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In the arena: Leaders who win

Athletics and politics are not the same as leadership, but there are lessons we can learn from stalwarts in both arenas.

4 min read




Not all leaders are adversaries, but all adversarial thinkers have the potential to be good leaders.

They not only think like competitors but also act as ones: expanding the arena of sports — with its atmosphere of combat and its use of physical contact — to include those professions where the blows are rhetorical rather than real, where the accusations stain but do not leave an ounce of dirt, where politicians fire verbal salvos, where lawyers marshal words to impeach or defend evidence.

Among the latter, the best leaders in and outside a courtroom are oftentimes the same people who fight on a mat — and go to the proverbial mat for their clients. Leaders who box, grapple, kick or throw have, based on my experience, the resolve to win.

What, then, is the connection between athletics and advocacy? More to the point, how can a full-contact sport make a person a better leader?

The answer is a matter of planning, of how a sport like jiu-jitsu requires mental acuity and physical agility. (Jiu-jitsu is one example of many in which every move has a countermove, in which strength is less important than strategy, in which points are won or lost in seconds — before they appear on a scoreboard — because of a competitor’s ability to out-think and outmaneuver his opponent.)

Take, for instance, Devin McRae: a trial lawyer and member of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. A silver medalist (Blue Belt, Master 3, Lightweight Division) at the World IBJJF Jiu-Jitsu No-Gi Championship, he won a bronze meda recently at the Pan Jiu-Jitsu IBJJF Championship in Irvine, Calif.

I cite Devin because I, too, have a law degree. I relate to his notion of a fighting lawyer, not because I practice law, but because I am not a working lawyer. He has a set of transferable skills that merge his avocation with his vocation, allowing him to see what his fellow attorneys may not notice or even know exists.

According to Wayne R. Cohen, a professor at The George Washington University School of Law and a partner at Cohen & Cohen, P.C.:

Leaders who are lawyers have a particular mindset. Also, a leader does not have to practice law to think like a lawyer. The training conditions you to look at a challenge from both a business perspective and legal one: to see opportunities others may overlook and nuances many may not notice. In that respect, a leader in the courtroom can be just as successful in the boardroom.

Consider, also, the legacy of the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. An advisor to four presidents and an author of 19 books, Moynihan was a man of thought and action.

A noncombat veteran of the Second World War, he was a strategist in the War on Poverty. An assistant secretary of labor in the Kennedy administration, he labored mightily — and publicly — against specific domestic policies in the Johnson administration. A Democrat, he was assistant to the president for domestic policy in the Nixon administration. He later served as US ambassador to India. He finished his service, in the Ford administration, as US ambassador to the UN. Then he served four terms in the Senate.

Moynihan was an athlete of the mind, though he had an athlete’s body. He was 6-foot-5, an inch taller than Abraham Lincoln, and was, in the words of Michael Barone, “the nation’s best thinker among politicians since Lincoln and its best politician among thinkers since Jefferson.”

As a thinker, he politicked against the Central Intelligence Agency. As a politician, he made his thoughts known: that the CIA was wrong, that the Cold War was over, that the CIA was useless. He fought to abolish the CIA. He waged war against the CIA. He issued columns against the CIA. He wrote books against the CIA. He never surrendered in his campaign to end the CIA.

To the extent that leadership in one domain can improve a person’s dominance in another, to the extent that excellence in athletics or academics can increase a person’s ability to excel in general, we should promote that union. We should encourage people to train like athletes and act like advocates. We should support people who fight fairly but nonetheless fight to win — as they should, as they must.


 Lewis Fein is a marketing and media relations advisor. He writes about several issues, including entrepreneurship, technology, education, law, finance, and health care. A graduate of The Emory University School of Law, Lewis resides in Southern California.

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