Muhammad Ali Rope-A-Dope

Working out at my local gym as a I enter my 50th year (I guess I’ve had a relapse of one of my dreams and am actually in some of the best condition of my life…240 lb bench press yesterday, 10k row on Friday, 5 mile run on Thursday), I noticed one of the many inspirational posters hung up around the room that included a quote from Muhammad Ali…

“Champions aren’t made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them: a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have last-minute stamina, they have to be a little faster, they have to have the skill and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.”

Ali’s insight reflects the Leadership/Management balance of upside and downside in his typically eloquent and colourful way. He lauds ‘desire…dream…vision’, but in the same breathe he pays respect to ‘stamina…faster.’

While he says that the ‘will must be stronger’, it was actually a ‘Management’ tactic of ‘Rope a Dope’ which is largely credited for his epic victory over George Forman in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle.’ The stereotype of a boxer is someone coming out of their corner and just punching as a hard as they can against the opponent. But Ali respected the downside risks of simply punching relentlessly. The Wikipedia entry on it describes what is actually in the spirit of embracing failure…

The rope-a-dope is performed by a boxer assuming a protected stance, in Ali’s classic pose, lying against the ropes, and allowing his opponent to hit him, in the hope that the opponent will become tired and make mistakes which the boxer can exploit in a counterattack. In competitive situations other than boxing, rope-a-dope is used to describe strategies in which one party purposely puts itself in what appears to be a losing position, attempting thereby to become the eventual victor. According to Angelo Dundee, the idea for the strategy against Foreman was suggested by boxing photographer George Kalinsky, ‘Sort of a dope on the ropes, letting Foreman swing away but, like in the picture, hit nothing but air.’ “

The heart of this blog uniting the subject of Embracing Failure with Leadership and Management is the notion of taking and managing risk.  In fact, the Guardian dubbed Ali’s ‘Rope-A-Dope’ as the all-time #1 top sporting risk (“people who went against the accepted wisdom, who chose ingenuity over safety”).

Ali hails the “skill and the will” and is really an iconic example of a Leader/Manager: Leaders have the will of a champion; Managers have the skill of a fighter. Both together float like butterfly and sting like a bee.