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Lead Conflict like the GOAT

Updated: Feb 18, 2019

To most boxing fans, Muhammad Ali is the undisputed G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time). For sure, he was a great boxer. But he won most of his fights before he even stepped in the ring.

Ali was a master of the psychology of conflict as much as he was an expert boxer. For Ali, the real fight began long before the first-round bell. He was always several steps ahead of his opponents, mentally as well as physically.

For some personal and in-depth reflections on what is was like to face Ali inside and outside the ring, check out the documentary Facing Ali. This documentary interviews some of the most famous, and toughest, boxers of the 20th century. Each one recounts how Ali beat them psychologically before he beat them physically.

All of Ali’s famous jawing at the camera and boasting was a strategy, not just ego. The fight had already started, but Ali was the only one punching – metaphorically speaking.

I’m not suggesting you trash-talk like Ali in your next team meeting. Although, that would be hilarious. Be sure to Instagram that. Then dust off your résumé. You’ll likely be looking for a new job!

However, I am suggesting that you lead conflict at work by getting far ahead of those you lead – especially regarding natural team friction and toxic personalities. You need to know where you want team relationships to be in the future and start making the moves in the present to get them there.

Most creative conflicts and toxic personality issues are entirely predictable once you stop avoiding interpersonal engagement and start consistently moving toward it. When you are able to predict the behavior of others and willing to engage early, you can more easily drive the conflict where you want it to go.

Perhaps the best example of this is Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s famous “Rumble in the Jungle” fight in Zaire in 1974. In the lead-up to the fight, Ali used every skill and resource at his disposal to defeat a younger, and much feared, George Foreman.

Ali used the following four principles to succeed, and so should you.

1. Have a plan to “win”

Except in the rare case of a draw, winning and losing in boxing is zero sum. One boxer will have their arm raised in victory at the end of the bout. But Ali didn’t just expect to win, he planned to win. He had a clear vision of the path to victory in this specific situation and understood the specific challenges presented by George Foreman as a boxer. The points below will show his depth of planning. Winning the actual boxing match was just the last step.

Unlike the friendly, grill-selling grandpa we all know from television commercials, George Foreman was known as an intimidating power-puncher. He was a bully in the ring and relied on his ability to inspire fear in his opponents, then crush them with power-shots. If Ali was a dancer, Foreman was a bulldozer.

Ali planned to win by using all of these strengths against Foreman.

To lead conflict, you must plan – not simply react. When done for the right reasons and intentions, this is not manipulation. Transformative leaders, problem solvers and creative team members are excellent at “reading” a group and steering their activity intentionally.

This begins with devoting sufficient time to planning how, when and where you will influence these relationships and key stakeholders.

Everything Ali did in Zaire, from the moment he stepped off the plane to the moment his hand was raised in victory, was part of a plan.

2. Harness the power of the crowd

In the press and in public, Ali played the inspirational populist. The people of Zaire identified with him. They loved Ali. He became a folk hero. In contrast, Foreman came off as a brooding and humorless bully. Eventually, he would be jeered during public appearances. Foreman got beat in the ring, but first he was slaughtered in the battle of hearts and minds.

A tribal religious leader even supposedly put a curse on Foreman! It’s unclear whether this ever actually happened, but the Ali camp encouraged the story, knowing that Foreman was superstitious. Even Foreman later admitted that he wondered if Ali’s victory would be inevitable because of the supposed curse.

All of this worked for Ali because the strategy was based in truth (ok, except for the curse). Ali was likable. Foreman was aloof and broody. Ali simply amplified and contrasted things that were true and leveraged them to his own advantage. While Foreman trained privately and with grim determination, Ali worked the public with his endlessly expansive personality.

Foreman reflected later how draining this was for him. To have a country of millions universally and passionately rooting for your opponent tends to get into your head. By the time the first bell rang, it felt like the whole world was rooting for Ali. Foreman showed up angry, anxious and doubtful – not a winning combo in boxing.

When you lead conflict, avoid tunnel vision. Take a wide view on strategy. The conflict is not about one person or challenge. The conflict involves every relationship in the team.

There is truly an ocean of relational resources available to you, even in a small team. Everyone can play a role in leading a conflict where you want it to go. Be smart and expansive in your thinking about how to leverage these resources.

3. Loosen the ropes

Foreman showed up angry and tense. Given his brawling and power-punching style, his behavior in ring was now very predictable – just as Ali intended. Foreman rushed at Ali with an onslaught of destruction. All Ali needed to do was stay on his feet, conserve his energy and let Foreman tire himself out. Then, once they were in the proverbial deep-end of the later rounds, Ali would use his superior speed and mobility to dismantle a Foreman who would be out of gas and emotionally drained. That’s exactly what happened.

While Ali was letting Foreman punch himself into exhaustion, Ali would lean far back against the ropes and cover his face to avoid being knocked out. In boxing lore, this is referred to as his “rope-a-dope” strategy.

This was so successful, it was widely rumored (but never proven) that the Ali camp had ensured that the ring ropes would be excessively loosened. Hypothetically, this enabled Ali to lean back much further while on the ropes and avoid the worst of Foreman’s onslaught.

Ok, I am certainly not recommending you do anything unethical when leading conflict. However, you should see all aspects of your environment as potential advantages. Be strategic in choosing how, when or in which meeting to raise a concern – including who will, and will not, be there. Time important conversations (or confrontations) smartly and in a way that supports your intended outcomes.

Talk to people who are likely to support your position before an important meeting or conversation. Tell them you plan to raise a concern. Ask for their support in the meeting. Maybe do this with several people. This isn’t cheating. It’s leading.

Seemingly small details, such as choosing who to sit next to in a meeting or planning who will talk first during a critical presentation, can all have a measurable influence on success.

Nothing is ever guaranteed to go as planned. The more variables you can account for and leverage, the better.

4. Be gracious in winning

In this case, nearly everything went as Ali had planned and hoped. The fight was stopped in the eighth round as an exhausted Foreman was unable to defend himself against arguably the best technical boxer in history.

In the press, Ali continued to be Ali – with his wonderful, over-the-top, and never-ending bravado. Even more than boxing, Ali was a master at being, well… Ali. He flawlessly played his self-crafted persona. It wasn’t only ego. It was a strategy.

But privately, Ali and Foreman became great friends. Foreman later emotionally recounted that Ali was his greatest friend and mentor, both inside and outside the ring. He even thanked Ali with helping him learn how to sell his famous “George Foreman Grills”. Google those old TV ads. Gone is the brooding Foreman the boxer. You’ll see a warm, charming and loveable guy. That’s a much better persona for selling grills. Foreman credits Ali with teaching him how to be an effective businessman and salesperson.

In 1984, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and began a long physical and mental decline. Foreman, his mental and physical health amazingly intact, built a business empire – and made far more money selling electric grills than he ever did boxing.

All of these tips should be used in the best interest of others, not for mere personal gain, aggrandizement or just to win. Unlike boxing, zero-sum games are rarely useful in workplace conflict. You have to have honorable motives to really lead.

Ali was a beloved boxer and leader because he was, in fact, truly great. All the flash and stratagems aside, he spent a lifetime perfecting his craft. He also cared deeply about those who looked up to him. The strategies above only worked because Ali was also a superb boxer and compassionate human being.

Similarly, you must commit to building and practicing the skill set you need to lead conflict. Also, you must truly want the best for others if those skills are going to make a positive difference.

If your team believes you really want the best for them, they will follow your lead. Like Ali in Zaire, you can’t do it alone. You need social capital and the help of others to succeed. Ali was loved and admired, not because of some trick but because he was truly lovable and admirable.

Be self-giving and authentic when you lead conflict – while also, like Ali, being who your team needs you to be. And occasionally, if really needed, loosen the ropes.

Check out the Leading Conflict store for practical and hard-hitting resources that will help you put these ideas into action.

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