managemnet company strategy managemanet A Case Study in Purpose-Driven Decision Making

A Case Study in Purpose-Driven Decision Making

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BRIAN KENNY: Today we discuss what it means to be great, and what greatness means is an age-old debate. Is it all about medals and banners unfurled, or does greatness entail changing the world? One thing I think we’re sure to find is that everybody has in mind an opinion about who is the greatest, but the truth is much more complicated. So, today we explore what the answers could be in a case about the greatest, Muhammad Ali. Today on Cold Call, we’ve invited Professor Robert Simons to discuss the case entitled, Muhammad Ali: Changing the World. I’m your host Brian Kenny and you’re listening to Cold Call on the HBR Podcast Network. Bob Simons’ research focuses on the relationship between business strategy, organization design and management control systems, and he created a course in the MBA program called “Changing the World,” and that’s what we’re going to talk about today. Bob, thanks for joining me.

BOB SIMONS: Brian, thank you so much. And I was really tickled to hear your introduction with the rhyming, which as you well know is part of our story today.

BRIAN KENNY: We’re going to talk about that. So yeah, I threw my best. I was trying to channel Muhammad Ali in my introduction, so I hope I did justice to that. But I think that was just one of many, many interesting characteristics of Muhammad Ali that we’re going to talk about today. And we had you on not long ago to talk about Marie Curie. It was a very popular episode. It’s also tied to this course that you’re teaching. Maybe we’ll just start by asking you to tell us what the central issue is in the case and what your cold call is to start this discussion in the classroom.

BOB SIMONS: Well, Brian, it’s a very interesting question, and I struggled a little bit because you had had forewarned me. This is what we would be starting with.

BRIAN KENNY: So, it’s Cold Call. You want the warm call. See?

BOB SIMONS: Warm call. And this story is surprising on so many dimensions, as you well know, that this is, in fact, what I asked the students at the beginning of class. I say, “Tell me what surprised you most about this story.” And they will come back with everything from his work ethic, intensity, the way he transformed himself, his in-your-face persona. There’s a love-hate relationship with this story.

BRIAN KENNY: You gave me a list of the people that you discuss in this class, the cases that you’ve written, and you said, “Oh, if you want to talk about any more of these, I’d be happy to do it.” I would like to talk about all of them because they’re all really interesting people. Tell us a little bit more about this course and what you’re trying to achieve with it.

BOB SIMONS: Well, the course came from, in fact, another course that I have taught on strategy execution and so like many things at Harvard Business School, our students are so fabulous. And they came to me and said, “Do you think we could take the principles, the foundations, the frameworks of our strategy execution course and apply this to individuals and the way they make choices in their own lives?” That led to a couple of interesting papers the students did to a research project, and then ultimately to this course where we study famous people and try to understand the choices they make in their personal lives that allow them to really rise up to a position of influence and change the world.

BRIAN KENNY: And I’ve had Bill George on the show a couple of times in the past, and he’s talked about crucible moments that people have. And I feel like there’s a lot of similarity in the cases that you’re teaching in your course where there’s a turning point in these people’s lives and they have to make a decision. And this case felt like it had a little bit of that.

BOB SIMONS: Well, I think that’s exactly right. Where I would differ a little bit from Bill’s approach is this research project, in fact, is called “Forks in the Road,” and the notion is we get up every morning, each of us, and we have to decide looking at the day ahead, do we go left or right? What choices are we going to make? Trying to understand how these people make day-to-day choices that somehow allow them to start from a relatively typical average position in life and end up just being world famous.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. So, let’s talk about Muhammad Ali, a name we all know, but tell us about his childhood. What was it like for him growing up?

BOB SIMONS: He had a very tough childhood. Born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1942, and as a Black African American young man, his father was a handsome, charismatic, but also a drunk and a philanderer. And his mother worked very, very hard as a housekeeper for white families. The family was relatively poor and they struggled very, very much as was typical, I think, for people around them.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. What was the climate like for African Americans in Louisville, Kentucky? I can’t even imagine how tough that must have been.

BOB SIMONS: I guess this was almost the epicenter of racial segregation at the time. It was just terrible. There were two Louisvilles. He describes in things I’ve read about him how he would pass an amusement park just by his home and he could look in and he could see kids his age, white kids, playing and laughing and having fun. He wasn’t allowed to enter that park. He talks about going on a trip with his mother downtown thirsty, not being allowed to have a drink at a drinking fountain in a store because he was Black.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. So, how did he get drawn into boxing? Where did that come from?

BOB SIMONS: Well, like many of our protagonists, there’s a little bit of serendipity here. One thing he loved, he had a red and white Schwinn bicycle given to him by his father, loved this. And someone stole the darn thing. And so he was just unbelievably sad. He raced up and down the streets trying to find it. He talked to people and someone suggested he should go over to the Columbia gym where there was a boxing coach there by the name of Joe Martin. And Joe Martin was a police officer, and he did this boxing on the side. And so, Cassius Clay went over and spoke to Joe, and he said, “I’m going to beat up whoever stole my bike.” And Joe said, “Well, do you even know how to fight?” And he said, “I’ll do it anyway.” He says, “Well, why don’t you register in my gym and come back and learn to box.” Now, interestingly, Cassius had no interest in boxing because he really didn’t think it was something that he could ever rise to stardom in. But by chance, again, within a few short days, he was watching television, some kind of a local boxing show and there was Joe Martin as the coach in the corner and he says, “Gee, maybe I could get myself on television.” So next thing you know, he’s back. His parents have agreed to allow him to sign up, and he is boxing with Joe Martin.

BRIAN KENNY: So, that leads a little bit to the discussion about what motivates Cassius Clay, this young man? What are the kind of things that drove him, do you think?

BOB SIMONS: Well, it’s hard to know. We struggle in class between how many of these traits are innate. You’re born with them. How many come from your environment? Certainly young Cassius from a very early age wanted to be seen. So for example, he decided he would not play football because there was too much equipment that actually hid your face and persona. The people couldn’t see you. Boxing appealed to him because you could see him. Now, from day one though, he was just enormously driven, enormously determined. And I think that must have come from something within him.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. And tremendous confidence, even as a young man, almost like unwarranted confidence.

BOB SIMONS: Crazy. He was literally 12 years old. And Joe Martin arranged for him to do his first public television boxing fight. He weighed 89 or 90 pounds. And he literally went around the neighborhood knocking on doors telling his neighbors who’d never met him, “I’m going to be on TV boxing. Would you please watch me?”

BRIAN KENNY: So, he learned a technique early on that came to define his approach to boxing. Can you talk a little bit about that?

BOB SIMONS: He was very well known for, I’ll call it dancing. He would literally dance around the ring, taunting his opponents, throwing in punches, and they would become furious trying to get back at him, swinging, swinging, swinging. And he would do this until he had completely tired them out, and then he would move in for the kill. And he would be absolutely merciless in attacking them after he had got them worn out.

BRIAN KENNY: And I know from having read elsewhere that the inspiration for the character Apollo Creed in the Rocky films was really based on this technique that Muhammad Ali used, which was to float like a butterfly around the ring and tire your opponent out. Make him throw a lot of punches.

BOB SIMONS: No, that’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. And that worked and that became his signature and the thing that people equate with him in the ring. When he was still coming of age, there was a terrible incident, the lynching of a young man, a young African American named Emmett Till, and that had a profound effect on Cassius at the time. Can you talk about that?

BOB SIMONS: That’s exactly right. Cassius, I think, felt very deeply about this. They were roughly the same age. I think Cassius was 13 at the time and Emmett Till from Chicago was 14 and visiting his family down in Mississippi. Emmett Till’s mother, wanted to be sure that the world knew of this and she would not go quietly. And this became a widely covered story in the Black newspapers and news generally. And this is how Cassius learned of it. And this really, really affected him deeply when he understood this terrible injustice that had happened to a kid just his age.

BRIAN KENNY: It also seemed to fuel and motivate him in a way that drove him. He had tremendous work ethic, and I don’t know if that was something that he witnessed a lot growing up. Were there role models around him, or is this just something that came from within him?

BOB SIMONS: It’s hard to know. His father certainly was not a hard worker, just a slacker. His mother was a hard worker, but Cassius himself was literally off the charts. Joe Martin, his boxing coach, said he was the hardest worker of anyone he had ever trained. And to give you a little bit of color to this, what he would do every day is he would stand with his friends at the bus stop and his friends would get on the bus, and as soon as the bus started off, then he would bend down and race to the school trying to beat the bus to the school by running. He trained all day with Joe Martin. And then at the end of the day, he went over to a Black trainer close by and worked with that trainer until midnight. And he did this every single day of the week. When he decided that he wanted to be a heavyweight boxing championship, he was just a little skinny kid, he decided he had to bulk himself up. So he used to drink a quart of milk every morning with two raw eggs. And at lunchtime, it took two full trays to carry his six bottles of milk and his stacks of sandwiches back as he worked to try to bulk himself up.

BRIAN KENNY: And I think that’s a characteristic that probably you see a lot across the cases that you’re teaching in this course. I know that’s true of the Marie Curie case, just the work ethic was off the charts there as well.

BOB SIMONS: Yes. I don’t really know the right answer on this one. My students really struggle because part of them, they’re trying to find a work-life balance, so as we all are. The other side, they’re looking at these people who’ve done amazing things and they’re just very, very dedicated to their work, and they work very, very hard.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. Cassius’ work ethic did not extend to his studies, however. How was he as a student?

BOB SIMONS: No, he was, at best, a mediocre student. I’d have to be kind on that one.

BRIAN KENNY: Speaking as a mediocre student myself, I have to say there’s nothing wrong with that.

BOB SIMONS: And I think in truth, the problem was that he spent all his time in the boxing at the gym and really almost didn’t go to school. And he said he just couldn’t wait to get home, get in his bike, and get back to the gym. And his mother just got furious about this because she wanted him to get an education. And in fact, when it came time for graduation, his teachers were so upset at his “non attendance” that they didn’t want to give him a certificate. They didn’t want to graduate him. But he was such a popular local sports hero that actually, the principal overruled them, and he got his degree even though he had really not very much gone to class.

BRIAN KENNY: That’s pretty amazing. That says something different about our culture’s treatment of outstanding athletes, but that’s a whole different case that we can talk about some other time. I thought one of the interesting insights that came out of the case was this thing that almost hampered his ability to achieve the greatness that he achieved. And I never knew this about him. Can you describe the thing that almost kept him from becoming an Olympian?

BOB SIMONS: Well, it does remind us that we all have our fears. It doesn’t matter how good we are or how good we seem to be in public, all of us have fears. And to set the stage, Cassius Clay is now 18 years old. He’s the undisputed Golden Gloves champion at amateur boxing. He has won the Kentucky title six times. He’s won the national title six times. And lo and behold, he gets an invitation to try out for the Olympic boxing team. And he tries out, and what do you know? He gets a spot on the Olympic team. The problem was he is terrified of flying and the Olympics were to be held in Rome.

BRIAN KENNY: That’s a problem.

BOB SIMONS: And there was no way he could do this with his fear. So what he did to overcome it is he bought a parachute, strapped it to his back, and got on the plane and sat in the seat with that parachute on his back, ready to exit at any point. And that’s how he got himself to Rome.

BRIAN KENNY: So, I don’t know if our listeners are going to see a lot of people strapping parachutes on going forward. That’s quite a sight though. I can’t imagine that. He’s at the Olympics. He has success there. He comes away with a gold medal, and you would think that he’s well on his way to getting the kind of acknowledgement and respect that he so desires to have. What was his homecoming like?

BOB SIMONS: As you might expect, it was a hero’s welcome. The mayor of Louisville, the governor of Kentucky, the police chief, they were all there to shake his hand, welcome, congratulate him, but really, really a hero’s welcome. But a few days later, he and a friend, back to their life, they go into a popular diner that was often frequented by white people, and he has this Olympic medal literally hanging around his neck, and they refuse to serve him at the counter. And so he leaves there. Walking away, a white motorcycle gang accosts him, tries to rip this metal off his neck, and I think he’s really feeling profoundly dejected at this point.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. So how does that affect him? How does he use that to motivate him?

BOB SIMONS: After what happened to him feeling so down, he walked over to a local bridge, the Jefferson County Bridge, and he took that medal off his neck and he threw it into the river. He had spent his whole life trying to get to this point in his career, and he decided that this was going to be the end of it. And he said at the time he felt liberated. He was now going to spend the rest of his life pursuing racial justice, really trying to take this newfound fame and turn it to the advantage, not only for himself, but for others.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. So, that’s a big, as you say, fork in the road. And he chose a very specific direction at that point in his life. So we certainly know that one of the things that Ali was well known for were his little rhymes and his ability to trash talk. And I just wondering, you tell me, is he the first person to ever rap in trash talk in sports?

BOB SIMONS: Musical historians say he did, in fact. His rhyming, his taunting, his constant back and forth, they say this was really the precursor. He was one of the founding fathers of what we think of today as hip hop and rap. It was really all back to Ali. And in fact, he recorded later in his life, two spoken word albums and both of those got Grammy Award nominations.

BRIAN KENNY: Wow. So, he is the father of rap and perhaps the father of trash talking as we know it in sports these days.


BRIAN KENNY: I don’t know if we should thank him for that part or not, but anyway. What was his strategy for finally getting a shot at the title fight that he so desired?

BOB SIMONS: Well, this is coming back to his trash talking in your face persona. And he now had to find a way to be picked, be chosen to battle Sonny Liston, who was the existing current heavyweight champion. And he was only 22 years old. It was a long shot. So what he did is he stalked Sonny Liston everywhere around the country. He went to his press conferences, he went to his weigh-ins. When Liston was having dinners with friends and families, he would show up and he would be taunting him, calling him trash names, being in his face, really getting Liston absolutely furious with the hope that Liston would be so enraged that he would want to fight Cassius Clay in the ring. And in fact, this is what happened.

BRIAN KENNY: It worked.

BOB SIMONS: The promoters actually thought this is going to be the fight that we want to back. And they actually chose him then to be the contender where he fought in Miami Beach with one million people watching.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah, and we know how that fight ended. And that really catapulted him to fame.

BOB SIMONS: Yes. So, he beat Liston, I think, in seven rounds and became the new and youngest ever heavyweight champion of the world.

BRIAN KENNY: So, now he’s got a platform where he can really start to pursue this notion of racial justice that he’s committed himself to. What prompted him to change his name?

BOB SIMONS: Well, things get interesting now because Cassius Clay Jr., our young boxer, took the name of his father, and his father had been named after a famous white abolitionist who lived somewhere between 1810 and 1902. And this abolitionist, the original Cassius Clay, had founded a newspaper, had founded a college, had worked with Lincoln. He was really dedicated to improving the lives of Blacks. But our boxer Cassius Clay discovered in reading the biographies of the original Cassius Clay that he had found his wealth through slave owning and people knew that. But more importantly, young Cassius became convinced that the original Cassius Clay still had white supremacist undertones in his thinking. And he decided he was not going to be part of that. And he rejected the name entirely. And what he did then was he took the name looking at one of his heroes, Malcolm X, from the Nation of Islam, and he said, “From now on, I will be called Cassius X.”


BOB SIMONS: Now, this didn’t last very long before Elijah Muhammad from the Nation of Islam said, “You should from now on be called Muhammad Ali,” which means the praised one. And this is what Ali eventually chose, and he wanted to be called that for the rest of his life.

BRIAN KENNY: So, at this moment in time, we are at the peak of the Civil Rights movement. Martin Luther King is doing his passive approach to gaining social justice for Black Americans. And the Nation of Islam in the United States is taking a decidedly different course. What was Martin Luther King’s view of this decision by Muhammad Ali?

BOB SIMONS: Where Martin Luther King had been fighting for integration and equal rights, the Nation of Islam was exactly the opposite. It was fighting for, in fact, segregation, racial segregation, and Black supremacy. And so Martin Luther King was very dismayed. In fact, I have a quote here. He says, “I think perhaps Cassius should spend more time proving his boxing skill and do less talking.” He was nervous that Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali, in fact, was going to do real damage to the fight for racial integration.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah, and Ali is not done being controversial at this point either because we’re also in the midst of the Vietnam War. And he makes a very pointed decision about his participation in that conflict.

BOB SIMONS: He gets drafted and refuses to go, and he says, “I’m not going to fight over there with the injustice here at home.” And this has severe consequences for him. Boxing commissions across the country cancel his licenses. They take back his titles. He is convicted in US Federal Court of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison. He becomes a very popular speaker on college campuses, of course, where there’s a lot of opposition to the Vietnam War. And famous people start to rally around him. Bertrand Russell, actors Henry Fonda and Marlon Brando, Sidney Poitier, even John Lennon of the Beatles, helping him, supporting him, putting his weight. But nevertheless, he’s facing a five-year prison term. Ultimately, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction. So he never had to serve time in prison. But he lost three years of critically valuable time in his young boxing career when he was not able to fight.

BRIAN KENNY: And I think what you see with this particular incident is the foundations of what ultimately became his adoration in the public eye in later years. As we look back at the Vietnam War and all the flaws that went into that, you can look at him then as saying he was a righteous person who made a really hard choice. But at the time, I’m sure it was hugely controversial in the public eye.

BOB SIMONS: Hugely, hugely. He was either loved or hated, but just as you say, I think people thought he was principled. He was doing this on principle, but he was so in your face. And so again, it elicited tremendous controversy, even today as you think about was this the right thing to do? Was this the wrong thing to do?

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. How important was his Muslim identity to him?

BOB SIMONS: Once he decided that he would no longer be a Christian and be a Muslim, he insisted that everyone recognize that change as valid, and people would taunt him a little bit by referring to him by his original Cassius Clay name. And he became enraged. This came to a head when he was fighting Ernie Terrell. The two of them got together. There were press conferences, but Ernie Terrell refused to call him. Mohamed Ali, kept using the Cassius Clay. And Ali became so incensed that he got them in the ring. And for eight rounds, he pounded him and pounded him constantly yelling in his face, “What’s my name? What’s my name? What’s my name?” As he hit him and hit him and hit him.

BRIAN KENNY: So, obviously this is a critically important part of his identity now, and he takes the pilgrimage to Islam. How did that affect him?

BOB SIMONS: So here, again, we have another pivot in his life. He loses a fight to Joe Frazier. He is trying to regain his heavyweight title. He loses a fight trying to do that. Discouraged, trying to get some energy back and he discovers much to his dismay that the teaching of the Quran is very different than what he has learned through the Nation of Islam. And he sees that, in fact, Muslim people of all races should come together. And this idea of teaching racial segregation is exactly opposite to what the Quran should say. So he, in fact, walks away then from the Nation of Islam at that point.

BRIAN KENNY: Wow. We haven’t talked at all about his family life. He’s such a public figure, but he did have a private life. Can you describe a little bit about that?

BOB SIMONS: Well, his family life was a train wreck. No other way to describe it. And this is where my students, of course, are most critical of him. He was married four times, married and divorced. He had 10 children by six different women, and he was not interested at all in being a father. He thought parenting was something for women. It’s not something that men do. There were paternity lawsuits. So this part of his character, I think, is something that people do not want to emulate. But the whole person, this is part of who he was.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. We know that ultimately he succumbed to Parkinson’s disease, terrible, terrible disease. How did his life change after he realized that he had this, ultimately, a death sentence?

BOB SIMONS: Yeah, it was a very sad ending, and part of it was that he probably kept fighting longer than he should have. He had lost millions of dollars during those years that he couldn’t fight, pushed out of the boxing arena. And so he stayed in the ring probably till he was in his mid-thirties, trying to get some money for his family, trying to get some money back. And Parkinson’s first started to show its symptoms around age 35. He finally retired at age-

BRIAN KENNY: That early? Wow.

BOB SIMONS: Yes. Yeah, finally retired at age 39. And of course, people don’t know to what extent the boxing, the hits to the head over all those years contributed to the disease. But interestingly, he turned his life then to humanitarian causes. He put a lot of time into the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He invested in the Special Olympics. On the political stage, he went to Iraq and negotiated with Saddam Hussein for the release of US hostages. And in 1998, the United Nations awarded him the Messenger of Peace Award for all the humanitarian work he had done around the world.

BRIAN KENNY: Wow. So, he ended up having an enormous impact. I’m wondering, in your research and in the discussions that you have in class, why do you think he was able to have such a big impact in the world?

BOB SIMONS: It’s a very interesting question. I must admit, when this case first came up, I wasn’t convinced it was really the right one to do. And my young research assistant said, “You got to do this.” And it proved to be absolutely right. Sports Illustrated in their end of the century issue named him as a greatest athlete of the 20th century. But beyond that, he inspired so many people around the world. When he was chosen to come back to the 1996 Olympics to light the flame, as they debated whether to bring him back, they realized that Muhammad Ali, maybe outside the Pope, was the most beloved figure in the world. He had inspired so many people in the Black community, the Muslim community, young people all over the world. They thought he was really, really the one who could have this symbol of hope.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah, yeah. I mean, clearly at that point in his life, he was universally idolized and adored, and that really is a remarkable achievement for anybody. Bob, this has been a great conversation, just like Marie Curie was. I’m wondering if there’s one thing you want our listeners to remember about the Muhammad Ali case, what would it be?

BOB SIMONS: Well, like pretty much everyone we study, Cassius Clay never set out to change the world. As a young kid, he wanted to be the best, most famous boxer perhaps, and as we have discussed, like all of us, he was flawed. But on the other hand, he did demonstrate just through the power of hard work and determination how one person by their deeds, efforts, word can really inspire others and make a profound difference in the world.

BRIAN KENNY: It’s a great case, Bob. Thanks for joining me again.

BOB SIMONS: Thank you, Brian. It’s a pleasure to be here.

BRIAN KENNY: If you enjoy Cold Call, you might like our other podcasts, After Hours, Climate Rising, Deep Purpose, IdeaCast, Managing the Future of Work, Skydeck, and Women at Work. Find them on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen. And if you could take a minute to rate and review us, we’d be grateful. If you have any suggestions or just want to say hello, we want to hear from you. Email us at [email protected]. Thanks again for joining us. I’m your host, Brian Kenny, and you’ve been listening to Cold Call, an official podcast of Harvard Business School and part of the HBR podcast network.

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