Column: Courage, survival and success in the boxing ring

Joel Jones
The Daily Times

Given my current situation – recovering from the surgical removal of a malignant brain tumor, with chemo and radiation to come – this essay is a revisitation of one from several years ago: courage and survival in the boxing ring. After the surgery, during the several days in Intensive Care, the metaphor that kept running through my mind was that of being pummeled, but using the ropes wisely, knowing that I had the will and strength to come off and out swinging (shades of boxing in college 60 years ago?). So, read on, friends, I intend to be back full-force soon.

“Socrates taught the importance of living an examined life, and at Duke I was able not only to examine my life but also, by reading deeply, see all of the rich possibilities that life offered.”

Had I read the book from which this quote comes, before writing last month’s column on the “Leader as Reader” and the importance of “deep reading,” obviously I would have used it. However, this very recently published memoir just landed on my desk two weeks ago. The author, a decorated Navy Seal and a nationally recognized humanitarian, is someone familiar to any residents of the Four Corners region who heard him give the keynote address a year and a half ago at the Four Corners Conference on Professional Development held on the San Juan College campus. Having been asked to offer two workshops on leadership at that conference, I was among those fortunate ones who heard Eric Greitens. He and his speech were exceedingly impressive. After reading his new book, "The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, The Making of a Navy Seal" (2011), my response was simple: “This is who I want to be when I grow up.” Only one major problem: Eric is nearly 40 years younger than I – and even in my physical prime 50 years ago, I could never have passed the swimming tests required for being a Navy Seal. Seriously, though, when one sees the emerging wisdom in this young man during his first four decades of life – the blending of intelligence, integrity, and intuition, with compassion, competency and courage, conjoined with honor, humor, and humility, all tested and tempered in the crucible of experience – one simply feels the making of a truly outstanding leader.

Intriguingly, the book on leadership I pulled from the shelf when Greitens’ book arrived was Gus Lee’s "Courage: The Backbone of Leadership" published five years ago. I wanted to look at Lee’s book again – an engaging and very personal text in its own right – simply because of the shared focus in both books on courage as a critical means and measure of leadership. Surprisingly, what I had forgotten about Lee’s book, and what surfaced quickly in reading Greitens, was their shared emphasis on the importance of boxing in their respective lives and leadership careers. Hence, the presence of boxing in the title of this column.

Trying to describe in depth and detail the significance to both men of the words and actions of their respective boxing coaches in the formative years of their lives would take much more time and space than we have here (and correlatively would draw me into a discussion of the role boxing played in my younger years). Though both men have impressive academic backgrounds – Greitens at Duke and Oxford University, Lee at West Point and UC Davis – it was fascinating to see their boxing coaches emerge as more important mentors and models than most of their professors. Since courage is a shared focus of both books, the importance of boxing and their boxing coaches may not be surprising, since if someone plans to step through the ropes and into the ring, he or she must find and manifest the courage within.

For both men, also, that learned courage in the ring carried them through tests and trials of body and soul in a variety of venues. It would be best here simply to share their own words. Greitens, in a chapter entitled “Boxing,” says the following about his trainer, Earl: “It would be wrong to say that Earl taught life lessons along with boxing, because for Earl there was no distinction to be made between life and boxing. Every action was invested with significance. How we hung the heavy bag, God’s mercy, the way a man should wrap his hands, the virtue of humility, the proper way to lace gloves, being on time, the way a teacher should love his students, the proper way to care for your equipment – these were all part of one solid and unbroken piece.” And, as we follow Eric Greitens through his connections with and commitments to humanitarian efforts in China, Bosnia, Rwanda, Bolivia, and his military exploits and challenges in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Southeast Asia, remembrances of early boxing lessons and training regimens continually resurface.

With Gus Lee, the linkage between his early boxing lessons and his later-in-life work with Fortune 500 executives is made quite explicit: “Courage is a stunning quality; it is learnable ... . Coach Tony knew that training and practice reverse the habits of fear ... . A boxing ring can symbolize for us the ability to overcome fear and to learn courage. Today’s fast-paced corporate ropes are our learning labs ... . Instead of facing right crosses, left hooks, kidney punches and jabs out of a clinch, we face people who withhold, cut corners, gossip, feud, exaggerate, blame others, steal credit, and spread angry criticism, stress, and dismay.”

Sadly, this preceding paragraph describes too many work environments today, with those negative tendencies being even further escalated by shrinking budgets and diminishing resources. It takes courage and compassion to live and work in such an environment in a way both moral and meaningful, ethical and spiritual. Both Greitens and Lee discuss the need for and role of compassion, empathy, and respect (in addition to courage) in our contemporary leadership world – and we will focus on that in next month’s column.

To end, I would have the reader return to the opening quote from Greitens – and end we must for this month, since the word count, our referee in this ring, says we’re out of space and time (which, for some, is what boxing is all about). Finally, the truly “deep reading” which I suspect both Greitens and Lee would have us do, is not simply in the book at hand, but rather in that mind and soul we call the “self.”

Dr. Joel Jones is president emeritus of Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo. He can be reached at