HR Hero Line

Muhammad Ali: HR consultant

by Dennis J. Merley

Boxing great and cultural icon Muhammad Ali passed away earlier this week at the age of 74. Ali was at all times larger than life, exhibiting a new style of boxing as well as a brashness rarely seen before in professional athletes. Most of all, he was an inspiration to millions of people for his commitment to his craft and his convictions.

Despite the brutality of his profession, Ali remained a gentle soul who sought to inspire us with humor, poetry, and a relentlessly positive view of life.

Last year, we noted that the wit and witticism of another departed sports hero Yogi Berra translated neatly into a series of observations on effective human resource management. Like Berra, Ali’s reflections on life also can be interpreted as astute critiques of the American workplace. Here are some examples from the man known as “The Greatest”:

  • “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.” Ali clearly understood the importance of setting goals and making them ambitious. Settling for an easy, comfortable routine isn’t likely to be the avenue toward great accomplishment in any workplace setting.
  • “The best way to make your dreams come true is to wake up.” On the other hand, Ali also understood that dreams don’t just happen—you have to make them happen. He would certainly have agreed that employees need to establish specific action steps to achieve their goals, and must be provided with the tools and opportunity to follow those steps.
  • “If they can make penicillin out of moldy bread, they can sure make something out of you.” This colorful remark notes the importance of patience with new employees as well as those employees who are having difficulty with their work assignments. Ali might have suggested that the answer isn’t just discarding those employees like you might toss out old food. Instead, try to rediscover and nurture the qualities that you saw in those individuals when you hired them.
  • “Hating people because of their color is wrong. And it doesn’t matter which color does the hating. It’s just plain wrong.” Ali obviously understood the value of a diverse and harassment-free work environment where everyone deserves respect and everyone shows it.
  • “Silence is golden when you can’t think of a good answer.” Despite his penchant for fast and boastful talk, Ali clearly recognized that sometimes it’s best to just keep quiet.  Employers should bear this in mind when they are tempted, for example, to suggest that an illness must be causing an employee’s performance problems or to invoke an employee’s protected class status in a misguided attempt at humor.
  • “It’s just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up.” Ali worked hard to show everyone that he wasn’t the brutal man he portrayed in the boxing ring.  He felt that his truer worth was demonstrated in how he served others. Maybe this was Ali’s way of suggesting a good work-life balance or perhaps of not defining yourself only in terms of professional accomplishments.
  • “Don’t count the days; make the days count.” This is great advice for those who don’t see the value in what they do or how they might fit into the big picture at work. Employees need to feel that they matter to the organization. Help them understand their contributions and how those contributions are valued.

Bottom line
Ali urged us to “Live everyday as if it were your last because someday you’re going to be right.” Now that he has indeed reached his last day, why not take a moment to reflect on how our work in the field of human resources can be enhanced by considering his words of wisdom and inspiration.

Dennis Merley is an editor of Minnesota Employment Law Letter and an attorney at Felhaber Larson in Minneapolis. He may be contacted at