A lesson in leadership from Muhammed Ali

In 1975 the late, great Muhammad Ali delivered the shortest poem in the English language – “Me, We”.

What can we take from this? One interpretation of Ali’s poem is that we as individuals are nothing without our connection to others.

As leaders, this couplet offers us an important lesson. For decades people have written about leadership, and although they’ve talked about it using different words and lexicons, in the end, the simple truth is that they’re all, more or less, saying the same thing.

Just as Ali’s powerful words convey, leadership is about people. It is about how we relate to others – the quality and texture of relationships we cultivate.  

According to research by Gallup, businesses that connected with customers on an emotional level out-performed their competitors by 26% in gross margin and 85% in sales growth. And it’s not just for customers that emotional connection is vital.

We live in an age of individual empowerment, where careers are flexible and loyalties fluid. Organisational success, whether measured in terms of productivity or commercial growth, is increasingly determined by a business’s ability to realise the full potential of the individuals within it.

As leaders and managers, we can tap into that potential only when we can build authentic human connections with our people. When we do, we nurture a feeling of community and unity among our teams and within our businesses.

Often in life, it’s easy to become focused on tasks instead of people. If left unchecked, this “results first, team second” mentality can lead to low morale and even lower performances. However, by leading from the ground up and serving your team you create a group of high-performing individuals - the concept Ken Blanchard refers to as Servant Leadership.

If we fail to build emotional bridges with our employees, if we fail to trust and empower them, they will disconnect - from their jobs, from us, and from the business. They won’t have the motivation to go the extra mile, and no motivation to stay when other opportunities come knocking.

But when employees feel a high degree of connection with their managers and leaders they will more engaged, more productive in their work and much less likely to leave.

Simple steps to forge meaningful connections 

  1. Put our people first. This sounds easy enough, but until we put making people important our attention will inevitably be won over by the endless emails, phone calls and tasks we have piled up. Without proactively engaging, without the intention to make employees feel valuable, we can’t expect engagement and loyalty.

  2. Refine our ability to engage with others. As leaders it’s easy to get carried away with the endless tasks – the nitty gritty of leading. It is equally vital, perhaps even more so, that we reach out to others, engage them in conversation. By definition, our work as leaders is done through others. And while it is easy to lose sight of this and focus on the outputs, the tasks that need to be completed, it the quality of our connections with our teams that will make doing these tasks easier.

  3. Listen. Listening to others makes them feel like they matter. Phone calls, emails, or five-minutes by the coffee pot, wherever it may be, take time to listen to understand people’s concerns, needs or opinions. And really listen.

Today, the traditional top-down leadership style of the past is no longer enough. Leadership is defined as much by as our ability to inspire and connect with the people we lead.

Or in Ali’s succinct words 'Me. We.'