How Adaptive Leadership Saved a Heavyweight Negotiation

Creative Leadership Tactics Behind the Year’s Biggest Boxing Match

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Breaking down barriers using an adaptive leadership style to end bargaining impasse

Adaptive leadership skills at the bargaining table could help negotiators break through barriers at the bargaining table and end stalemates with negotiating counterparts.

You aren’t likely to hear experts advise you to throw a punch in a challenging negotiation, but a recent mega-boxing match shows how adaptive leadership can break the most difficult deadlocks and ensure that you get back in the ring.


If you aspire to be a great leader, not just a boss, start here: Download our FREE Special Report, Real Leaders Negotiate: Understanding the Difference between Leadership and Management, from Harvard Law School.


Breaking through impasse at the bargaining table – Pacquiao, Mayweather, and the negotiations for the fight of the century

Champion boxers Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao took years to negotiate their May 2, 2015 match in Las Vegas. For much of that time, it looked as though it would never come to pass. As far back as 2009, the two boxers sparred through the press, and comments made by Mayweather’s father about Pacquiao even led to a defamation lawsuit.

How did they finally end up in the ring? A bold move by a waiter and a television executive that broke the years-long impasse wide open.

The Background: Sports Negotiations Between Mayweather and Pacquiao

It may seem like a boxing match should be relatively easy to arrange, especially if the boxers dislike one another, but the terms of an agreement between Pacquiao and Mayweather remained elusive. In part, this is because a blockbuster boxing match actually is no small deal. Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake for the boxers, promoters, and agents, as well as the television networks who claim exclusive rights to air the fight.

As in any large negotiation, boxers often negotiate through an agent, but in this instance, Pacquiao promoter Bob Arum was part of the problem. A longtime fixture in the boxing world, Arum burned bridges by making inconsistent promises to rival television networks HBO and Showtime over the rights to air matches.

Arum’s client may have wanted to jump in the ring, but the stakeholders necessary for making it happen were not eager to have him as partner. As the years passed, fans grew more eager for a fight, but the boxers’ increasing age made the likelihood that it would happen less realistic by the day.

The Value of a Meal

As reported in the Los Angeles Times, Gabriel Salvador loves boxing. His son even takes lessons from Freddie Roach, who is Manny Pacquaio’s trainer. He also regularly waits on CBS/Showtime executive Leslie Moonves at a West Hollywood restaurant. Over time, the two have become friendly, often discussing their shared love for boxing. In a bold move last October, Salvador decided to take matters into his own hands, and end the impasse between Pacquiao and Mayweather. He approached Moonves and asked if he would meet with Roach, share a meal, and find a way to reach an agreement.

Moonves and Roach agreed, and discussed all of the barriers to an agreement. To get there, Moonves would have to set aside his quarrel with Arum, and the two boxers would have to settle disagreements about the purse. After a flurry of meetings, the two sides reached a negotiated agreement, and a creative one at that.

The most unlikely of duos, Salvador and Moonves stepped into the ring to overcome barriers in an agreement where all the stakeholders wanted a deal, but none of them knew how to get there.

Adaptive Leadership Skill #1. Step Outside of Your Comfort Zone— The odds that a waiter would have broken open a deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars were so slim, anyone taking bets on it five years ago would pay out a fortune today. Salvador saw it differently, recognizing that his unique friendships and shared passions could help both sides focus on the deal rather than the reasons why it wasn’t happening.

He took this approach with himself, too. Rather than looking at the reasons why he should not get involved, he recognized that the worst outcome—a simple “no”—was far outweighed by the potential value of an agreement.

5 Adaptive Leadership Skills for the Bargaining Table

Adaptive Leadership Skill #2. Improvise Opportunistically— Letting go of process can often create avenues for agreement and is an essential adaptive leadership skill. It is unlikely that Leslie Moonves ever imagined that an opening in such an acrimonious negotiation would happen by way of his waiter. Recognizing the potential value of Salvador’s overture required a willingness to improvise, see the value of a conversation, and take uncustomary steps to reach an agreement.

Adaptive Leadership Skill #3. Set Aside Past Differences— Feelings of betrayal are difficult to set aside. There was good reason to believe that Moonves’ distrust of Arum would scuttle the deal. Instead, he agreed to meet the promoter and talk through their differences. Sure enough, two hours later, an agreement was in sight.

Adaptive Leadership Skill #4. No Is Not An Answer— Over their meal, Moonves and Roach discussed every reason why the fight hadn’t happened. Then they decided that they simply would not allow any one of those reasons to hold up a fight any further. Sometimes it is necessary to consider the importance of not reaching a deal. Often, though, removing failure as an option can be a valuable adaptive leadership tactic, calling on all parties to work collaboratively toward an agreement.

Adaptive Leadership Skill #5. Consider Creative OptionsThe question of whether HBO or Showtime would have the right to show the fight was the largest impasse to an agreement. Promises to both networks made a deal unlikely. Despite their longstanding rivalry, Moonves understood how much everyone would lose if they didn’t get there. Thinking creatively, he crafted a first-of-its-kind deal. Both networks would screen the fight and split the profits.

Related Leadership Skills Article: The Opposite of Autocratic Leadership


If you aspire to be a great leader, not just a boss, start here: Download our FREE Special Report, Real Leaders Negotiate: Understanding the Difference between Leadership and Management, from Harvard Law School.


Originally published in 2015.

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