In the Ring

Babatunde Mumuni
3 min readJan 30, 2024

Embracing the messy side of “talent development”.

Hat tip to Seth Godin for inspiring this train of thought.

Photo by Wade Austin Ellis on Unsplash

While sparring can get really intense, it is just a simulation of a real fight. There is movement, and blows are exchanged but the intention is never to hurt the partner. Instead, the focus is on making them better through the deliberate practice of specific skills and motions that somewhat mirror in-fight situations.

This is a markedly different form of development from coaching, which usually involves passing out detailed instructions about what to do in a given scenario. Coaching, done right, shows a clear mental picture and then one hopes that the person being coached understands and can execute the desired actions when required.

There is yet a third, and perhaps the most popular, form, which is mentoring. This is usually relationship-based. The often older, more experienced person acts as a trusted adviser and guide to the younger mentee, helping them to navigate their lives/careers.

All of these approaches have their place. And as with all things, they are most effective when applied in the right context. We tend to go wrong when we expect silver bullets. I typically come across mentoring and coaching more often in professional settings than sparring. Perhaps for obvious reasons.

However, I am very curious. What could this look like in reality? How could you as a leader create simulations that allow your team to build skills with lessened risk? How can we structure work such that it gives room for practicing “form” and “range of motion”? How could you move past the safe, sanitized role of the mentor-coach and get all sweaty with your people?

The analogy is imperfect, I know. However, the potential upsides are appealing.

The clearest answer to the questions above is delegation. I have no intention of reinventing the wheel here, but I will make one point — delegating tasks without delegating authority isn’t quite the point. One makes machines, the other grooms leaders.

Beyond that, there are a few things that can bring the sparring concept alive.

1. There needs to be subscription. No matter how much I want to improve as a boxer, I won’t stand getting punched in the face the moment I walk into the gym. Both parties must agree to have this kind of relationship.

2. It needs to be very clear and very specific. “This is the particular skill we are trying to build”. If you want to get better at presentations, I will work with you for 2 hours every week. You will share mock presentations and I will give feedback until you get better.

3. You need to accept that it will be just as tasking for both parties. Sparring is physical and emotional labor (possibly why it is not so popular). You don’t get to sit in the hallowed spaces of the mentor-coach. You will sweat and might even bleed.

The kind of time and emotional commitment from leaders and teammates to become sparring partners is a challenging one to make. However, I am convinced that given the ever-increasing complexity of problems that need to be solved in the world of work today, the demand will continue to grow for leaders who have no qualms about getting into the trenches.

The one con might be that this would be a difficult method to scale. However, if done right, it has the potential to become viral. Leaders should not only spar with their teams, but they should also encourage their team members to spar with each other. This way, “skill” can diffuse faster across the organism (sorry, organization).

Just a thought.



Babatunde Mumuni

I think and write here about life as one continuous experience, not fragments stitched together. I believe that we should partake of this with our whole selves.