Many have written that Muhammad Ali transcended sport. To me he did so much more. He “went beyond” as only a truly authentic leader can. He transcended race, national boundaries, religious distinctions and bigotry. He even transcended his own braggadocios persona as he grew, matured and served his globally enriching purpose.
With a leader of such wide-ranging impact, it is impossible to isolate just a few principles of his true greatness. While all leaders must pass, the great ones “pass-on” what is important by example, by how they lived. For me, Ali “passed-on” four great leadership principles through his extraordinary well-lived life:
The essence of Ali was his courageous character. From Sonny Liston to the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War, he was always fearless in the face of fear, particularly when the stakes were high. Like most great leaders, he knew that courage is not the absence of fear, but that courage is facing our fear and then doing what is really important. Bryant Gumbel, journalist and HBO host, said, “He simply refused to be afraid. And being that way, he gave other people courage.” Managers see risk and try to carefully mitigate it; true leaders see risk, and if their values or principles are at risk, they run into the fire. In Ali’s words, “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”
Managers improve what is. Managers enhance what is. Managers move forward what is. Leaders go beyond what is. When we face competition bigger and stronger than us, what do we do? Compete in the same way we always do? Run away from the fierceness of the fight? Ali knew better. His only option with George Foreman was to take a path never before considered with such a devastating, powerful adversary. Let Foreman punch you until you wear him down. Then when he is sapped of strength, knock him out. It was a totally crazy strategy, but possibly the only one that could bring victory. Ali took that path, despite the screaming protests of his beloved trainer, Angelo Dundee, and the shocked, skeptical pundits in attendance. Ali took the path of true leadership, going beyond what had always worked and instead trusted his instincts to navigate to the new and the different.
Ali once said, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.” Managers secure success while leaders see service as their true measure of significance. Ali served the world. He was an ambassador to our global family. From his mid-east hostage negotiations to Civil Rights reforms and generous philanthropy, he served us all. Ali summed it up this way: “To be able to give away riches is mandatory if you wish to possess them. This is the only way that you will be truly rich.” Ali fought in the ring for the first half of his life; he fought for the world in the second half.
In the end, the true measure of our success will not merely be in our accomplishments, but in the big difference we make in the lives of other people. Managers leave accomplishments; leaders leave people transformed through love and character. Ali said, “I wish that everyone would just love one another as much as they love me.”
Ali fought for us all with his love, service, character, and his unrelenting desire to fight for the principles of peace, equality, freedom, and self-determination. Ali fought for us all. This is what made him an authentic, purpose-driven leader. His enduring mark continues to resonate in our hearts through the joy, courage, service and inspiration he gave so freely.