Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr, rose from a poor family in segregated Louisville, Kentucky to international fame, winning three heavyweight boxing titles and becoming a civil rights leader and role model for millions of people around the world. How did he do it?
Early in his career, Ali’s creativity and hard work helped him overcome significant obstacles. Rather than letting his fear of flying keep him from competing in the 1960 Olympics, he traveled to Italy wearing a parachute — and easily won the gold medal in boxing.
When he returned to the U.S. as a gold medalist, Ali used his growing fame to bring attention to racial justice and humanitarian causes he supported, including his then-controversial decision to refuse to fight in the Vietnam War.
Harvard Business School professor Robert Simons discusses how Ali made decisions throughout his life and career to leave a lasting impact on the world in his case, “Muhammad Ali: Changing the World.”
Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr.) was an American professional boxer, widely known as “The Greatest” and one of the most recognized and renowned figures of the twentieth century. He revolutionized the sport of boxing with his unique, powerful, and lightening-fast tactics. He also left an indelible mark as an activist, philanthropist and icon. Ali was an exceptional example of purpose-driven decision-making, blazing a path for humanity with his unwavering commitment to his principles, passions and artistry.
A three-time World Heavyweight Champion and Olympic Gold Medalist, Ali was the first professional boxer to transcend the role of athlete and become a cultural phenomenon. He captured the attention of millions of people through his boxing genius, strong convictions and political activism. He was willing to accept criticism of his beliefs and willing to take a stand that could potentially hurt his career. He refused to be drafted into military service during the Vietnam War, famously stating, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.”
At the same time, Ali also made decisions based on maximizing his personal goals. In 1967, at the height of his power, Ali was convicted of draft evasion and was stripped of his boxing license and title. He chose to spend the next three and a half years focusing on his passions, such as speaking out against injustice, advocating for civil rights, and (eventually) founding the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, KY. After the US Supreme Court unanimously overturned his conviction in 1971, he returned to the boxing ring.
Ali’s decision-making process was driven by a deeply held philosophical worldview. He strongly believed in standing up for what was right and using his voice to impact social change. He also believed in using his platform as a boxer to speak out against racial injustice and inequality. Ali, who once said, “the man who has no imagination has no wings,” was the epitome of a man with wings.
This unique combination of principles, passion, and gifted abilities enabled Ali to make powerful and purpose-filled decisions. Most notably, he chose to turn away from a draft he disagreed with, and chose to stand up for his beliefs and his community. He also chose to dedicate his life to humanitarian works and civil rights advocacy. Muhammad Ali will forever be remembered as a leader who used his exceptional gift and remarkable courage to follow his purpose and make a difference in the world.