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Muhammad Ali and the mindsets of genius (Part 1)

  • Published: Jun 9, 2016 04:00
  • Writer: Detlef Reis | 1 viewed

I was halfway through an exercise set at the gym last Saturday when my eye spotted the news on CNN: "Boxing legend Muhammad Ali dead at 74". I feel great sadness that one of my heroes has moved on to a higher place. Muhammad Ali was one of the creative role models I studied when I was devising Genius Journey, my creative leadership development method.

"The Greatest" exemplifies all the mindsets that most great creative leaders share. The Genius Journey sends people in search of their creativity by visiting 10 destination stops. At each one, they learn about one mindset that stops or limits them. Then they learn about 10 corresponding mindsets that allow them to unbox their thinking and rediscover their creative selves.

To honour the life of Muhammad Ali, and to inspire more businesspeople to reconnect with their inner genius, let's tour the 10 stops of the Genius Journey together with Ali today and two weeks from now.

Stop 1: Belief, courage, action orientation and persistence. Muhammad Ali was a role model for this foundational first stop: Stop your doubts, worries and fears. Start to be a courageous, action-oriented and persistent believer.

"I am an ordinary man who worked hard to develop the talent I was given," he once said. "I believed in myself, and I believe in the goodness of others."

Ali knew that the repetition of affirmations leads to belief. "I figured that if I said it enough, I would convince the world that I really was the greatest," he said. He was also aware that belief powers courage: "It's lack of faith that makes people afraid of meeting challenges."

His faith gave Ali the courage to go into the ring against towering opponents such as Sonny Liston and George Foreman, and to win fights most experts considered impossible for him. But Ali looked at impossible as a motivation: "Impossible is not a fact. It's an opinion. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing."

His strong belief also led Ali to refuse to be drafted to fight in what he saw as an unjust war in Vietnam. That conviction would cost him his title, his money and his freedom: "I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But ... I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I'll go to jail, so what? We've been in jail for 400 years."

"He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life," noted Ali. His courage gave him the willpower to persist in the face of the hardship and pain that every champion and genius leader needs to master: "Champions aren't made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them -- a desire, a dream, a vision. ... But the will must be stronger than the skill." He admitted he hated training but told himself: "Don't quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion."

Stop 2: Self-confidence and individuality. Here is where you stop your ego -- your false self, the role you're playing to please others -- and start being yourself.

"I know where I'm going and I know the truth, and I don't have to be what you want me to be. I'm free to be what I want," said Ali. "My principles are more important than the money or my title." His insistence on his individuality even made him change his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali (which means "beloved of God").

While extremely self-confident, Ali was also humble and respectful to ordinary fellow humans. He admitted once: "At home I'm a nice guy, but I don't want the world to know. Humble people, I've found, don't get very far."

Stop 3: Curiosity and open-mindedness. Stop 4: Playfulness, positivity and optimism. These two stops are located at the same consciousness level. Here you're asked to stop being judgemental and closed, a negative, serious pessimist. Instead, start being open and curious, a positive playful optimist.

Ali was open and curious to meet people and learn: "I sought the advice and cooperation from all those around me -- but not permission." He became popular because he loved people and entertained them with funny rants against opponents ("I've seen George Foreman shadow boxing, and the shadow won") and witty poems ("I've wrestled with alligators, I've tussled with a whale, done handcuffed lightning, and thrown thunder in jail").

Clearly, throughout his life, Ali maintained a curious, open, positive and playful beginner's mind of a child, which explains that while disease ravaged his body in his last decades, it "couldn't take the spark from his eyes", as US President Barack Obama said in his tribute.

In two weeks we will cover the remaining stops of the Genius Journey to see how "The Greatest of all time" epitomised the other mindsets of creative genius.

Dr Detlef Reis is founding director and chief ideator of Thinkergy Limited (, the ideation and innovation company in Asia. He is also an adjunct associate professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. He can be reached at