Leading like McGregor – The Power of Communicating with Notoriety
Conor ‘The Notorious’ McGregor is a hell of a guy; that’s one thing that I have to admit. Along with millions of people around the world I tuned in on Saturday night, or actually the early hours of Sunday morning given that I’m in Spain, to watch a guy take on one of the world’s best ever boxers despite the fact that he’d never boxed professionally. By all regards the match was set to be a sham and yet still record numbers of people across the planet handed over their hard earned cash to watch what was being billed by many, myself included, as a non-event. I’m not a Mayweather fan, but McGregor got under my skin in the build up to this fight and I backed the less popular horse.
I’m a boxing fan through and through. Martial arts, in the common understanding of the term as boxing itself is actually an art, has never done it for me but I wouldn’t disregard the efforts and passions of others and I felt that’s what McGregor did. I boxed myself up until three years ago, not professionally, and prior to that I had dabbled in various martial arts. Taijutsu, Shotokan karate, Aikido and even kick-boxing all came and went over the years without much appeal. While I learnt some nice moves they felt too theoretical and while practicing a kata in Shotokan karate I remember thinking this is all well and good against an imaginary opponent but what happens when someone is actually throwing a fist at your face and really trying to hurt you. The moment I stepped in a boxing ring everything was different; the training itself closer to a real fight than anything I’d experienced previously. Whether competing on fight night or simply improving in the gym there is no shying away from the actuality of the situation; no-one is coming to save you and you have to work hard, develop your skills and back yourself to stay out of trouble.
I trained in various clubs across Northern Ireland over the years and what happens in a boxing club is far more commendable than the sport and its coaches are given credit for. I once remember a senior executive telling me the sport was “barbaric” as I explained the reason for my burst eardrum; the idea of two people doing battle with their fists being seen as anything but noble. What he hadn’t seen was the community spirit, the genuine care, the support, the focus and the leadership on display in these “brutal places”.
At City of Belfast Boxing Academy our head coach used to insist we would take lessons in things like ‘health & nutrition’, ‘drugs & alcohol awareness’ if we wanted to train. The club was open to all sides of the community and a word against the beliefs of anyone from another culture would land you in trouble. We were encouraged to think open-mindedly, to embrace each other’s differences and our most successful boxer was female. Our coach went to great lengths to help her get to the level she did; training in the mornings from 6am and again in the evening. He couldn’t have been more proud when she won the senior elite all-Ireland championships and neither could the rest of us. In the boardroom women are still struggling for the level of equality I saw in that ring.
I’ve seen so many people work so hard and make such great sacrifices to achieve their goals in boxing. I’ve seen the sport bring kids off the street and give them a sense of purpose and belonging. I’ve seen people learn to respect their power, control it and behave sensibly. When McGregor used the very nature of the sport of boxing as his weapon to ruffle Mayweather and try to gain a psychological advantage he insulted all those who have given selflessly to develop the sport and help people. The sport of boxing has done so much for so many and is not without fault, but on Saturday night I was pleased for its sake to see an old Floyd Mayweather show a larger, heavier and prime Conor McGregor that it wasn’t so easy to “take over boxing.”
In fairness to McGregor, and this was very pleasing to see, he was humble in defeat. No excuses about the limited fighting style mentioned beforehand and a tribute to his foe whose career inside the ring has been exemplary. “I trained my f*cking ass off for this” being a nice touch to finally admit publicly to the sports level of difficulty.
I actually enjoyed listening to McGregor in the post-fight press conference. No-nonsense, straight to the point, honest and with a degree of humility. Finally I started to see why so many have taken to him. I haven’t ever seen so many posts on LinkedIn, a professional network, talking about a sport or a sportsman/ celebrity; and indeed so few of the usual protestations that the posts aren’t “relevant for professional networking”. It got me thinking about how McGregor manages to connect with and cajole such a die-hard following. There was no evidence for Saturday’s fight to suggest McGregor could do anything in a boxing ring. Nothing but McGregor’s word could suggest he stood a chance of victory. Yet still millions followed him into battle blindly, utterly convinced victory was a certainty. What convinced so many people was by and large McGregor’s authenticity; people could relate to him and therefore they were desperate for him to win.
A lot of what we do, we do without thinking. When we do something well oftentimes we do it through ‘unconscious competence’ and if someone asked us to explain it we suddenly struggle to put it into words because we’ve never really thought about it as a strategy. Whether McGregor makes the conscious effort or whether it’s just subconsciously ingrained in him, he has a habit of communicating with accessibility. Conor McGregor is a ‘real’ person with a past many people can relate to and they love to see him revel in his notoriety. But the same can be said of Floyd Mayweather – a man who grew up in Grand Rapids Michigan, a city with an estimated 22% illiteracy in 2013; something McGregor was keen to play on with jibes of “you can’t even read” to everyone’s amusement at the fight’s press conference. Where was the empathy? This is a man who was held in front of a gun as a human shield by his father when just a baby. A kid who felt no love but became a self-made billionaire. The record holder for a career undefeated. A man with defensive boxing skills the like we’ve arguably never seen. Why does he not garner the same level of adulation?
“I don’t remember him ever taking me anywhere or doing anything that a father would do with a son, going to the park or to the movies or to get ice cream. I always thought that he liked his daughter better than he liked me because she never got whippings and I got whippings all the time.”
Floyd Mayweather on his upbringing
Those who read my articles know that I’m a big fan of NLP, Neurolinguistic Programming, and a big part of NLP is about understanding successful peoples’ strategy. ‘What’s the difference that makes the difference’ and what could we do differently to improve our own performance? It’s called modelling and forms the very basis of all NLP. It therefore comes as no surprise that I’ve been thinking lately, what is it that McGregor does that allows him to lead people so fervently?
Floyd Mayweather restyled his personal brand at the mid-point of his career and became known as ‘Money’. The moment this happened he started to distance himself from the real world. People struggle to connect with and relate to Floyd Mayweather because he lives a life we can’t understand. He rubs peoples’ noses in it with videos of private jets, luxury sports cars, multi-million dollar bet slips and beds full of money.
Floyd is a superstar, but it’s easy to see why people would rather back Conor; a man with more publicly apparent ethics and modesty. Don’t get me wrong, in the post-fight press conference McGregor talked about his plan to walk to the ring in a fur coat that would have made Ric Flair proud; but the fact is he didn’t and instead chose to make the walk in for the biggest fight of his career in the colours of his country.
Conor has money too and lots of it. But he brings his fans with him on the journey. He remains very familiar with his roots and the journey that has brought him from the dole queue to life-long self-sufficiency.
Conor enjoys his money, and he wants his fans to see that he’s enjoying it too; why shouldn’t he? After all what’s the point of all the hard work if you don’t take a little time to enjoy the fruits of your labour. But he wants to help educate them that if they work hard they can have what he has too because he didn’t come from anywhere different than they do.
In communication skills training we talk about rapport building through Matching and Pacing with your audience before attempting to Lead them where you want them to go. McGregor standing in Mayweather’s backyard commanding vociferous support from Floyd’s own countrymen is a great example of a guy who has Matched and Paced with his audience by publicly showing them he’s no different than them, then Led them to believe in and back him to win through his utter conviction in communicating his vision. At one point I looked at a poll on Sky Sports days before the fight showing almost twice as many predicting he could actually get the knock out as the boxer could. Remember that just a few months earlier when the fight was being announced no-one gave McGregor a chance and now he was the favourite for a KO win!
Ultimately McGregor proved to be no match for Mayweather in what is very much Floyd’s arena. Mayweather was the one with the most punch power, the ring craft, the one to benefit from the lighter gloves and when it came down to it the one capable of being the bully in the boxing ring. The shrewd Mayweather knew this to be the case so much so as to attempt to bet $400,000 on himself winning and come in with a game-plan of simply allowing McGregor to punch himself out for a few rounds then end it; a tactic we’ve never seen from his famed safety first mentality. But none of this is a discredit to Conor who had the courage to compete in an unfamiliar fighting form. Floyd was being coached by his father from he could first stand up. It’s actually testament to McGregor’s communication style and ability to lead that this was always the likely outcome to anyone who wanted to look at the evidence and logic yet he was able to command the unwavering support and belief of the vast number of followers that he did.
So what can we learn from McGregor and how can this be applied in the business world? Here are a few of my thoughts but I’m interested to hear yours too.
Be authentic and be human – if we want people to follow us into battle we need to be accessible to them. We detach ourselves from our workforces the moment we become supervisors or managers because we need to performance manage and discipline them, but it’s that personal connection that enables us to lead. People work for people, not companies. Wouldn’t it be better if people supported our missions because they believed in us and wanted to rather than because we forced them to? Show your human side, show some personality and be real.
Match, Pace, Lead – who is working for you or with you? What is their experience of the company and the work they do and their career as a whole? How do you relate to them? How can you relate to them? The more you take the time to understand your people, the more you can demonstrate your understanding and empathy without patronising, the more you support and help them out the more likely they will be to follow your lead and help you too.
Have the courage to challenge – McGregor said in the post-fight presser that champions take risks. Ironically ‘Courage to Challenge’ is one of the CIPD’s 8 behaviours of professional competence. A leader is not someone who maintains broken systems or unethical processes, they question in an appropriate fashion, they critique constructively, they seek ways to make improvements to themselves and their businesses and they take calculated risks. If we always do what we’ve always done, we’ll always get what we’ve always got.
Believe in your Vision and communicate it as such – if you don’t believe in your Vision then why would anybody else? Know what you’re doing, know why you’re doing it and shout that message from the rooftops! It’s your responsibility to energise the troops.
Don’t fear defeat – There’s no such thing as failure there’s only feedback. Conor didn’t lose on Saturday night. He gained millions of followers throughout this process and hundreds of millions of Pounds (or Dollars or Euros or whatever he gets paid in!) both from the pay-cheque for this fight and the increased pay-cheques he will now earn from others. He knew this from when he first agreed to the contest. The experience will also have improved his boxing which will add another weapon to his arsenal when he returns to MMA.
Believe in yourself, work hard and commit to what you want to achieve – do this and your career will mean much more to you than any pay-cheque. Do this and you too will garner support.
- What do you make of McGregor, his communication style and leadership qualities? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
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