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Competence Beats Confidence

Updated: Feb 18, 2019

Image by Matheus-Ferrero @

Marvin was the best street fighter I’ve ever seen. The crazy thing is, you would never pick him out of a crowd as the top slugger.

In fact, time and again, I watched bullies target him for harassment or a beating. It never ended well for the bully.

Marvin was not very tall at about 5’8”. His weight was average. He usually sported a small paunchy beer belly, but he wasn’t heavy. He wasn’t muscular either. To top it off, he was cross-eyed and usually wore bottle-thick corrective glasses. When he was excited or nervous, he also tended to lisp and spit a little when he talked.

If you were a human predator, this is precisely the guy you would target as the weakest of the herd.

Marvin and I attended the same private military college. Our corps of cadets was organized into companies: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, and so on. We belonged to Charlie Company. Every company had a mascot. There were the Alpha Alligators, the Delta Dogs, etc. Our mascot was the Grim Reaper, or as we called him, Charlie Reaper. We did our best to live up to our dark and fearsome avatar.

There were lots of tough people at our school. There were many big Irish Catholic brawlers from the streets of Boston, rednecks from the backwoods of Maine, and French Canadian hockey players known for a special kind of jovial cruelty.

There were combat-ready women who would give Chuck Norris nightmares. There were sports heroes and future special operators practicing fourteen ways to kill you with a spoon, but Marvin was the undisputed fisticuffs master.

In those days at our fine institution, your company was your family. Think of it like a fraternity, but with much more brutal hazing and populated entirely by trained soldiers. Rivalry between companies was intense and often violent. It was kind of like Hogwarts with combat boots and lots of whiskey. Good times, if that’s your thing.

People in our company sometimes teased Marvin, but he was our brother and my friend. And if there was one rule above all others, it was that you defended your brothers and sisters from any threat and at any cost.

Like the neighborhood I grew up in, my brothers could tease me, but justice would swiftly descend on anyone else who did so.

Early in our not-so-scholarly careers, a bunch of us from Charlie company were at a party. It was getting late and like most parties back then, things often took a turn for the ugly and violent at that point. We were preparing to leave.

A big guy in the crowd from another company starting mocking Marvin. It was easy to do and didn’t take a lot of creativity. A drunken moron could, and frequently did, mock his looks and the way he talked.

Marvin tried to ignore the guy and brushed him off a few times. The beer-soaked idiot got more aggressive and started moving toward Marvin. Several of us stepped between them, figuring Marvin was going to need defending on a regular basis. Marvin put a hand on one of our shoulders, took a few steps forward and calmly said, “It’s okay guys.” At just that moment, the other guy took a swing.

Marvin neatly ducked that punch. We then watched in shock as Marvin proceeded to utterly dismantle the dude.

It wasn’t even really a fight. It was more like a controlled demolition.

The other guy seemed to be in slow motion, while Marvin was a blur of street-boxing precision. In less than a minute, a guy twice his size was on the ground with one hand up begging for mercy.

Marvin granted the mercy. He didn’t gloat or posture. He wasn’t even breathing hard. He just turned to us and said, “Alright, let’s get out of here.” We stood frozen, mouths agape in astonishment as he walked out the door like an action hero.

Word spread fast. Very few people picked fights with Marvin after that and he never started one. Many times, when someone started to tease him, someone else would quickly intervene with a subtle warning not to push things too far.

Two years later, a tall, lanky, and well-muscled guy that looked exactly like Michael Spinks in his prime decided to knowingly test Marvin on the central parade ground. Even though the guy was a kind of a jerk, I repeatedly warned him to walk away. He didn’t listen. More than a hundred cadets watched-on as Marvin took him to school like Tyson.

There are some people you just don’t fight. Marvin was one of them.

What does all of this have to do with leading conflict? Well, a few things…

1. If you see a short cross-eyed guy with thick glasses at a bar or a hockey game, it might be Marvin. Don’t fight him.

2. It doesn’t matter how confident you are, it’s competence that matters. I learned this from the great boxing coach and former heavyweight fighter, Martin Snow, owner of the superb and utterly insane Trinity Boxing Club in Manhattan. Lots of confident guys challenged Marvin. They quickly found out how much actual competence they lacked. The reality was, it made complete sense that Marvin was a skilled fighter. He had been teased from the moment he was born. Instead of running and hiding his whole life, he decided to work hard to learn how to defend himself. When other kids were out partying and dating, Marvin was sweating it out in the gym and learning how to fight. He was also an accomplished wrestler. Most guys just want to look tough, not be tough. They workout so they sport big biceps and pecs. Marvin purposely and patiently taught himself how to fight, not just look like he knew how to fight. In the workplace, many leaders simply like what comes with being in charge: the desk, office, title, and other trappings. However, you cannot fake actual skill when leading conflict. The development of expertise requires that you put in the time, train your weaknesses deliberately, and seek quality instruction. But most of all, you must believe that competence in leading conflict is something you can learn. Confidence is cheap. Competence is earned.

3. Have a strong moral code. Use your skills for good, not evil. Marvin frequently walked away from a fight or “backed down”, but always because he wanted to and not because he had to. There were indeed times when he chose to fight instead of running away. But I think he understood that sometimes, that a well-timed display of prowess tended to prevent many future conflicts. This only worked because Marvin never used his skills to puff himself up or humiliate others. Marvin was a good person who never took joy in hurting other people, even if it was occasionally necessary. He also defended others when needed. Lesser men would have abused a skill set like his. The skills we discuss on this blog will only be useful in the long run if you truly have the best interests of others at heart. Think about how you can lead conflict effectively, not only to help yourself, but your team and especially those who irk you the most.

4. You must practice regularly and in real-life situations. Life presented Marvin with plenty of opportunities to practice his skill set, whether he wanted to or not. Out of necessity, he tested everything he learned in real-life situations. There was no pretending. If something didn’t work in a real self-defense situation, he discarded it. When learning how to fight at work, reading about the neuroscience of conflict is fascinating. Attending trainings on mindfulness and conflict resolution can be a wonderful experience. But when a co-worker barges into your office and starts screaming obscenities in your face, will you know what to do? If you know what to do, will you actually be able to do it? Identify what really works for you in your particular setting. Take what you learned from that book you read, that retreat you attended, or what you learned here, and use it. Practice. Discard what doesn’t work. Practice some more. Repeat.

Though his fights were memorable as technical spectacles, Marvin actually got in far fewer scrapes than many others over those four years. He had the calmness of one who knows he is truly competent. He also had the satisfaction of knowing how hard he worked to acquire those skills. He never had his hand raised in a boxing ring, but he was accomplished nonetheless.

Similarly, you are not likely to receive an official commendation or public recognition for your ability to handle tough interpersonal situations. However, when you put in the time to develop battle-tested expertise in leading conflict, you will find the inner peace that comes from accepting that you cannot control the world, but you can be ready for it.

Check out the Leading Conflict store for practical and hard-hitting resources that will help you put these ideas into action.

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