Five Leadership Lessons from Muhammad Ali

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Last week a modern legend passed away. Cassius Clay, more commonly known as Muhammad Ali, was 74 when he died. Amidst his colorful, quotable, and controversial life, Ali’s story provides some timeless lessons for leaders. Here are five leadership lessons that we can learn from the boxer known as The Champ.

Setbacks Provide New Opportunities: As a 12 year-old, Cassius Clay had his brand new Schwinn bicycle stolen while he attended an event. When he reported it to a local policeman, he was invited to start coming to the gym and a boxer was born. One cannot help but wonder what would have occurred had this theft not occurred! Setbacks are difficult but they can provide leaders with new opportunities.

Your Past Does not Determine Your Future. Ali changed his named, in part, because “Cassius Clay is a slave name – I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it”. He was the grandson of a slave living in the heart of segregated Kentucky and Muhammad Ali wanted to ensure that he defied the odds. As a result, he became one of the most famous athletes in modern history. Like Ali, successful leaders and organizations achieve things which defy circumstances.

Effort is Required. As a teen, Ali jogged his Louisville neighborhood in steel-toed work boots to improve his conditioning. He spent several months training in Zaire prior to the famed ‘Rumble in the Jungle’. As a result of practicing in the heat, he developed a boxing strategy which would conserve energy (known as the‘rope-a-dope’ tactic). This stratagem helped him avoid the fatigue which Foreman encountered and resulted in his win. Like Cassius Clay, effective leaders understand what they are up against and put in the effort required to be great.

Agility Rules. Amongst his many quotable phrases, Ali may be best known for saying, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see”. At the heart of this quote is a theme of agility. In fact, two of Ali’s five losses occurred after he came out of retirement – a period when his physical agility was waning (he won 56 matches). Like a boxer, successful organizations must adapt to the many things that are thrown at them and this requires constant agility.

Your Greatest Battles Will Be Unexpected: While ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ is likely his greatest feat as a boxer, Ali’s greatest battle may have been in the latter years of his life. Since 1981, Ali battled Parkinson’s disease. Effective organizations strategize, work hard and develop agility. However, their greatest challenges will typically come from things they do not see coming.

Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali


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Jeff Suderman is a futurist, consultant, and professor who works in the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve culture, leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational future-readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman Email:


Curwen, Thomas, & Kennedy, J.M. (Sunday, June 5, 2016). Los Angeles Times.


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