Leadership Lessons from Muhammad Ali


Professional sports often illustrate important psychological and life principles, even for the world of business. Traditionally, discussions on leadership tend to focus on team sports, but occasionally individual athletes emerge who can teach us a great deal about leadership, too. Here are some lessons from the extraordinary Muhammad Ali:

1) Morality is antisocial: True leadership requires vision, and vision requires the inability to accept the status-quo. In that sense, all leaders are somewhat antisocial: they reject established rules and norms and provide a different – better – perspective on reality, which is the basis for their moral code. Importantly, true leaders have the integrity to live by their beliefs even if it means upsetting authority and sacrificing personal gains; and they deal with the consequences. They show high levels of consistency between what they say and what they do, and challenge the elite with defiance. And in the end, their thoughts and ideals prevail over the old order of things. To be sure, leaders will only inspire if their vision is congruent with the beliefs and values of their followers, and in doing so they will also repel those who think and feel differently. But one thing is certain: if you don’t stand for anything, have no visible convictions, or just follow what everybody else does, you are not a leader. This is why leaders are rare not only in the world of professional sports, but also in politics and business.

2) Personality is a talent accelerator:
No matter how much talent you have, the right mindset, a serious work ethic, and a desire to strive for perfection and be the best, will enhance your talent. It is often the case that individuals with an innate predisposition to develop exceptional skills lack the grit and determination to unleash their full potential. Despite Ali’s incredible talent, he trained and worked as if he had none. From early on in his career he was the first person to arrive at the gym and the last one to leave – and he hated training. When we consider that the most effective leadership development interventions involve leaders who are already more coachable to begin with – they sign up and engage in this programs because of their higher levels of curiosity, humility, and willingness to improve – it is clear that coaching tends to help mostly those who need it the least. Conversely, those who need it the most – mediocre or inept leaders – tend to resist coaching and development because they are arrogant, complacent, or unaware of their incompetence.

3) It ain’t bragging if you can back it up:
It would be hard to call Ali modest, and fewer personality attributes are more salient in him than his self-confidence. However, it is equally naïve to think that Ali was as arrogant as his self-presentation style suggests. First, his public self-confidence was clearly a calculated attempt to entertain the media and intimidate opponents. Second, it also helped him hide any nerves or fear, both from others and himself. Third, and most importantly, unlike most self-confident and arrogant people, Ali had the goods to back it up. This point was highlighted beautifully by Barack Obama: “Muhammad Ali was The Greatest. Period. If you just asked him, he’d tell you. He’d tell you he was the double greatest; that he’d ‘handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder into jail’. But what made The Champ the greatest – what truly separated him from everyone else – is that everyone else would tell you pretty much the same thing.” Along those lines, lay people are often quick to highlight negative personality characteristics in famous, mega-successful, leaders: e.g., Steve Jobs was emotionally volatile, Walt Disney was mean, and Henry Ford was ruthless. That may have been the case, but unlike most volatile, mean, and ruthless leaders they had the talent, work ethic, and vision to back it up. Although Ali may not have been a better boxer without his hubris, without his talents he would have looked more like Donald Trump.

This article orginally appeared in the Huffington Post.