Why Apollo Creed Succeeded When Other Transformation Efforts Failed

Preston Charles
Published in
6 min readMay 28, 2021
Photo by Alex Alvarado on Unsplash

John P. Kotter is the author of Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail. The Harvard Business School faculty page states, “John P. Kotter is internationally known and widely regarded as the foremost speaker on the topics of Leadership and Change. His is the premier voice on how the best organizations actually achieve successful transformations.” His work on competitive strategy lays out the errors that leaders make when undertaking significant transformation efforts.

Apollo Creed, played by Carl Weathers, is an iconic character who appeared in several installments of the Rocky Movie franchise in the 1970s and the 1980s. As Hollywood’s attempt at creating Muhammed Ali, the character was the original nemesis to Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa.

In Rocky III, Apollo Creed retired after losing his Heavyweight Championship. His rival narrowly defeated him, and he sought to fill the void caused by retirement. Not unlike many champions, he struggled to deal with his painful loss. He needed more to accomplish. Apollo Creed separated himself from many great title-holders by actively mentoring and leading another man to the top once he stopped fighting for himself.

Not Establishing a Great Enough Sense of Urgency

Kotter states, “an individual or group always facilitates a frank discussion of potentially unpleasant facts” Apollo observes the importance of urgency in his interactions. After a lackluster training performance, Rocky suggests they can get back to work tomorrow. An exasperated Apollo Creed, who has just whipped Rocky in a sparring session, angrily screams, “There is no tomorrow!” He is not hesitant to tell him his current performance is not good enough to win the championship. He explicitly tells Balboa that he needs to improve right now because staying the course is a risk to his health.

Not Creating a Powerful Enough Guiding Coalition

Kotter observes the following about those who fail in this phase, stating they “usually underestimate the difficulties of producing change and thus the importance of a powerful guiding coalition.” Apollo knows how difficult the job will be, and he enlists the help of Duke, who served as Apollo’s trainer. The fighters in Apollo’s gym already understand his methodology, and they support Rocky from the beginning. In addition to seeking resources from his extensive boxing background, he brings Rocky’s family along for support. The investment in Balboa’s family pays off when his wife Adrian helps him confront his fears about fighting at this stage. After their heart-to-heart talk, Adrian tells him, “Apollo thinks you can do it. So do I.” The combined professional and emotional support networks drive Rocky to accelerate his training.

Lacking a Vision

Kotter states, “a vision says something that clarifies the direction in which the organization needs to move.” He says there should be “understanding and interest” in reaction to hearing a realistic vision. Creed takes this knowledge into account when he first confronts Balboa in the gym. He floats the idea of training him when he is at a low point in his career, stating, “When we fought, you had the eye of the tiger, man, the edge. And now you gotta get it back, and the way to get it back is to go back to the beginning. Maybe we could win it back together.” Creed shows Balboa what is possible through this vision and then describes what they could achieve. He does not get lost in specifics at this point but does give him enough to pique Balboa’s interest.

Undercommunicating the Vision by a Factor of Ten

Kotter has seen executives fail because they do not spend enough effort communicating the vision. They may have created a good enough idea, but the transformation dies from there. He notes, “Executives who communicate well incorporate messages into their hour-by-hour activities.” Apollo left no possibility of his mission getting lost on his pupil. From the time he initially presents the vision of reclaiming the championship, he repeatedly refers to the “eye of the tiger.” The “eye of the tiger” symbolizes the mindset required to overcome adversity in brutal circumstances. Creed refers to the “eye of the tiger” when teaching him a new way of boxing in his gym. He constantly emphasizes his advice to Rocky with the Battle Cry “Eye of the Tiger!” between rounds of the big fight. He reminds Rocky that he has the mental edge required to become the champion again.

Not Removing Obstacles to the New Vision

Kotter acknowledges that while many obstacles may be systemic, human beings are the worst of all. He offers the following advice to deal with non-supporters, “If the blocker is a person, it is important that he or she be treated fairly… But action is essential, both to empower others and to maintain the credibility of the change effort as a whole.” Apollo, while building the coalition, has included Rocky’s family. Paulie, Rocky’s brother-in-law, wants Rocky to win as much as anyone else. It’s just that he does not understand, appreciate, or care to support Apollo’s vision of achieving that goal. First, Paulie aggressively opposes the move to Apollo’s gym. Later, he speaks out against Apollo’s new physical training techniques. The biggest obstacle to Paulie’s support is that he honestly does not believe Rocky can transform his style from that of a brawler to a more polished boxer. Apollo confidently confronts each of these issues and moves along undeterred. Paulie must go along with the team.

Not Systematically Planning for and Creating Short-Term Wins

Kotter acknowledges the risk of losing momentum during the time needed to create long-term change. “Without short-term wins, too many people give up or actively join the ranks of those who have been resisting change.” Apollo saw the danger of a challenging transformation on his fighter’s psyche. During the early stages of training, Apollo worked on Rocky’s mobility. He told him to relax, and his team would shout, “It’ll take time, but it will come.” Apollo and Duke were correct. The transformation did take time, but it did come together. Apollo cheerfully encouraged Rocky as he adapted to develop new techniques. He knew the importance of creating short-term wins before his fighter ultimately rejected the new process.

Declaring Victory Too Soon

Kotter discusses another problem of some managers while stating that they “may be tempted to declare victory with the first clear performance improvement.” To that point, the audience can see an example of Apollo avoiding this management mistake during the fight. From the onset, Rocky has applied all of Apollo’s training and had a strong round. Creed acknowledges the early success after the first round. He also puts his fighter’s success in the perspective of winning the fight. He admonishes his fighter to stick to the plan and not to change his tactics. In his words, he says, “Alright, man. You look great. Just don’t get crazy.” He knows there is much work ahead and advises that he must remain focused to defeat his opponent.

Not Anchoring Changes in the Corporation’s Culture

Kotter mentions the importance of “taking sufficient time to make sure that the next generation of top management really does personify the new approach.” Apollo ensured a successful implementation of the culture into future generations. As mentioned before, Apollo solidified his message by enlisting the services of Duke, who trained Apollo. Apollo was like a son to Duke. Duke went on to train Rocky into retirement. Duke’s son taught Apollo’s son, Adonis, many years later, after Apollo passed away. Apollo’s effort to tie the philosophies of several families together served to anchor long-term change.

Many of you might not want to attend business school at an elite institution. If you are open to observing Apollo Creed’s behavior, you can learn some similar lessons. Please refer to John P. Kotter’s body of work to learn more about leadership and change. His studies could save you from making preventable mistakes one day. It may not hurt you to blow the dust off of your Rocky III DVD and watch it one more time from your newfound perspective.



Preston Charles

Preston Charles studied marketing at Morehouse College and earned his MBA in Supply Chain Management and Strategic Leadership from Penn State University.