Organizational Change: Leadership Lessons from Rocky Balboa (Part 1)

In the popular 1982 movie, Rocky III, the aggressive challenger to Rocky Balboa’s championship title, Clubber Lang, is asked to give a prediction of the outcome to the upcoming fight. His simple response: “pain!” Unfortunately, it is the blunt recognition and acceptance of organizational “pain” that is all too often the only catalyst to organizational change. As unfortunate as this may seem, it is exactly what must occur to initiate the process of change as espoused by two leadership experts, the late Kurt Lewin and Chris Argyris, of Harvard, and Edgar Schein, of MIT. In this article I will highlight the requirements for successful organizational change as illustrated by the application of Lewin’s “unfreeze-change-refreeze” change model and Argyris “Intervention Theory” by Rocky’s “leadership team” to help him make necessary changes to his business model. As the saga begins, Rocky’s career is riding high on a string of successful defenses of his championship title. His business model had been successful – the application of unsophisticated brute force, fight after fight. Then along comes the unsung contender with his own successful business model – unsophisticated brute force, fueled by a burning hunger to be number one. The bell rings and Rocky takes a brutal beating for three rounds before being knocked out and losing the championship. His career looks to be over.



As Rocky contemplates a comeback, at the urging of his long-time nemesis, Apollo Creed, he comes face to face with Kurt Lewin’s change theory as described in his unfreeze-change-refreeze model. Lewin’s model is sequential; each stage must be accomplished before the next can be considered. The “unfreeze” stage is critical to any organizational change strategy. In this stage the organization must experience disconfirmation, the recognition that the data of reality is not in support of the organization’s expectations. In other words, the organization must feel the pain of its reality. Rocky’s disconfirmation takes place as he takes the ten count looking up from the canvas.

As Edgar Schein of MIT points out, disconfirmation alone is not enough to motivate change since the conflicting information can be dismissed or ignored; its cause blamed on other factors; or, more commonly, its validity can simply be denied This may have been the case for Rocky who viewed this champion defense against Clubber Lang as “only” another fight, even as his long-time trainer, Mickey Goodwin, emphatically cautioned him that he could not win with the warning, “He’ll kill you to death, Rock.”

Survival Anxiety

Schein suggests that for change to take place the disconfirmation must be linked to something that has value to the organization and its leaders. The disconfirmation must arouse a “survival anxiety” or as Schein says “the feeling that if we do not change we will fail to meet our needs, … or some goals or ideals that we have set for ourselves.” In Rocky’s case his “survival anxiety” was the issue of the validity of his former championship titles. Was he a valid heavyweight champion of the world, or were his title defenses merely “setups?” Did Mickey hand-pick contenders that could easily be defeated, or was each defense a legitimate challenge? In Rocky’s mind, doubts still lingered about the legitimacy of his championship title. And for Rocky, that was all that mattered.

Learning Anxiety

Schein also suggests that a significant barrier to accepting disconfirming information is “learning or change anxiety.” He suggests that this anxiety is the admission, through learning or change, that our prior actions were wrong or imperfect, and that this admission and the act of changing will damage our effectiveness, our self-esteem, or even our identity. He also suggests that poorly adapting to the organization’s reality and failing to meet the organization’s desired expectations may be more desirable than risking failure and the loss of self-esteem through the change process. In fact, this is the fundamental restraining force that opposes the acceptance of disconfirming information (the organization’s pain) and, according to Schein, overcoming it is the key to producing change. Rocky faced “learning anxiety” as his potential new manager, Apollo Creed, explained to him that regaining the championship would require a major change from the brute-force style he had used so successfully throughout his career. For Rocky, his anxiety was whether he could radically change his style from a brawler to a boxer to successfully regain his championship. Should he fail, would the pain and humiliation associated with the failure of his changed style be psychologically greater than the physical beating he took in losing the title?

This action by Apollo Creed is an application of Chris Argyris’ Intervention Theory. According to Argyris significant change requires the intervening of an agent into the process or relationship requiring change. A prime function of the intervention is to provide valid and useful information not otherwise recognized. Rocky needed valid and useful information about his chances of success and his need to change from a reliable, outside source.

Psychological Safety

The ability to overcome “learning/change anxiety”, and hence be willing to accept the disconfirming information, is facilitated by what Schein calls “psychological safety.” Psychological safety is the personal belief that the necessary change can be successfully implemented and the outcome of the change process will be successful. Schein suggests that the fear of failure and/or losing face in doing something new and/or untried has to be overcome by whatever means possible in order to prepare the organization for change. Any and all tactics that create a sense of confidence in the ability to succeed in the changed environment is required. It is Schein’s belief that “true artistry in change management lies in the various kinds of tactics change agents employ to create psychological safety.” Before Rocky considered a rematch against the now champion, Clubber Lang, he needed to be convinced that he could change his style from being a slugger to being a boxer, and that with this new style he could regain the championship. Apollo Creed and his old trainer, Duke Evers, had analyzed the championship fight that Rocky had lost and other Lang fights, and convinced Rocky that if he was willing to change, and they could show him how to change, then he could take advantage of Lang’s weaknesses and regain the title. Rocky’s insightful wife, Adrian, prodded and supported his damaged psyche; and even his inept brother-in-law, Pauley, provided psychological safety, as only he could do. Rocky had gone through the “unfreeze” stage of Lewin’s model, but the actual change still remained a significant challenge.


Continue Read: Organizational Change: Leadership Lessons from Rocky Balboa (Part 2)