Leadership lessons learned from Ali

A fighter, in and out of the ring

Malcolm X photographs Muhammad Ali after his defeat of Sonny Liston.

It was the summer of 1996. My late husband, John Waldbauer, our son, Jonathan, and I traveled to Atlanta, Georgia for the Centennial Olympic Games.

I was a reluctant participant, wishing for a beach vacation instead. And yet once there, I was lifted by the energy, the spirit and the sheer joy of being in a global community for three weeks, attending two athletic events each day in the presence of people who celebrated skill no matter the country.

Malcolm X photographs Muhammad Ali after his defeat of Sonny Liston.
Malcolm X photographs Muhammad Ali after his defeat of Sonny Liston.

The opening ceremony held magic and wonder that mesmerized the audience with international song and dance, mime and acrobatic cyclists riding high above the crowd. Yet no spectacle in that arena will ever be remembered with such awe as the surprise lighting of the Olympic torch by Muhammad Ali.

When the platform floor opened and he emerged dressed in the white uniform of the USA athletes, body shaking from his battle with Parkinson’s disease, the crowd erupted into a symphony of cheers. Many of us wept and collectively we held our breath as Ali took a few unsteady steps to have his torch lighted so that he, in turn, could light the universal Olympic light signaling the beginning of the Games. His courage and determination fueled his ability to light the Olympic torch.

Twenty years later, we recently witnessed the memorial service celebrating Muhammad Ali’s extraordinary life. The Olympic torch travelled through time and once again he lit up our spirits and our hearts, knowing the service he created would bring together our global community once again.

One of Ali’s lessons for us is: “A man who views the world the same at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”

Muhammad Ali did not waste the years of his life. At age 12, his new bike was stolen. He was enraged and ready to fight. He reported the theft to a police officer, who managed a boxing ring. The officer took Ali under his wing and encouraged him to learn the sport of boxing. We know the story. Ali needed to fight. He needed a release. Boxing was an outlet that held discipline, focus and commitment.

Ali was criticized for what was described as his arrogance. He often proclaimed that he was the greatest; that he was beautiful; that he was the champion.

His voice was heard in the midst of impossible racism. The message that he received at that time in our history as a black child, adolescent and young adult was the message to all people of color: “You will never be equal; you are not beautiful; you cannot win.”

Ali countered those voices with his own and then he lived into the message. In 1960, he won a gold medal in boxing at the Olympics in Rome. He went on to become the world champion.

Ali did not waste the years of his life. His transformation included a name change, symbolic of his new faith life as a young adult. He let go of his birth name, Cassius Clay, to become Muhammad Ali in his conversion to Islam.

As a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, Ali refused to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces. He was sentenced to five years in prison, but remained free as the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned his conviction.

During that dispute, Ali was stripped of his boxing license and world champion title. In 1974, he regained his world title and in 1981, he retired from boxing.

Ali was tireless in his service to others. In the publication: “Look to the Stars: the World of Celebrity Giving,” Emma Pickford writes: “(Ali) devoted his life to helping promote world peace, civil rights, cross-cultural understanding, interfaith relations, humanitarianism, hunger relief and the commonality of basic human values. His work as an ambassador for peace began in 1985, when he flew to Lebanon to secure the release of four hostages. Ali also has made goodwill missions to Afghanistan and North Korea; delivered over $1 million in medical aid to Cuba; traveled to Iraq to secure the release of 15 United States hostages during the first Gulf War; and journeyed to South Africa to meet Nelson Mandela upon his release from prison. His recent attempt to free two American hikers held captive in Iran reinforces his tireless commitment to promoting freedom, tolerance and humanity around the world.”

Ali lived the leadership message of his quote: “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”

As his transformation continued, he lost his voice to Parkinson’s disease. From using his fists, to using his voice, to becoming a presence, Ali taught us that, “Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”

Consider how these lessons and so many more from Muhammad Ali might inspire you to live more deeply, with courage and integrity.

-Karen Vernal is the president of Vernal Management Consultants LLC, a Milwaukee-based leadership and organizational firm dedicated to “igniting the spirits and skills of leaders.” The company is one of two firms in the nation to be certified in Emotional Intelligence through the Institute for Health and Human Potential. For more information, visit www.vernalmgmt.com.

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Karen Vernal is executive vice president and chief dreamer for Vernal, LLC (www.ccvernal.com), a Milwaukee based leadership and human resource firm, dedicated to “igniting the spirit and skills of leaders.” As an executive coach/consultant, she was recognized by the Green Bay Packers for her guidance in their organizational planning process. She was also the recipient of the 2011 Marquette University Leadership Excellence Award.

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