A Footnote On “The Greatest”

“And I wouldn’t even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was”. – Muhammad Ali


It was in the United Airlines Club in Seattle toward the start of my consulting career. It had been a long day of intense meetings, and here I was waiting for a red eye flight to the east coast, followed by no sleep and more intense meetings. I’m sure I showed the fatigue.

As I looked around the club I thought to myself, “Do you know who that looks like?”  At this point I should probably mention that flying around the country so much, the airlines will give you free upgrades, which meant you meet a lot of interesting people.

Back to our story: He sort of looked like him, but heavier and older,  but there were bodyguards, so I became convinced it was him. Next my thought was whether I should bother him or not, but I finally walked across the club room and said, “Mister Ali, you don’t know me, but you’ve been an inspiration for me and millions of others with your ability to keep coming back to win.” He smiled and said, “thanks”, and I turned to walk away, but he reached out and touched my arm and in a soft voice said, “Never give up, you can always keep fighting.”
I’ll never know if I looked like I felt and needed a boost, or if it was something he said to people, but I’d been given advice from the greatest fighter alive!  Those words drift back to me from time to time. You always have to fight to stay in a positive frame of mind, to stay true to yourself and God, and yet, like Ali, with humor.

Muhammad Ali who was a winning boxer, a controversial figure, a great showman, someone with a great sense of humor, a man of history, a father, and true to the best of his faith, died last Friday.

When he had been asked a while ago how he wanted to be remembered he said:

“I would like to be remembered as a man who won the heavyweight title three times, who was humorous and who treated everyone right. As a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him…who stood up for his beliefs…who tried to unite all humankind through faith and love.

And if all that’s too much, then I guess I’d settle for being remembered only as a great boxer who became a leader and a champion of his people. And I wouldn’t even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was.”

That’s true Ali, proud of his achievements, unwavering in beliefs, and always with humor. An American champion.

Let’s Talk About Leadership

If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader. – John Quincy Adams

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I hate it when an ancestor has more clarity on a subject of today than I do.  That’s because I have a lot of people ask me what leadership is.  While they don’t like it, my response is always to ask, “Why do you want to be a leader?”  Few are ready to answer that.

It’s a real killer for many people when I ask.  They start to tell me about what they can do with the organization, or how equipped they are, or how bad existing management is.

What they don’t often say is they have a vision for what the future can hold, or what they can do for the organization in their position.  Their perspective is inward looking, not outward looking.  They care about what they will be doing more than how the organization will be doing.  It’s not about what they’ll add, but what they can get. Wikipedia, the proven expert on everything, says, “Leadership is both a research area and a practical skill, regarding the ability of an individual or organization to “lead” or guide other individuals, teams, or entire organizations.”

If you’re only thinking about what’s wrong now, or how much better you can do than existing management, you’re not thinking about leading.  You’re probably thinking about a competition, and how you’ll “win”.  How you can do better than the person in charge now?

There might be some truth to the part where you can do a “better” job than whoever is in charge now.  But it also could be a combination of ego, hubris, or lack of information. If you spend more time thinking about how much better you can do than the existing leadership rather than what you can do to move the organization ahead, you might be in the leadership business for the wrong reason.

The Secret To Bigger Is Better

Programming today is a race between software engineers striving to build bigger and better idiot-proof programs, and the Universe trying to produce bigger and better idiots. So far, the Universe is winning.”  Rick Cook, The Wizardry Compiled

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Yes, it’s a different “programming,” but the message is the same.

Everyone wants bigger.  It’s part of radio and part of our culture.  We seem obsessed with having the biggest city, the tallest building, the busiest airport or the largest house. Of course that’s why the universe is winning.  We tend to forget the difference between David and Goliath.

But the term “bigger is better” isn’t true very often.  First we have to look at the words themselves. “Bigger” is a quantitative word, while “better” is an ambiguous qualitative word.  But most of the time people don’t realize they’re playing that bigger vs. better game.  It’s just to say that having a lot of listeners isn’t the same as satisfying a lot of listeners.  Given a choice, I’d rather be involved in the best situation than I would be the biggest.  Big get’s attention, but best get’s things done.

So what do you want, quantitative or qualitative?  Biggest, or best?

P.S.  You CAN have both, but you need to start with the qualitative.

Leading Change

“The secret of change is to focus all your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”-Socrates

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Change is not easy.  It’s confusing, unclear and perplexing.  It’s hard to pursue something when it means what you know, and have become expert at, is becoming less and less relevant.  It’s natural to fight change, to deny it and ignore it.

However, every leader is a change agent, for better or worse.  They can move their organization forward, or keep it where it is.  Either one is change, because as the world morphs and grows, if you do nothing, you’re effecting change.  Just not in a positive way.

The most fundamental principle of change can be found in your mirror.  When we’re not looking into the mirror it’s easy to fool ourselves that we’re the same people we were 10 years ago.  But we’re not.  If change were’t a real factor, we’d still have 8 tracks and AM radio would be on top.  People wouldn’t be watching TV less to an alarming level (which they are), Netflix would have failed, and no one would “get” Pandora.

Real leadership is understanding change, and adapting to the opportunities it offers. Those who can do that will survive and thrive, those who can’t will be forever cemented to a past that doesn’t exist any more…and is being outdated everyday.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Men are respectable only as they respect.”  –  Ralph Waldo Emerson

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No, not the Aretha song, the other r-e-s-p-e-c-t you’ve heard about so much.

Some friends and I were talking the other day about respect at work, and about how so many people seem to think it comes with a title or position.  You can be a Director, a VP, a Chief or a CEO, but people don’t really respect the position, they respect the person. And their actions.

You earn respect by what you do , how you do it, and how you treat others.  The only way you earn true respect is by showing respect to others first.  Oh yeah, and when you’re promoted or go somewhere else, you have to earn that respect all over again.  It’s not about your reputation, what you did at your last job, your resume or your new promotion.

As I’m fond of telling people, “You can’t save people from themselves.  Some will always struggle with respect, thinking that others don’t give them enough of it.  They’ll never be happy, because they never learned to give respect before getting it in return.

As the dictionary says, Respect: 1. a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements.