With the passing of Muhammad Ali earlier this month, the world was reminded, not just how great a boxer he was, but how he employed his championship attitude outside of the ring, and exemplified a type of leadership accessible to all of us.
At a towering 6’3″, Ali was an intimidating opponent with his unusual boxing style and boastful attitude outside the ring. But boxing wasn’t the only thing Ali did differently.
Ali was tenacious when it came to his expression, no matter what others may have thought, even at a young age. He didn’t proclaim “I’m the greatest” after a big title fight. Instead, he stated it after his first boxing match at 12 years-old. “Ain’t nobody can beat me,” he would say to his friend and sparring partner Jimmy Ellis, and that combination of confidence and determination – more than any title or medal – is what most defined his greatness.
When Ali looked for guidance, he looked within. He followed his own heart and gut, no matter the common wisdom, or the potential consequences. In 1964, much to the shock of the country, Ali converted to the Nation of Islam and revoked his name Cassius Clay as a “slave name.” The risk to his popularity was real and costly, but he cared more about being true to himself than what other people thought.
Three years later in 1967, he was drafted into the Vietnam War. Ironically, for all of his fighting in the ring, Ali was a staunch pacifist. Instead of complying with the law, he publicly refused to take part in the war. Immediately, Ali’s championship title and boxing license were taken away from him as punishment. Then, the U.S Justice Department sentenced him to five years in prison. And although that sentence was eventually overturned, Ali lost three prime years of his boxing career.
The world loved Mohammad Ali not just for his boxing; we loved him for being his authentic self, no matter how much anger it spurred in others. We admired him for speaking truth to power – for being a man unafraid to stand up for his principles and take on the Federal Government.
While he may not have known it, Ali was acting as a leader, and a model for others to follow. He showed us what it means to be a fully expressed as a person, regardless of what others think.
Often in business, leaders think they have to have (or cultivate) a particular personality and style to be effective. There’s no end to the litany of books offering strategies and stylistic tips to hone our leadership skills and make us champions.
Of course learning new tips and tricks can help make your leadership efforts more effective. But they are useless without this core understanding – that only by being true to yourself in each situation, can you allow yourself to be received and embraced fully by others. We all wear masks at one time or another: masks to belong, masks to avoid conflict, masks to fake confidence. So watching someone succeed without wearing one is very inspirational. When we see someone doing this, we naturally want to follow them.
What Ali shows us is that there is no mask – no one personality, strategy or style – that’s the “right” one to wear to be a successful leader. In fact, there are as many “right” personalities as there are people leading. The only “right” personality for you to lead is the true personality you have. The only “right” strategy is to inspire others through your pure expression of self. Leadership is not about following someone else’s guidelines for greatness. It’s about authentically allowing your own greatness to shine through.
In what part of your life do you still wear a mask and how is it holding you back from achieving your goals in that area? What steps can you take this week to remove that mask and live your life more authentically?
“The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are. You trade in your reality for a role. You give up your ability to feel, and in exchange, put on a mask.” — Jim Morrison