With the recent passing of Arnold Palmer, only a few months after Muhammad Ali departed, we have lost two titans of sports and princes of humanity. They not only dominated their professions, they revolutionized them. And through their success they influenced lives around the world – all for the better. But one can't escape the stark contrast in personality and style between the two: Ali, who punched his opponents and society in the face, and Palmer who succeeded in golf and business with unassuming talent and easy charm. They were different by background and temperament, yet remarkably similar in achievement. What accounts for this apparent paradox?
First and foremost, they were the absolute best at what they did. This didn't just happen. They certainly had natural talent, but many people have natural talent that is never fully realized. One thing that distinguished them from us mortals was their incredible work ethic. Ali was the "first guy in the gym and the last to leave," according to his longtime trainer Angelo Dundee. He worked out hard six days a week. Palmer combined dedicated practice with hard physical labor to develop an iron physique. It was once said that the earth shook when he hit a golf ball. Interestingly, neither lifted weights nor used the sophisticated training techniques that exist today. Ali liked to run and skip rope. Palmer conditioned through old-fashioned farm labor. They both became the best at their craft through hard work, dedication and discipline.
Despite their contrasting styles, Ali and Palmer were authentic in words and deeds. Though belligerent and divisive early in his career, Ali was true to his principles, losing three prime years of competition due to his opposition to the Vietnam War. Palmer spoke with actions more than words, ruling the golf world for six years with laser focus and affable style. They both delivered what was expected of them. In other words, brand promise matched brand experience.
Even in his snarling early years Ali delivered his theatrics with a wink that blossomed into a mutual love for people around the world. His love manifested in passionate devotion to the cause of world peace and improving the human condition. Palmer was also incredibly generous with his time and money, using both to help children, promote health and wellness, and build strong communities. Both maintained an affection for and connection to the common man that was undiminished by success and vast fortune.
Hard work, authenticity, mutual respect – shared attributes that made Ali and Palmer champions and champion human beings. And, happily, they are attributes that can be learned. In this era of vile politics and flawed leadership, that, at least, provides a thin beam of hope.
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