Is there anyone who doesn’t know the legend Muhammad Ali? Voted Sportsman of the Century, awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the only person in history who won three heavyweight championships. He was not only a monumental athlete, but also a humanitarian and a global citizen. His legend goes far beyond the boxing ring to the countless lives he touched with his unwavering spirit. Muhammad Ali wasn’t born into greatness, fame, or money, and he surely wasn’t born a champion; but with his focus and relentless determination, he rose above his humble beginnings and became one!
Born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1942, he grew up in a world that was completely different than the world of today. The Civil Rights movement didn’t start until 1957, so at the time of his birth African Americans had no voting rights, dealt with daily discrimination and oppression, were not allowed to marry white people, or attend white schools, were denied the right to fair trial, and frequently murdered by hate groups.
Muhammad Ali’s birth name was Cassius Clay, he was named after a notable Kentucky abolitionist and politician from the 1800’s, who freed the slaves that were handed down to him from his father as part of his inheritance. The original Cassius Clay faced public dissent and violence for his stance on the equal treatment of African American citizens, and Muhammad Ali also faced his fair share of outcry during his life due to his political beliefs.
When Cassius was 12 years old, his beloved bike was stolen from him. He went to the police station to report the robbery, and said that he was going to beat-up the thief. The police officer on duty, Joe Martin, who was also a boxer and trainer, joked with Cassius that perhaps he should learn how to fight first. And so he did, Cassius ended up training with Joe, and 6 weeks later he won his first fight.
From then onwards, he was ready to grab any opportunity at every corner. He could have taken the easy road by accepting mediocracy because of the society he was born into, but he didn’t. He chose to face every limitation that life set before him. He learnt how to fight and win and he applied the very same principles of fighting into the life of challenge that he chose for himself.
IF YOU BELIEVE, THEN YOU CAN ACHIEVE
Before his famous fight with Sonny Liston, Muhammad Ali taunted him relentlessly in the ring and it was here that his well-known saying: “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” originated. He predicted that Liston would get knocked out in the 6th round and when his prediction came true, as the victor he told the cheering crowd: “I am the greatest!” and that statement became part and parcel of his fame and his entire being.
CHANGE YOURSELF AND CHANGE THE WORLD
At the press conference following his victory against Sonny Liston, with all the eyes of the world upon him, he made a controversial announcement: firstly, that he had converted to Islam; and secondly, that he was changing his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. He said he was giving up his slave name to replace it with the name of a free man: “Muhammad Ali”. He told people “it means beloved of God, and I insist that you use it when you speak to me”.
People told him he was crazy, that he would lose fans and supporters because of his change of name and religion, especially considering the underlying racism in American society at that time. However, his mind was made up, and in typical Ali style, he was prepared to fight for his beliefs just like he fought in the boxing ring.
STAND FOR WHAT YOU BELIEVE IN
In 1967, Ali refused to fight in the Vietnam War. He said senseless violence was against his religious beliefs, and furthermore stated that “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” The United States Government immediately went after him, took his championship title away, revoked his belt, and charged him with draft evasion. He was taken to court, fined 10,000 dollars and banned from boxing for three years. However, nothing the government did, would assuage him from his moral convictions. Ali used the three years constructively. He started traveling to liberal arts universities and publicly spoke out against the war. He also used the time to explore his creative interests and acted in a Broadway play that received much public acclaim.
Ali was monumental in shifting public attitudes about the war, and the anti-war movement aligned itself with the growing African American civil rights movement, as well as the women’s liberation movement. Their demonstration methods consisted of peaceful nonviolent protests, and a growing number of citizens followed in Ali’s footsteps and refused to enlist. His bold stance inspired thousands of others to find the courage to do the same. By 1971, 70% of the population was against the Vietnam War, and this ultimately led to the war ending in 1975.
LEAVE A LEGACY BEHIND
When he eventually retired, Ali had 56 wins to his name, only five losses, and a record breaking 37 knockouts in total. From the very first match he won, where he proclaimed: ‘I Am The Greatest’, he lived up to the fate he had set for himself and became a role model for inspirational, change-driven leadership.
Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1984, but that did not stop him. He showed great humility in the face of his illness, and stated that he had been given Parkinson’s disease to show that ultimately God is the Greatest! The debilitating disease prevented him from fighting in the boxing ring, but it did not change his will to make a difference in the world around him. Instead of fighting in the ring, he took to fighting against inequality and terrorism, became a humanitarian, a goodwill ambassador, and amongst many others, left a legacy as a messenger of peace for the United Nations.
Before his death, he opened up the Muhammad Ali Centre of Peace and Social Responsibility in his hometown of Louisville, so that he could continue to service the community even after his passing. His funeral was an interfaith event, which had people of all religions and nationalities in attendance. President Obama spoke on his behalf, and thousands came to see the ceremony and celebrate the life of The Greatest. Ali fought for us all. He was an authentic, purpose-driven leader whose enduring mark continues to resonate in our hearts through the joy, courage, service and inspiration he gave so freely.
He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life. Muhammad Ali
IMPORTANT PRINCIPLES OF MUHAMMAD ALI’S STYLE OF LEADERSHIP:
1. Belief & Faith - “I know where I’m going, and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.”
After changing his religion to Islam, Ali relentlessly fought for the principles of peace, equality, freedom and self-determination. He broke through all known limitations and transcended racism, national boundaries, and religious distinctions. He even transcended beyond himself as he matured into a celebrity figure with a global purpose and cause.
2. Positive Thinking - “It’s the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen.”
Ali grounded his affirmations in the present moment. He didn’t tell himself, ‘I will be the greatest “’ he told himself ‘I am the greatest’!His belief in himself was so unwavering that he actually broke down the spirit of Sonny Liston, the world heavyweight champion at the time, before they got into the ring by taunting Liston that he would fall in the 6th round. Ali was right, he did!
3. Be Courageous - “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”
Being fearless in the face of fear, particularly when the stakes are high, distinguishes a lot of leaders from the others. Ali knew that courage is not the absence of fear, but doing what you believe in, despite that fear! He simply refused to be afraid, and in doing so he gave other people the courage to find their own inner strength. He “walked the talk” and led by example.
4. Embrace Change - “A man who views the world the same at fifty as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life.”
When we face competition bigger and stronger than ourselves, do we compete in the same way as we’ve always done? Or, do we trust our instincts and head towards unchartered territory? As a leader, it is important to go beyond what has always been done and embrace the new and the different. Be the ‘trail blazer’ and the ‘change agent’ that others will confidently follow. Ali lived his life constantly challenging the status quo and doing things differently, and it took him to amazing heights in life.
5. Fight for your Values - “I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.”
It is important to stick with your convictions and values. If there is something that you firmly believe in, hold on to it even in the face of adversity. Ali was prepared to lose everything and possibly go to jail in order to maintain his personal integrity. But he did the right thing. That’s the way he always acted. It was simple for him, in a way. Not easy, of course, but simple. He followed his heart and his faith and this was the passionate fire that fueled him on, inspired others to follow, and significantly contributed to the end of the Vietnam War.
6. Helping Others to Succeed - “I’ve made my share of mistakes along the way, but if I have changed even one life for the better, I haven’t lived in vain.”
The true measure of a leader’s success is not merely in their personal accomplishments, but also in the positive difference they can make in the lives of others. Leaders need to ask themselves on a regular basis: “What can I do to help others succeed?” Over the course of his lifetime, Ali positively impacted more lives than people will ever know.