Knock-Out Leadership

This big Mayweather-McGregor fight mirrored a dynamic playing out in corporate boardrooms every day.

During their highly-publicized fight, Floyd Merryweather, the ultimate technician and boxing superstar, went toe-to-toe with Conor McGregor, an explosive innovator who leveraged his skill in an array of fighting disciplines to hit above his weight class. Board directors and executive recruiters watching the bout could relate to the dynamic, as it plays out in corporate boardrooms every day. Selecting a CEO successor or filing other leadership roles often requires boards to consider candidates with disparate styles.

“Sometimes organizations need fresh talent with a different perspective to come in and shake things up,” said Signe Spencer, senior consultant at Korn Ferry. “Other times they need a safe pair of hands. Which will work depends on what the organization needs at that particular time.”

Just as bettors analyzed a variety of factors—from arm reach to speed to punches thrown per round—before deciding on whether to lay money on Mayweather or McGregor, boards also make informed bets on which style of leadership will best serve the organization’s needs. These corporate bets are based on factors such as financial performance, industry transformation, diversity and inclusion initiatives, and corporate agility, among others. And just like the fight’s Las Vegas line, organizations are increasingly willing to take a risk on a non-traditional candidate in return for the larger upside potential.

Mayweather initially opened as the overwhelming favorite. But McGregor’s odds steadily improved and ultimately settled near 3:1. Put another way, bettors first went with the safe, lower-risk choice. After all, Mayweather posted a 49-0 record during his career. But in the days leading up to Saturday night’s fight—which was expected to attract upwards of 50 million viewers in the United States alone—bettors have been laying money on McGregor, trading the higher risk of losing on the boxing neophyte with the potential that the long shot will pay off big.

In leadership terms, both Mayweather and McGregor possess high levels of the four dimensions identified by Korn Ferry. Their skills required for success, experiences, personality traits, and motivation are all off the charts. According to Kevin Cashman, a Korn Ferry senior client partner in its CEO & Executive Development practice, Mayweather is a “pillar,” or a critical thinker highly invested in his craft and focused on creating improvement rather than dramatic change. “Mayweather is a perfectionist. He’s methodical, analytical and technical. He gets results but he doesn’t necessarily move people. He’s more effective than affective,” Cashman said.

McGregor is just the opposite. He’s passionate, inspiring, engaging with people and team-oriented (McGregor’s inner circle is the same today as it was on his first day training to be a fighter). Cashman, a big boxing and MMA fan who was one of the estimated five million people to have paid the $99.95 to watch the fight, said McGregor fits more of the “pacesetter” or “innovator” leadership profile. “His presence and calmness in the midst of intense action is extraordinary,” Cashman said.

Corporate boards are increasingly facing the same choice as bettors on the fight. In Saturday’s fight, Merryweather—the “pillar”—defeated McGregor—the “innovator.” But with waves of disruption affecting industries worldwide, expect corporate boards to continue to seriously consider the corporate versions of McGregor, executives who can come into an organization and articulate a vision for dramatic change that people can get behind.