little dazed, Mom was hysterical, and Dad was shouting something obscene.

Thus ended the first, and only boxing lesson.

I learned some basics about sparring that day (other than don’t box with Dad):

  • Sparring is a form of training, development or improved preparedness common in many combat sports. Participants generally engage in sparring for training, recreational or performance reasons.
  • The overall nature of sparring naturally varies with the nature of the skills it is intended to develop.
  • With any sparring, precautions of some sort must be taken to protect the participants.
  • The sparring coach must be skilled in drawing out today’s best possible performance, repeatedly, so it can be replicated on demand, while pushing to explore new/different/better.

My executive clients must win in the ring of ideas and influence, as well as the ring of products and services. Both can produce a beating. Our interactions are focused on better performance. This happens in a “protected” environment: they get to work on personal and professional improvement with honest, experienced and respectful feedback free from judgment. Perhaps this is why some of my clients have referred to me as “a sparring partner.”

I eventually learned how to throw a punch (and avoid one!), but not from Dad. Yet, I think Dad would be pleasantly surprised at how that Christmas boxing lesson turned out decades later.

Who’s your sparring partner?

In Other Words…

“Trust is knowing that when a team member does push you, they’re doing it because they care about the team.” — Patrick Lencioni

“Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.” ― Margaret Mead

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” ― Benjamin Franklin

“A lively discussion is usually helpful, because the hottest fire makes the hardest steel.” ― Tom Clancy, Debt of Honor

In The Word…

“Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” ― Proverbs 27:17