Muhammad Ali: an analogy for innovation
I’m a sports guy. I like all kinds of sports. Grew up playing baseball, football and running track. When my kids came along naturally they adopted other sports than the ones I was familiar with so I’ve learned to “love” swimming and soccer. If you know swim meets you’ll appreciate the joke we pass around our family: I hope my last day on earth is at a swim meet because they never end.
I grew up in an era where boxing was first a BIG DEAL, full of outsized characters, but eventually became a pariah, because boxing can be so brutal and bloody. No boxer (at least not one played by Sylvester Stallone) commanded more attention and moved people more than Muhammad Ali. But, we come to praise Ali and not to bury him, as we remember his contributions to sport and to the way we live. Today I’ll argue that Ali embodies innovation, and his life is symbolic and perhaps an analogy for what innovators live and do. Consider:
- Ali was born an African American in Kentucky during segregation and was a boxer by the time he was 12.
- He refused entry to the draft during Viet Nam, ensuring the rage of many of his fans
- He converted to Islam under the instruction of Malcolm X, becoming Muhammad Ali
- He could “float like a butterfly” at a time when heavyweight fights were toe to toe slugfests
- While he had a powerful punch he could take punches as well, creating the rope-a-dope fighting style to wear out opponents
- At a time when most heavyweight fighters were stoic men of few words, Ali was his own publicist. He held his own with Howard Cosell, something few men could do.
- After a lifetime of fighting, he became a figure beloved by many for his actions to help his fellow man.
I’m not Ali’s biographer, but it seems to me that Ali chose a different path in every opportunity, choosing to break with convention and to reinvent himself, his sport and if it’s not too much to say so the American experience. Ali invented or perfected a lot of new boxing techniques but also was a master of people outside the ring as well. Yet every break with convention led to difficulties.
His choice of a new religion, especially under Malcolm X, was problematic for many. His rejection of the draft was respected by younger people but rejected by many older people and many of his fans. His brashness and outspoken behavior went against the mores of the time when there was still a lot of oppression of the African American community. In all of this Ali demonstrates the traits and potential outcomes of an innovator.
He created his own path, often to his own betterment and eventually the betterment of others. His decisions we often misconstrued or unpopular, going against convention. He had confidence in himself when others doubted his purpose. He suffered for his decisions – losing several years of boxing during his prime because of his decision about Viet Nam. Hundreds of boxers, other sports men and women, and entertainers in general, owe a debt to him that cannot be repaid because he created a completely new way to interact with the public. A man who had a lot of promise and who was constantly counseled to stay on the straight and narrow often took his own path, often bearing the burden of creating something new, seeing things that perhaps others could not see and maintaining confidence in himself.
A man who was often despised for his decisions in the moment, who stayed true to himself and his beliefs and who became beloved for his life and his actions. If this isn’t the experience of many innovators I’m not sure what is. Bill Gates and the guys from Google may have had a shorter run to fame and riches, but they experienced the same ups and downs along the way, working undercover in a technology lab. Ali did all that they did in a dangerous sport, in the public eye. He’s proof that innovation isn’t just about new products, but about creating new experiences and new ways of thinking about life.
image credit: express.co.uk
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Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes, and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of Relentless Innovation and the blog Innovate on Purpose. Follow him @ovoinnovation
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