Why Fencers are Great Strategy Consultants

Fencers are great strategists both on and off the piste.

I just finished watching the gold-medal bout of men’s foil fencing having watched the bouts all afternoon. As I sat here in my London flat watching olympic fencing I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to my own life. After all I may not have been Team USA material, I did fence at Nationals and the Junior Olympics during my short fencing career.

What is interesting to me is how successful (American) fencers are which when I stopped to think about it made sense. The top fencing programs in the US are all at Ivy-league schools – not big state schools. Which means that in addition to being athletic, competitive fencers also have to be whip-smart. And when you think about it – while they may not be smarter than others, they end up being faster. This is because fencers spend all day outwitting an opponent who is traveling at 90 mph.

Fencers are able to take what just happened in an action, process it, and then respond immediately. The fencers at the top also respond correctly. They are able to take mistakes in stride and deal with failure and ambiguous situations. And they know how to understand and utilize the rules of a situation to their favor.

All of these skills are critical in a business function.  What is also interesting is how often you’ll find a few key books on a fencer’s reading list. The Art of War, The Book of 5 Rings, On War, and The Prince  – books that form the foundation of the business strategy literature. This is because coaches keep pushing fencers to think strategically about each action, each bout, each practice, each tournament, each season. And these books end up being seen on the same tables that sell extra blades or t-shirts at various tournaments.

Fencers also make good strategists because they know remain a student. At my first tournament my coach told me simply – “David, today you are cannon fodder; you will lose every bout and that is exactly why you are here.” He was wrong – I won my first bout due to dumb luck but lost everything else. But I didn’t quit, I didn’t give up, I was energized by it. I knew that I could be much better than I was but only if I admitted that I didn’t know anything. That mentality has stuck with me throughout the years and is a critical factor for success in business today.

I am excited to be at Deloitte where US Olympic fencer Gerek Meinhardt will be returning to after Rio. I am excited that the skills I learned through my years of fencing have value in the workplace.