Yesterday I watched the movie “The Fighter”. A 2010 boxing film nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.
You may be wondering why I would write about boxing as a metaphor for group leadership and collaboration, particularly since boxing could be considered the quintessential sport of the individual. Continue reading and you’ll see.
In “the Fighter”, Micky Ward played by Mark Wahlberg is the younger brother of boxer of Dicky Eklund, played by Christian Bale.
As you probably remember from the film, the group-family dynamic revolves around the relationships between the mother Alice Eklund-Ward, her seven daughters and her two sons, Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund. The family group is plagued with defeatism, choosing favorites, poverty, drug addiction and small town pressures. The mother, acting as Micky’s boxing manager, favors her oldest son Dicky whose career has ended. Micky Ward’s career is on its last leg, fighting in his early 30’s, wanting to succeed but not knowing how and relying on his family for support.
The family dynamic plays itself out early in the film. Dickey and Alice conspire (a pattern that feels historical) to convince Micky to fight an opponent 20-lbs heavier because the family needs the money. Needless to say, he loses the fight and is pretty beaten up. His hometown reputation as a stepping-stone-fighter persists and his familial role as the young unappreciated scapegoat perpetuates.
All groups fall into these relational dynamics where people take on certain relational roles that solidify and do not allow them to adapt to the realities of life and be successful together. In the movie, it is no different.
The family group is faced with a dilemma. Micky is still young and a talented boxer, but the family maintains it hierarchy where Dicky is the family favorite. How does the group help Micky be successful in his goal to become a boxing champion, when Dicky remains in this role and the family continue using Micky without regard to his welfare?
All groups must work through their relational dynamics and resolve dilemmas faced. In this way the group must accommodate to reality and allow differing roles to emerge between them so they can actively accommodate to the challenges and realities they face.
The movie comes to a head when Dicky recently released from prison, returns to the gym to train Micky. Charlene, Micky’s strong “take no prisoner” girlfriend expresses her disagreement to letting Dicky coach, and abruptly leaves the scene.
Here is where the group begins to work-out their dilemma and real change begins to emerge.
Dicky walks to Charlene’s house to ask for her support. Charlene tells Dicky how much she hates him and how Dicky is clearly a bad influence given his years of addiction and complete lack of accountability to Micky. Dicky rather than getting defensive makes it clear he is willing to change and help Micky succeed.
It’s the perfect exchange, an amazing moment of entering collaboration. They don’t necessarily like each other more, but through their affiliation, by their love for Mickey and to his success and their shared membership in a family, they are able to move toward greater levels of relatedness and therefore collaboration.
Charlene’s dislike for Dicky takes a back seat to her love for Micky and their shared desire to see him succeed. She remains steadfast to Micky by letting go of being right and demonstrates her willingness and openness to accept Dicky’s decision to change.
What binds them is their interest in a shared task – to support Micky to win. They don’t have to like each other more, or be best of friends, they simply have to find a way to collaborate. After some back and forth they agree to work-together to help Micky win.
Enrique Pichon-Rivière the group theorist whose theories I apply in my Strategic Alliance’s book ‘Enabling Collaboration’ would agree that there was a fundamental shift here. One centered on the group going through a change process where Dicky chooses a different path, lets go of past group identity and finding new way to support his younger brother by no longer having to be the center of attention.
From a group perspective, this change process opens the capability of the family to work together in a different way. Change always supersedes collaboration and real emotive-communication is the gateway.
When communication is clear, direct and authentic, albeit at times crude, it creates a possibility for change. Through such authentic communication, the group, working as a system of relationship (Diky, Charlene, Micky & Alice), is able to modify itself according to the challenges that reality places on them to be successful. Fragmented, no-one wins, but together where their capabilities are used fully they can all succeed.
The movie ends with the group supporting Micky to win the next two fights and come away with a 7-figure payout.
In “The Fighter” like in all other sports, there are group dynamics that contribute to an individual’s accomplishments and as a result group success as well.
It is no different in developing business partnerships and alliances, there is always a process taking place underneath in the system of human relating. A process of relatedness and group collaborative leadership, where a group of people that work together toward a common set of shared objectives and goals find ways, from a purely relational point of view, to make it happen. Communicating what they think, learning together what will work and accommodating through a change process to arrive at a self-correcting and self-generating strategic alliance and partnership.
In my book, Enabling Collaboration (www.enablingcollaboration.com) I share methods and practices for the “partnership journey”, in fact half the book is dedicated to this essential part of Collaborative Leadership, critical for “Achieving Success in Strategic Alliances and Partnerships”. The other half focuses on a business process employed for optimal outcomes. Some essential take-away to keep in mind:
• Alliances are all about collaboration and collaboration always includes groups, therefore group relatedness is equally important to the business process and terms being negotiated.
• Appoint a group facilitator to help the team traverse the difficulties of what happens when people come together to create an alliance.
• Develop group meeting practices that help to build the groups cohesion.
• Build the reason for partnering, the productive relational dynamics before you negotiate the deal.