A smiling Muhammad Ali shows his fist to reporters during an impromptu news conference in Mexico City in this July 9, 1987.
True transformational leaders defy conventional stereotypes and societal boundaries.
No one illustrated this better than the late, great Muhammad Ali.
Born Cassius Clay in the racially segregated city of Louisville, Kentucky, he didn't just break the mould of what it means to be an African-American athlete and role model -- he blew it to smithereens.
His best known boxing predecessor, Joe Louis, had been described by a white news media as "a credit to his race" -- meaning he knew his place and didn't make waves.
Ali, on the other hand, created tsunamis. As President Obama put it, Ali was not without his flaws, but there is no doubt he shook up the world.
Ali -- black, Muslim, superbly athletic and so physically perfect he was seemingly sculpted by Michelangelo -- was an inspiration for me growing up in Montreal.
He was initially backed financially by 11 white Louisville businessmen, who together formed a syndicate much as they might have done for a promising thoroughbred (this was, after all, Kentucky). Today we might think of them as angel investors. These particular angels got 50 per cent of Ali's winnings.
It didn't last, nor did the name Cassius Clay. Immediately after defeating Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title, the new champ announced he had joined the Nation of Islam. A few days later, he announced his new "non-slave name," Muhammad Ali.
Ali -- black, Muslim, superbly athletic and so physically perfect he was seemingly sculpted by Michelangelo -- was an inspiration for me growing up in Montreal. He remains one today. Let me put that in perspective -- I am white, Jewish, Canadian and marginally athletic.
My point is that Ali, even as he provided African-Americans with a sense of pride, place and redefined the palate of beauty to include brown and black, also inspired millions of others of every race around the world. He also revolutionized his sport, redefining the very tactics and strategies a boxer might employ.
Typically commentators point to his refusal to heed an induction notice to serve in the U.S. military during the Vietnam conflict as a watershed moment in the Ali saga. And that is undoubtedly true. He took a principled stand, one that not only cost him his title, but almost four of his prime boxing years (and the purses that would have gone with them).
But as someone who identifies and seeks out executive talent for a living -- often looking for transformational leaders on behalf of my clients -- it was Ali's ability to radically upend conventional boxing wisdom that intrigued and inspired me.
Conventional wisdom held that heavyweights did not float and dance, and have the speed of great middleweights. Think of a battleship. Ali could no more hold his feet still than he could hold his tongue. He was a sleek, fast-moving destroyer, literally running circles around opponents.
If circumstances changed, he changed strategy and tactics. Take his fight with the formidable (and younger) George Foreman, the so-called "Rumble in the Jungle." Ali in this instance chose to allow Foreman to pummel his arms and body while he stood against the ropes and covered up. This went on round after round -- until Foreman was so exhausted (in part because the temperature was in excess of 30 degrees Celsius) that he could no longer lift his gloves. Ali then knocked him out.
Transformational leaders are individuals who don't accept conventional wisdom or confine themselves to past practices. Certainly in my own life, whether in business or beyond, I have always felt motivated to have a mind of my own and to not simply accept convention on its face. I likewise challenge my children to be bold and to think for themselves. I have been fortunate over the years to have had great mentors who were close to me. But even though I never met Ali, his example always loomed large, especially in my earlier years.
Where are the transformational leaders of tomorrow? We see them everywhere. I am proud to be on the Board of the next One Young World Summit, which will take place this fall in Ottawa. One Young World is the premier global forum for young leaders under 30. Forbes magazine has their top 30 under 30, which highlights 600 of the brightest young entrepreneurs, breakout talents and change agents in 20 different sectors. And those are just two examples of amazing young talent positioned to change our world for the better.
Nelson Mandela famously declared that sport has the power to change the world. Muhammad Ali understood this notion well.
Toronto is proud to have Toronto Raptors President Masai Ujiri, inspired by Mandela's call to action, carrying the torch. Ujiri established an amazing organization called Giants of Africa, whose mission is to use basketball as a means to educate and enrich the lives of African youth. Every summer, Ujiri travels to Africa to train young players and help transform the continent. Slowly but surely his bold ambitions are being achieved.
We can't all be Muhammad Ali. He was without a doubt one of a kind, perhaps one of the two or three most iconic figures of the 20th century. But each and every one of us can honour his legacy by committing to do at least one more good deed, big or small, so that we can transform our world for the better.
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Sonny Liston lies out for the count after being KO'd in the first round of his return title fight by world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, Lewiston, Maine, May 25, 1965. (Hulton Archive / Getty Images)
Photo of Muhammed Ali circa 1970. (Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)
In this 1954 file photo, boxer Cassius Clay is shown. Long before his dazzling footwork and punching prowess made him a three-time world heavyweight boxing champion known as Muhammad Ali, a young Cassius Clay honed his skills by sparring with neighborhood friends and running alongside the bus on the way to school. Ali turns 70 on Jan. 17, 2012. (AP)
In this Feb. 8, 1962 file photo, a young Muhammad Ali is seen with his trainer Angelo Dundee at City Parks Gym in New York. The three-time heavyweight boxing champion will celebrate a milestone birthday Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2012, when he turns 70. Ali will be surrounded by friends who are gathering Saturday evening, Jan. 14, for a birthday party at the Muhammad Ali Center in his hometown of Louisville. (Dan Grossi, AP)
In this Nov. 15, 1962, file photo, young heavyweight boxer Cassius Clay, who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali, points to a sign he wrote on a chalk board in his dressing room before his fight against Archie Moore in Los Angeles, predicting he'd knock Moore out in the fourth round, which he went on to do. The sign also predicts Clay will be the next champ via a knockout over Sonny Liston in eight rounds. He did it in seven rounds. Ali turns 70 on Jan. 17, 2012. (Harold P. Matosian, AP)
US boxer Muhammad Ali in training for a match against Brian London, Aug. 1966. (R. McPhedran, Express / Getty Images
American heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, circa 1970. The man in front of him is wearing a t-shirt printed with Ali's motto 'Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee'. (Chris Smith, Hulton Archive / Getty Images)
In this Sept. 3, 1960, file photo, Cassius Clay, right, 18-year-old from Louisville, Ky., throws a right at Tony Madigan of Australia, during the light heavyweight boxing semifinals at the Summer Olympic Games in Rome, Italy. Cassius Clay later changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Ali turns 70 on Jan. 17, 2012. (AP)
British pop group The Beatles, (L-R) Paul McCartney, John Lennon (1940 - 1980), Ringo Starr and George Harrison (1943 - 2001), pose for a photo with Cassius Clay (now Muhammad Ali), contender for the World Heavyweight Boxing title, at his training camp in Miami. Original Publication: People Disc - HU0064 (Keystone / Getty Images)
In this April 4, 1963 file photo, heavyweight boxer Cassius Clay is seen with his mother, Odessa Grady Clay, in a car outside their home in Louisville, Ky. The man who became the world's most recognizable athlete was a baby sitter, a jokester and a dreamer in the predominantly black West End neighborhood of Louisville where he grew up and forged lasting friendships while beginning his ascent toward greatness. Now, as the iconic boxer slowed by Parkinson's disease prepares to turn 70 next week, he's coming home for a birthday bash at the downtown cultural center and museum that bears his name. (H.B. Littel, AP)
Heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali with his daughters Laila (9 months) and Hanna (2 years 5 months) at Grosvenor House, Dec. 19 1978. (Frank Tewkesbury, Evening Standard / Getty Images)
In this Jan. 17, 1967 file photo, Muhammad Ali blows out the candles on a cake baked for his 25th birthday, in Houston. Ali's wife says the boxing great is still a "big kid" who enjoys his birthday parties. The three-time heavyweight champion turns 70 Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2012. He will be surrounded by friends Saturday night for a birthday party at the Muhammad Ali Center in his hometown. (Ed Kolenovsky, AP)
Muhammad Ali lights the first Olympic torch for the Salt Lake 2002 Olympic Winter Games at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, Dec. 4, 2001. The Olympic flame arrived in the US for the first time in six years, kicking off the Olympic Torch Relay, the ceremonial passing of the Olympic flame, throughout the United States. (Curtis Compton, AFP / Getty Images)
Laila Ali poses with her father, Muhammad Ali, after her 10 round WBC/WIBA Super Middleweight title bout with Erin Toughill at the MCI Center in Washington, DC. Ali won the fight via 3rd round TKO. (Ed Mulholland, WireImage)
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