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.

The Paradox Of Excellence

Desire is the key to motivation, but it’s determination and commitment to an unrelenting pursuit of your goal – a commitment to excellence – that will enable you to attain the success you seek.” – Mario Andretti

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“Let’s do everything with excellence.”  OK, I thought as I heard the comment, that makes sense.  Who wants to be the opposite and do nothing with excellence.  I nodded my head like a good boy.  I’m in, let’s be excelllent.

Throughout my career I’ve heard different people making the excellence argument.  But I could never figure out what that meant.  The dictionary seems to indicate it’s “possessing outstanding quality or superior merit; remarkably good.”  That seems clear.  Sort of.

Unfortunately excellence is not as ubiquitous as people want to think.  Michael Jordan is excellent, John Wooden was excellent, American Pie is excellent, Star Wars is excellent.  But is your radio station excellent?  Is it excellent because you say so?  Or is it the people who call and tell you how great you are, which never includes the voice of people who aren’t calling you.  Perhaps just your being there makes it excellent.

Saying so is easy, but achieving excellence is not.  Excellence is a quality that people appreciate partially because it is so hard to find.  And like many things, excellence is a journey, not a destination.  We should appreciate the work that went into achieving excellence more than excellence itself.

Which calls for a better understanding of what excellence is.  Fortunately the Internet can help you with whatever you need, and I found something that made great sense to me.  It’s a roadmap for excellence, sort of a ‘how-to” for those who really want to pursue excellence:

INTEGRITY – Match behavior with values.  Demonstrate your positive personal values in all you do and say. Be sincere and real.

FAILURE LEADS TO SUCCESS – Learn from mistakes, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes.  View failures as feedback that provides you with the information you need to learn, grow, and succeed.

SPEAK WITH GOOD PURPOSE – Speak honestly and kindly. Think before you speak. Make sure your intention is positive and your words are sincere.

THIS IS IT! – Make the most of every moment. Focus your attention on the present moment. Keep a positive attitude.

COMMITMENT – Make your dreams happen.  Take positive action. Follow your vision without wavering.

OWNERSHIP – Take responsibility for actions.  Be responsible for your thoughts, feelings, words, and actions. “Own” the choices you make and the results that follow.

FLEXIBILITY – Be willing to do things differently.  Recognize what’s not working and be willing to change what you’re doing to achieve your goal.

BALANCE – Live your best life.  Be mindful of self and others while focusing on what’s meaningful and important in your life. Inner happiness and fulfillment come when your mind, body, and emotions are nurtured by the choices you make.

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.

Looked In The Mirror Lately?

The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.” – Pema Choldron, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice For Difficult times.

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Most of us are familiar with the Hans Christian Anderson story of the emperor who has no clothes.  Many aren’t clear of the facts behind it, though.

In the actual fable, two weavers promise an emperor a new suit of clothes that is invisible to those who are unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent. When the Emperor parades before his subjects in his new clothes, no one dares to say that he doesn’t see any suit of clothes until a child cries out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”

I’ve often told people that the first step between management and leadership is an understanding of self.  We’re all ready to tell others about our strengths, but not many want to acknowledge their weaknesses.  When they look in the mirror they see part of themselves, not all of themselves.  We tend to want to hide from our weaknesses and only see us as it is in our minds.

Unfortunately, that’s not leadership.  I’m not sure what it is, but it’s not leadership.  If I could only give one piece of advice to those seeing themselves in leadership it would be to be diligent about seeking out your weaknesses so the truth is revealed in the mirror.