Impossible is a Dare

As anyone who has ever met me can attest, I have a penchant for black. I love its simplicity, predictability, and reliability. Perhaps it is because I come from a colourful family. My father was a South African welterweight boxer and very involved in the pro boxing scene at the time. Growing up in this environment he – and I – became obsessed with Muhammad Ali, to the point that before I was born, he wanted to name me Ali.

My mother was not as thrilled about the idea conceded rather shrewdly to nat-ali – the name of her Hollywood idol – Natalie Wood.

I was the absolute apple of my dad’s eye; we spent hours together discovering the ins and outs of pro boxing, watching every Ali fight on TV, fascinated by the success the young Kentucky-born boxer consistently achieved. As if it was yesterday, I remember watching the famous Rumble in the Jungle bouts between Ali and Foreman; I was just three years old at the time.

Coming from an impoverished background – as Ali did – my father found Ali’s ability to speak reality into existence magnetic. Far from preventing him from achievement, his background was the source of energy for his success, which he credits for helping develop his strength of character. Nurture – whatever form it takes – is the overarching, fundamental building block of success. But Ali didn’t expect his tough childhood to bestow success on him. He had to dare to do something with the raw material. And he did.

The boxing gym exists to create champions. Everything – workouts, the layout of equipment, timing of sessions – is designed with this in mind, premeditated to coordinate the best possible opportunity for the fighter to succeed. Every coach and manager (and the best fighters) fundamentally understands that once you step into the ring, once that first bell goes, you have one shot. In the ring you have to be relentless … never compromise … never relax . So your training must reflect the same intensity to prepare you for the reality of the match. The gyms sole purpose is to create an environment for its fighters to succeed. No one gave Ali a job description or a career trajectory or a performance contract. What his coach did was create the best possible context; all the variables optimised for and daring him to greatness. And he showed up … starving for success.

This is completely different to how we manage our people and their development in business today. We end up retarding performance because employees are scared to colour outside the lines. We offer repercussions for non-compliance and establish relationships based on contracts, control, and compliance. All of which send a very clear and powerful message that blending in is far safer and better than standing out, and performance is something to be managed out of us. Then somehow we miraculously expect our people to showup in a way that’s innovative, with the confidence to break boundaries and deliver extraordinary, champion like performance.

Imagine how different our performance (as individuals, teams, and organisations) would look if we were encouraged to take risks, practice with no consequences, go the extra mile, grind daily, discipline ourselves, and dare to unleash our inner champions.

When my father and I weren’t watching, discussing, or strategising over the next big fight, we would be at the 4am red-eye work sessions at the racing track. My father’s sister owned a horse racing stable, which employed the simplest yet most profound strategy for producing champions. They would look for a particular kind of baby that could be taught to be a champion. It’s important to note the absence of the prevailing born-a-champion belief system with which the world is caught up.

The approach employed an unorthodox strategy: socialise the baby to win from day one. To realise this, our babies were raced against older horses who would be held back in the race to allow the babies to win every race from day one. Our babies never saw another horse in front of them and were never allowed to consider being second; it was never presented as an option. Winning is a belief system, and when you are able to engineer proof points, the story becomes indisputably real.

This omnipresent engineering of a context of winning in our stable stands in stark contrast to what is typically done in business today. Leaders aren’t obsessing about shaping and moulding success – they aren’t socialising their followers into a winning mindset. They aren’t building victory as the status quo.

What would happen if we engineered our business environment or context to reflect both the boxing gym and the racetrack? What if – as leaders – we create the intrinsic belief in our followers that we succeed all the time, every time? That there is only winning? That our formidable core ideals and beliefs – when based on the premise of limitless – will deliver us to the holy grail of great performance? What if we allowed ourselves, our followers, and clients to stretch the boundaries and trust enough to actively drive risk-taking and dreaming bigger and better?

Wouldn’t the exponential value of like-minded partnerships reinvent performance, culture, and human lives across organisations across South Africa? … Across Africa and beyond it? Wouldn’t we change the world one heart at a time? It sounds impossible!

 

“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It ’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”

– Muhammad Ali

Impossible is what we call something when it’s too big, too scary, too much work. It’s justification; a way of excusing ourselves from the responsibilities and accountabilities of reaching for greatness and glory.

But – like Ali – we have the power to control who and what we become. Like Ali, we get to decide what possible and impossible mean. And every choice moves us closer to or further away from impossible … from potential … from #better. We are the engineers of the future.

Impossible is a dare. Do you accept? If you dare we are waiting for your call!

December 5, 2019

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