“The Greatest” Leader

Muhammad AliIn June, we lost an American icon and dearly beloved sports hero with the passing of Muhammad Ali. Ali will forever be known as “the greatest” and his accomplishments in the ring justified this self-endowed moniker. Of course, Ali was more than a great boxer. He was a great leader from whom we can take a number of lessons.

Reviewing our own “Eight C’s of Leadership,” I am struck by how Ali exemplified each and every characteristic:

  1. Display comfort in your own skin – who was ever more comfortable and at ease with himself than Muhammed Ali? Ali was always, and above all, true to himself and authentic, displaying the same grace and genuineness as he aged and was weakened by Parkinson’s disease as he had when he was at his peak boxing form.
  2. Remain true to your character – Ali refused to back down in his opposition to the Vietnam War, enduring insults and accusations of cowardice, risking prison time, and suffering a suspension from professional boxing for refusing induction into the army, citing his strong religious beliefs and unabashedly questioning the justification for killing fellow human beings whom he saw as innocent.
  3. Show candor – Muhammad Ali was famously honest and outspoken. He spoke the truth as he saw it and he was transparent about his strategy explaining, for example, “I figured that if I said it enough, I would convince the world that I really was the greatest.”
  4. Demonstrate composure – For all of his theatrics, not to mention the inherent explosive violence of boxing itself, Ali displayed remarkable composure. He famously won victory over George Foreman, a more powerful opponent, by letting Foreman punch him, patiently waiting for him to wear down, despite the loud protests of his own trainer, and then calmly knocking Foreman out to win the fight.
  5. Embrace change – Born and made famous as Cassius Clay, Ali did not hesitate to embrace Islam and change his name, defying the conventional wisdom that the switch would hurt his popularity with American sports fans. He also adapted gracefully to his post-boxing life and did not hesitate to change his opinion, noting that “A man who views the world the same at fifty as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life.”
  6. Be consistent – Ali understood that people looked up to him and he took his position as a role model and leader seriously, always remaining true to the principles and values he professed, as well as his unshakable self-belief, even in the face of debilitating Parkinson’s, he displayed enormous confidence and grace. Even in rare defeat, he set an exemplary example saying “I never thought of losing, but now that it’s happened, the only thing is to do it right. That’s my obligation to all the people who believe in me.”
  7. Have courage – From his days as an amateur when, after winning the Olympic gold medal, Ali returned to his home of Louisville, KY, where he was referred to as “the Olympic nigger” and refused service in restaurants, to facing off with Saddam Hussein and securing the release of 15 American prisoners of war Ali repeatedly showed tremendous courage and took great risks, once stating his belief that “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”
  8. Exude a can-do attitude – Muhammad Ali was the personification of the can-do attitude! He began calling himself the greatest before he objectively was the greatest, trusting that the accomplishment would follow his belief in its inevitability.

We cannot all be world champions of sport, famous celebrities, or world-renowned humanitarians. But we can take lessons from the man who was all of these and more, applying those lessons to our essential work in healthcare. Healthcare executives, physicians, and other clinical leaders are fighting their own matches every day. The Affordable Care Act and other pressing demands for change are rather like our Heavyweight Boxing Championship, Olympics, and Vietnam War, all rolled into one great challenge.

Great challenges are met and great things are accomplished through leadership. The first step to leading others is to believe in ourselves and our ability to achieve our goals. In the words of the immortal Muhammad Ali, “It’s lack of faith that makes people afraid of meeting challenges, and I believed in myself.”

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