I will never forget the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta when Muhammad Ali was the surprise person to light the Olympic torch. I was sitting in the stadium, watching that spectacle with my entire family.
At the time, I was writing my third book, "Dig Your Well Before You're Thirsty: The Only Networking Book You Will Ever Need." I wanted to intersperse stories from the best networkers in the world. I thought, who better than the Champ? But how would I get to him?
Remember the Broadway play and movie "Six Degrees of Separation"? The title refers to the belief that there's a chain of no more than six people that links every person on this planet to every other person.
I often use that strategy in tracking people down, and it came in handy again this time. John Y. Brown, the former Kentucky governor, is a good friend. He put me in touch with Howard Bingham, Muhammad's longtime photographer and best friend. Howard introduced me to Muhammad, and I flew to his beautiful 80-acre estate -- the former hideout of Al Capone -- in Berrien Springs, Michigan, and interviewed the Champ for six hours for my book.
But first, I did my homework and completed a "Mackay 66" on Muhammad. (The Mackay 66 Customer Profile is a 66-question synopsis, available for free on my website, www.harveymackay.com.) At MackayMitchell Envelope Co., we require all of our salespeople to fill one out about each of our customers.
We want to know, based on routine conversation and observation, what our customers are like as human beings. What do they feel strongly about? What are they most proud of having achieved? Any status symbols in their office? In other words, we want to know what turns that person on.
In Muhammad's case it was magic, so I had a local magician teach me a few magic tricks that I could explain and teach to the Champ. We hit it off, and were great friends for the last 20 years. That relationship extended to a tremendous friendship between our wives, Carol Ann and Lonnie.
During a break from that interview, we headed out to lunch. I introduced Muhammad to my driver, Francis. Twenty minutes later, we rolled into a restaurant. As we were getting out of the car, Muhammad whispered to me, "Tell Francis to join us for lunch."
One thing's for sure, when Francis got up in the morning, picked up his work sheet, and read that he was assigned to pick up an envelope salesman from Minnesota for a routine run, he never imagined that he'd be invited by Muhammad Ali to join him for lunch. Muhammad was a master at trying to make everyone feel special.
The Champ also taught me many other lessons that apply to both life and business:
-- Don't be boring or predictable. Entertain your visitors.
-- Be your own self-promoter. Muhammad learned this lesson from pro wrestler Gorgeous George when the two were interviewed on a radio program. A flair for poetry proved helpful!
-- Stand up for your convictions. His faith led him to be a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, for which he was suspended from boxing for more than three years during his prime.
-- Reward your fans, not with a brush-off, like so many athletes today, but by taking genuine pleasure in honoring their requests. When I traveled with him, Muhammad would stop and talk to everyone. He strongly believed in answering his fan mail and sending out autographed photos.
-- Be generous with your time for worthwhile charities. Prime example: The Champ was an unstoppable force behind Celebrity Fight Night, which has raised $123 million to support the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center in Phoenix and many other charities.
-- The world always looks brighter behind a smile. Muhammad always had his 1,000-megawatt smile. He knew smiling was the universal language.
-- Deal with your own physical limitations in good spirits and with optimism, not bitterness and self-pity.
Ali once said: "Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth."
He has paid that rent many times over. Muhammad Ali will always be "The Greatest."
Mackay's Moral: You may not float like a butterfly or sting like a bee, but you would do well to learn from Ali.