When I retired from teaching to become MnSOM’s first principal, I told all of you that I intended to do more professional and personal development in addition to recruiting, hiring, and training. If this organization is to grow to its potential, I first need to grow as a leader.

Feb. 1 is National Get Back Up Day. I love this concept because we all fall down in life. When we do, failure isn’t what defines us — it’s what we do afterward that really matters. On my journey to become a better principal, I recently learned this in a very visceral way.


Many of the development options for business leaders are repetitive. I’m no stranger to business conferences or marketing seminars — attending another one wouldn’t be outside of my comfort zone. I knew I needed to do something different.

I found an organization that fit the bill. They advertise as a boot camp for Christian men, and when I called, it was immediately apparent that their program wasn’t like any other. They wouldn’t answer many questions about what the program entailed, but they were obviously tough. As I spoke with them, I thought to myself, “This is going to be the biggest challenge of my life.”

In truth, I was hesitant to sign up. So often, we let fear stop us from doing something we know we ought to do. I knew I needed to overcome fear, and my faith finally guided me to enroll. When I got to Texas, I quickly found out that “the biggest challenge of my life” didn’t begin to cover what I was about to experience.

On the first day, we met an elite military special forces trainer named Sarge. He was very upfront that he didn’t care if we liked him, and he didn’t care about our feelings. What he did care about was making us better men. The other participants and I went through exercises that broke us down mentally, physically, and emotionally. It was an intense experience.

It was about to get even more so when, the next day, they blindfolded us and took us to a new location that turned out to be a boxing gym. Sarge asked all of us if we’d ever fought before and told us that either way, we would that day. They made us put on our gloves and, with very little time or preparation, get in the ring and box each other — for real.

I’m a bigger guy, so of course, they paired me up with another big guy. Only, this guy was significantly larger than me, a big-old southpaw. I’m not a fighter, and I didn’t want to do this. I was afraid. But that didn’t matter to the organization. Either I would knock this guy out, or he would knock me out.

Watching the first few rounds, I quickly realized this was serious business. So, when I got in the ring, I decided to play it safe and dance around to tire the other guy out. My opponent had other ideas, and he came out swinging. Before I knew what had happened, he punched me several times in the face. Fists were flying at me from left and right, and I barely knew which way was up.

At the end of the first round, my coach asked me what I was doing. I told him I was scared, and when he asked why, I answered truthfully, “I don’t like getting hit!” He asked me if I wanted to stick with that strategy, and at that moment, I decided I would fight back.

I went back in the ring, and about 15 seconds in, I threw a jab and then a cross. Both hit my opponent, and while he was reeling from the strikes, I hit him again in the ribs. That knocked him out, and as quickly as it had begun, the fight was over. I had won.

At some point in life, we all get punched in the face. It can be metaphorical or literal, but we all fail, and we feel humiliated in front of other people. Whether your punch in the face is a job loss, divorce, or cancer diagnosis, it makes sense that you want to run away.

But, as I quickly realized, running away doesn’t work. That southpaw is still there to punch you in the face, whether you like it or not. You can continue to run and get beaten up or face the challenge head-on and fight. Maybe you won’t always win, but you also won’t grow if you can’t overcome the fear enough to try.

When I walked out of the ring as a champion, I realized I was stronger than I thought. I also saw that if I’m going to lead an organization, I need to be able to take a hit for the sake of my team. I didn’t set out to fight anybody that day, but I’m a completely different person today because of it. I found something that I didn’t know was inside of me.

I won’t say that I’m not afraid of anything, but I am afraid of significantly less. And when the fear hits me, I know I need to get up and strike back.


–Eric Nehring