Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali: Lessons on life and leadership

Who is the GOAT? An argument that will forever stand as new athletes arrive and older ones retire. And while there may not just be one athlete that can take the title, there aren’t many that could be put under the banner. Many would agree that a very worthy sportsman of the Greatest of All Time title is Muhammad Ali. Ali was a three-time world heavyweight champion, beat some of boxing’s most renowned names and finished his professional career with 56 wins out of 61 matches. While Ali is boxing’s greatest of all time, his greatness was not just created inside the ring! Let’s dive into the life, habits and values of Ali to see what we can apply to our own life, in business and other endeavours, to create more success right where we are.

The time is now!

The way that someone spends their time speaks loudly about their priorities and their goals. Ali is no exception! He said that “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth” and this is very reflective of how Ali spent his time and shows clearly what he valued. Ali spent large chunks of his precious time working with charities, vulnerable communities and those in need, ultimately fighting for equality, which is evident in his legacy outside of the ring.

As for his legacy inside the ring, his routine was rigorous. In an interview with Sport Illustrated, Angelo Dundee detailed the intensity of Ali’s training and diet routine and it looked something like this. His day started at 0430 in the morning, and he would run in weighted boots to increase his stamina. Breakfast was always full of the strict foods that would keep him at his peak. Intense physical training followed in the afternoon and always and evening walk or run. To conclude the day, once again a meal that supported him in staying at peak level! His coach always said that Ali was the first in the gym and the last to leave, and if that does not show his dedication to his goals and legacy in the ring, I don’t know what does!

It is clear as day by just looking at how he spent his time, why he is the Greatest. We all have the same amount of time in a day, but it is those who use their time as their tool for reaching their goals that truly find success! Ali said, “I hated every moment of training, but I told myself to suffer now and live the rest of my life as a champion.” This is a profound truth that leaders and teams must understand. To prepare for success, there will be things you will have to do that aren’t as exciting as other aspects of the job, but they are the foundations for the rest of your missions to stand on. So, do the hard things that step you in the direction of your goals and be rewarded with success!

The fight for purpose

Muhammad Ali's purpose transcended boxing, and this is evident in his actions beyond the ring. Ali’s ultimate purpose and what he loved was to fight, but not always physically. Countless times in his career did he fight for what mattered to him, and he said himself “My main fight is for freedom and equality, and this is what I plan to do in boxing.”

What made Muhammad Ali great was his determination to see his goals become realities and this is most prominently seen in his stand against the drafting orders to go to the Vietnam War in 1967. Ali was willing to lose three of his prime years in the ring, to stand for what he believed in. Ali knew that his purpose was people and his mission to stand for them exhibit this. Ali’s pursuit was not some ill-defined, blurry idea! It was clear as day and every action he took was in alignment with it.

Achieving success where you are requires you to align your goals and plans with what makes you tick! If you aren’t working towards a greater purpose, what are you working towards? In business this looks like setting what I call the High-Definition Destination (HDD) for your organisation. Your HDD answers your purpose, explains your mission, and guides your actions in the now, for the future. In personal life, it is much the same, finding what you want from life, and putting measures, plans and goals in place that will get you there! Be clear, be purposeful and be determined, and you will create success where you are.

Self-belief is your power

Trust is essential to success and is evident in those who are titled the Greatest of All Time. Something that is obvious about Ali was his trust in himself and his belief in his own abilities, he wasn't exactly quiet about it. In a team sport this aspect differs slightly as you rely heavily on your team and must have deep levels of trust in them. But in a single man sport where it is your own abilities that will either carry you to the win, or be your downfall that causes you to lose, it is crucial that you trust yourself.

Ali’s self-belief is what took him the furthest. When you look at all the hurdles that Ali had to climb over to become the Greatest of All Time, his self-belief is what carried him through. From experiencing racial inequality in his own hometown, through his boxing ban, all the way to his diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease in 1984, not many people could experience so many obstacles and remain true to themselves, like Ali did.

In business and in general life, your self-belief is what will allow you to climb to the heights. No great leader that has had deep and meaningful impacts on the world got there by chance or without belief in themselves. Leaders that believe in themselves, lead people to believe in themselves! Self-belief doesn’t mean that you don’t have input from others, because input and team collaboration is also essential to success, but it means you render yourself capable to take you and your team into success!

A Lasting Impact wherever you are

Even by just having a brief look into the life of Ali, it is evident that he is deserving of his place as the GOAT of boxing! The values, habits and philosophies of Ali are not limited to him, they are great lessons on success for leaders and life in general. Ali is proof that when you are driven by your purpose, make time to do what aligns with your goals and trust yourself, you are setting yourself up for a win! These are the elements of deep performance and so if you’re wanting to have meaningful impact through your work, these are the greatest starting points.

References –

Andersen, E. (2013). Great leaders trust themselves, and you. Forbes.

Balance the Grind. (2021). Muhammad Ali: Daily routine. Balance the Grind.

Brown, D. (2018). ‘Shoot them for what?’ How Muhammad Ali won his greatest fight. The Washington Post.

Cashman, K. (2016). The four greatest leadership lessons from the greatest: Muhammad Ali. Forbes.

Clark, P. A. (2016). Muhammad Ali had a lifelong mission to help those in need. Mashable.

Grez, M. (2016). What made Muhammad Ali the greatest in the ring? CNN Sports.

Hahn, A. (2016). What made Muhammad Ali ‘the greatest’ in the ring? The Conversation.

Owaves. (2020). Day in the life: Muhammad Ali. Owaves.

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