Saturday marked the passing of boxing great Muhammad Ali. For the last 32 years, he suffered from Parkinson’s disease causing him to rarely make public appearances. As a result, he has been largely invisible to most of today’s professionals who never got to see him as the larger than life figure he was.
Ali had a tendency to create drama and excitement and controversy, but he tended to do so in ways that were designed to leverage his celebrity to advance his vision of right and wrong whether you agreed with him or not. When he converted to Islam he changed his birth name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. One of his most controversial stances occurred in 1967 when he received his draft notice for service in the Vietnam War.
Ali was a conscientious objector to the war but instead of fleeing to Canada as many draft dodgers did, Ali showed up at the Army recruiting station where he refused to step forward when his name was called, resulting in his conviction for draft evasion. His action created huge controversy and many enemies, but Ali used it to draw attention to the incredible discrimination and violence and injustice that was being inflicted on African Americans often via the institutions of government.
Ali’s refusal to serve took place against the still fresh backdrop of “bloody Sunday” where police dogs and fire hoses were used to try and crush the growing chorus of voices rising against discrimination and abuse of African Americans. The discrimination and abuse were not just inflicted by individuals but by the very legal and political institutions which were constitutionally obligated to treat everyone fairly. Four years later, Ali’s conviction for draft evasion was unanimously overturned by the US Supreme Court determining that he was a legitimate conscientious objector.
Beyond his amazing raw talent as a boxer, Ali’s fame spread like wildfire largely because of his charismatic ability to turn a phrase… often with rhymes. He was almost always quotable.
Many of his most memorable quotes such as “Float like a butterfly – Sting like a bee”, were self-promoting descriptions of his boxing prowess including his declaration that “I am the Greatest”. But others had profound life meaning as well such as:
- “Don’t count your days. Make your days count.”
- “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”
- “Only a man who knows what it like to have been defeated can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even.”
- “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”
- “If they can make penicillin out of a loaf of moldy bread, they can make something out of you.”
- “Live every day as your last because one day you are going to be right.”
- “It isn’t the mountain ahead to climb that wears you out…. it is the pebble in your shoe.”
My own favorite Muhammed Ali quote was:
“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they have been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It is an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration it is a dare.”
Increasingly government seems to have devolved into an environment of small thinking… thinking that focuses on obstacles instead of opportunities… thinking that focuses on asking why instead of why not. The future of our cities is far too important to leave it up to small thinkers who are too frightened; too frail; too fearful to shape our destiny in ways that will provide a greater future for coming generations. We need more leaders who are unafraid of climbing mountains, and fewer who are committed to being the pebbles in our shoes.
Impossible is not a declaration is a dare… whatever it is that is holding you back from greatness as a leader… I double dog dare you!