When it comes to giving feedback: Speed + Accuracy = Power.
I was recently giving my oldest son some beginner boxing lessons. Like I was at his age, he’s an early bloomer – taller, stronger, and all around bigger than most of his peers. So, just like I did at his age, he was leaning on his size and strength. He was pounding on the heavy bag with lots of admirable effort and grit, but it was all strength, bodyweight, and muscle. Using your fists like sledgehammers certainly delivers some hard impacts on target, especially if you’re likely to be a multiple larger than most opponents. But this strength can easily become a terrible weakness. Here's why and what I explained to my son.
I showed him a few clips of some of the best boxers of all time: Manny Pacquiao, Sugar Ray Leonard, Floyd Mayweather, and two of my personal favorites, Vasiliy Lomachenko and the MMA fighter Nate Diaz. I asked him to look at their physique and tell me what they had in common.
As he noticed, sure, they were all in great shape – very lean, and certainly had some muscle. However, none of them looked like bodybuilders or hulks. They were wiry and some of their arms were even kind of “skinny”. Their arms looked muscled because their body fat was so low, not because they were especially “jacked”. Like I told my son, if you saw one of these guys in a grocery store wearing a sweatshirt, you wouldn’t even guess he was a world champion fighter. (Which was also a lesson in being careful about scrapping with strangers!)
The reason was explained by the great former champ Sugar Ray Leonard. When it comes to knockout ability: Speed + Accuracy = Power. Raw muscle has very little to do with it.
Muscle helps you pick up heavy things and put them back down again. Nothing much more than that. However, as Sugar Ray said, if he had to choose an inherent advantage... speed comes first, then accuracy, and only then,“strength”. Delivering a blow faster than the other guy in exactly the right spot is what equals power and delivers knockouts – not bulging biceps.
There’s a lesson here for leaders. Like I discussed in There’s No Nice Way to Poke Someone in the Eye: Leading Conflict Principle 2, our job is to tell people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. It’s not realistic to expect them to like it. However, confrontation and feedback should be effective and always in the best interest of the other person, not our egos.
No, our job isn’t to deliver feedback “knockout blows”, but we can apply Sugar Ray’s insight here.
Speed: Feedback should be delivered as close to the actual behavior/incident as possible. Practice giving immediate feedback in the moment. Regular immediate feedback, even if delivered imperfectly, is nearly always better than putting it off – most of all because delay is usually just the first step to chickening out entirely. Make it swift, get it done, and repeat regularly as part of our disciplined leadership practice. This will ensure far more reps and practice in actually giving feedback. You get better by doing it, not by thinking about doing it.
Accuracy: Feedback on behavior and performance should be as specific as possible: day, place, time, and specific behavior in question. Broad statements about vague concerns, general comments about attitude and mindset are like slow and wild haymaker punches. Others see them coming a mile away and easily duck and avoid them. Aim big, miss big. Aim small, miss small. Great feedback will challenge others and make them uncomfortable – perhaps even upset. So, we should take full ownership for making sure our feedback is specific, actionable, and focused on a clear intended behavior change. It doesn’t have to feel good for the other person, but it does have to help them by making an impact. That kind of accuracy is our responsibility as leaders.
Power: Power is not about intimidating others. It’s not making people afraid to make mistakes around us because we might bite their head off. Power is when others know we have high expectations for them and ourselves – and we habitually and regularly engage in the practice of holding ourselves and others to account. That kind of real power is only generated by a disciplined practice of delivering timely and accurate feedback when and where it is need most – on-time and on-target.
For a little fun, check out Sugar Ray at 64, still delivering blistering speed and on-target accuracy. That’s what comes from a lifetime of disciplined practice.
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