Why Big Tech execs are swapping the boardroom for the dojo.


Mark Zuckerberg, Dana White and Dan Shulman.
Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images and Stephanie Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

  • Tech executives including Mark Zuckerberg and PayPal’s Dan Schulman have taken up the martial art.
  • Fighting techniques reflect the speed and strength of the tech industry, says one former executive.
  • Here are key transferable skills to draw from some of the industry’s biggest names.

Mark Zuckerberg is one of the Big Tech leaders who has turned his boardroom into a dojo as the tech elite continue to search for ways to improve their efficiency while trying to crack the code of immortal life.

The Metta CEO seems to have taken a particular liking to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, winning gold and silver medals at his recent debut tournament in Redwood City, California. The report claims Zuckerberg was choked during the same fight – but that claim has been vehemently denied by the Facebook co-founder and his coach.

Appearing on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, Zuckerberg said he began his martial arts journey in search of a sport that would develop his focus and body.

“What is something that is so overwhelming, both physically and intellectually, that you can’t afford to focus on anything else?” he said.

“To some extent, MMA is perfect because if you stop paying attention for one second, you’re down.”

Martial arts glass is a technologically dynamic, high-pressure industry

Martial arts seem to have such an appeal to tech workers because they reflect the speed and intensity of the tech industry, according to leadership coach and former tech executive Joris Marks-Benjaminsen, a Japanese martial art with black belts in judo and aikido.

An article in Forbes highlights “adaptability” and “context switching,” which it says is the ability to quickly change mindsets and refocus priorities as key skills for tech executives.

“Everywhere there is speed, ambiguity and pressure, and then somehow you need to do the right thing and invest in something that will pay off in the long term,” said Merks-Benjaminsen.

Danny Zelig trains PayPal CEO Dan Shulman in Krav Maga, which was developed by the Israeli military.

Zelig told Insider that he has coached other senior CEOs and technology executives looking to build skills like problem solving and managing their responses in fast-moving environments.

“Part of our training is to rewire our brains to give us time to make better decisions,” he said. “For someone like Dan in this constant pressure and dynamic environment, it’s about how you can look at the eye of the storm and respond appropriately.”

Zelig added that Krav Maga helped develop self-awareness, which is important when making decisions, especially under stress.

The philosophy of Krav Maga is based on self-confidence and shifting your thinking from awareness to awareness, he says.

Zelig often expected Shulman to hit him during meeting sessions, allowing Zelig to dominate the fight. In his training, Shulman said he tried to reverse this thought process by first teaching him to take action and take control of the situation.

They develop mental toughness – a key skill in big business

Zelig added that he likes to expose the CEOs he coaches to “no-win” situations, hoping to teach them some lessons on how to deal with failure.

“What happens in our minds when we do everything right, but we still fail? It’s a wonderful platform for self-development and performance,” he said.

Joanna Pineda, CEO of Matrix Group International, says practicing the Korean martial arts of Taekwondo and Hapkido for more than a decade has helped her develop “mental strength.”

She said she initially took up the sport because she felt out of shape, but quickly became hooked on the feeling of success. “What’s important to me is the discipline, the training, the mindset, less the ability to get beautiful strokes and shapes.”

She said the training helped her focus on the present and develop her distance from her work in her “own version of thinking.”

Bob Rosin, a partner at Venture Capital Defy, has trained in Aikido for over 15 years.

He said he was “invaluable” in business-development roles at LinkedIn, Microsoft and Skype, helping to negotiate complex partnerships. He was head of partnerships at financial-services startup Stripe.

Rosin says the classes have helped him clear his mind and free his body: “I always leave energized and ready to take on any new challenge.”


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