Editor’s note: This cover feature of Muhammad Ali was originally published in the June 1998 issue of SUCCESS. Ali died June 3, 2016, at the age of 74.
Muhammad Ali won a gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome and was the first three-time heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Since being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984, Ali raised millions to support treatment and research. For his humanitarian work in developing countries, he was recognized as United Nations Messenger of Peace and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
When someone refers to “the greatest athlete of all time,” only one person’s name comes to mind. Not Michael Jordan. Not Tiger Woods. Not Babe Ruth. Only Muhammad Ali.
It’s almost strange that this admittedly superb athlete managed to usurp such a crowning superlative. Say the phrase a few times: the greatest. It can’t be that these words are meant to describe a mere mortal, can it? Yet, he was proudly and supremely mortal. Ali was many extraordinary things, but he was unquestionably still human.
So, how did he become “The Greatest”? Let’s put aside his awesome athletic skills for a moment. This guy could just be one of the most talented brand builders ever.
We caught up with Ali and his wife, Lonnie, to discuss what it takes to build a brand. She did most of the talking while he sat patiently by her side and indicated his assent or dissent as questions were posed. Here are the lessons of a master, so listen up.
1. Be more outrageous than anyone around you.
We’ll start with the obvious point because, if anything, Ali was outrageous. In the early days, his rebelliousness sometimes seemed to hurt him, but over the years he stood his ground and generated respect for not wavering in the face of criticism. “I’ve always had adversity, and I’ve always had detractors,” he said. “They said I talked too much, that I shouldn’t be a Muslim, should join the Army, couldn’t beat Sonny Liston. But I’ve never let anyone talk to me into not believing in myself.”
Applying the lesson: Behind the big talk were a big heart and a man of unassailable ethics. But what carried him through tough times is confidence. “You can’t overstate the value of self-confidence and image,” comments, Ph.D., a psychologist and author who lectures to employees of Fortune 500 companies. This applied doubly to the small-business owner. “A big part of success is being able to trumpet your skills unabashedly. Let’s say you’re a plumber, advertising in the Yellow Pages. Many people would have a hard time saying, ‘I am the greatest plumber in town.’ We’re all taught by our parents to be modest. But advertising is an area where you need to rise above the crowd. If it takes being outrageous to get noticed, be outrageous, but honestly so. False humility doesn’t cut it.”
“Muhammad was in a bad management situation; he had the wrong business team. I decided to do what many other corporations did in the late 1980s: I trimmed the fat.”
“Muhammad was in a bad management situation; he had the wrong business team,” says Lonnie, who possesses shrewd business sense—not to mention an MBA in marketing. “I decided to do what many other corporations did in the late 1980s: I trimmed the fat.” Ali recognized that to rebuild his image—his brand—he would have to shed the entourage that was dragging him down. Lonnie set up a core group to run the business.
Applying the lesson: You need help, whether it’s a good team of lawyers, accountants and public relations people on call or a trusted friend to whom you can turn for advice. You simply won’t get anywhere if you insist on going it alone.
3. Create a loyal following.
If there was another member of the Ali team, aside from Lonnie, who made a significant difference, it’s Harlan Werner, who became Ali’s right-hand man at the tender age of 19. “I was just a kid promoting a card show,” Werner says. A year later, after meeting him at a show and being thunderstruck in the great man’s presence, Werner drove to Michigan to meet with Lonnie and Muhammad. “It was crazy, and maybe I had no right to be there, but I finally took a deep breath and told the Alis, ‘Look, Muhammad can be, and should be, the biggest star in this arena, and I can make it happen.’ ”
Applying the lesson: Granted, you may not be a household name, but as a business owner you have an entire community— all your employees—that looks up to you. It’s entirely your choice whether they worship you or treat you with resentment. Taking a cue from Ali, you should empower them to do the jobs they’re best at.
Werner persuaded the Alis that Muhammad was the most under-promoted athlete going. “I’ll make you big again,” he said. Given Ali’s history, presence and energy, Werner was confident he could meet his goal.
Applying the lesson: Want to boost sales, fire up your production line? Don’t try to do it all at once. Rather, accomplish your growth in stages the way Werner did, says Buffington. “Your employees want to do their best for you, but it’s frustrating and counterproductive for you to tell them you need ‘more’ results, ‘better’ numbers. Give them something concrete to shoot for. Chances are, they’ll exceed your goals.”
5. Walk away from bad deals.
Ali did not endorse products that he didn’t use; wouldn’t associate with people he didn’t like; wouldn’t support projects that run counter to his beliefs. “If you want to succeed in business,” Ali said, “you have to be true to yourself, not compromise your values—and leave the rest alone.”
Applying the lesson: “Too often we see dollar signs and fear that if we stick to our guns about what we really want, we’ll lose everything,” Buffington says. “But if you know what you want and refuse to do what you don’t want, people will respect you for it. You may lose a deal or two, but ultimately your business will be the better for it.”
Related: Rohn: How to Live a Life of Value