Confidently Overconfident: Muhammad Ali’s Guide to Showing How Great You Are (Communication)


When I was a kid, I made the mistake of telling my uncle how proficient I was at chess. The fact that he was practically a Grand Master meant little; I’d been playing for almost three whole weeks and had soundly trounced everyone who dared challenge me. He beat me in four moves.

With our 25 year age difference, my uncle might have let me win if it hadn’t been for my big mouth. I was bragging since he walked in the door and didn’t stop until he pointed out that he’d just won. When I recovered from the humiliating defeat, my uncle offered some advice – “There’s something to be said about not telling everyone how great you are.”

We like people who show humility. We like people who don’t feel the need to point out all their wonderful traits. Knowing this, how can we explain Muhammad Ali?

Considered to be one of the greatest boxers in the history of the sport, Ali was notorious for belittling his opponents and hyping his abilities. This behavior brought excitement to every bout, thus equating to more viewers, endorsements, and Ali-intense fans.

It's hard to be humble, when you're as great as I am… I'm so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark.

Maybe Ali had the right idea. Recent research shows there are significant benefits to being overconfident. According to status-enhancement theory, highly confident individuals attain higher social status, are viewed as having superior social skills, and are considered to be more competent. And surprisingly, those displaying an overabundance of confidence reap these benefits when their lack of ability is exposed. That’s right, people in the study favored the overconfident leader even after he was shown to be wrong.

I'm not the greatest; I'm the double greatest. Not only do I knock 'em out, I pick the round.

If this research justifies a desire to unleash your inner Ali, consider a few of his complementary traits that make overconfidence tolerable:

Ali had the skills to back up his mouth. The research may say your overconfidence trumps competence, but how long do you think that can really last? We would not know the name Muhammad Ali if he hadn’t been the World Heavyweight Champion (three times), the gold medal winner in the 1960 Olympics, and finished his professional career with an impressive 56-5 record. His ability to perform allowed him the opportunity to brag, not the other way around.

Ali had the clout to back up his mouth. If you’re not your own boss, then you are answering to someone else…someone who certainly does not want to hear your self-aggrandizing rants. Once Ali had a few wins, he started to build the influence and financial resources necessary to support his public persona.

Ali was emotionally stable. Whereas some leaders use arrogance as a means of bolstering their fragile ego, Ali used his bravado strategically. Not only was he trying to get into the opponent’s head, but Ali was branding himself before “branding” was a thing.

Ali was not delusional. According to research, power has been shown to consistently breed overconfidence, and this overconfidence consistently leads to poor decision making. When this happens, people overestimate their chances of success and underestimate adversity. Ali did not fall into this trap. While he was a big talker, Ali made a conscious effort to maintain an unfiltered reality and avoid misjudging the skills and abilities of his opponents.

I figured that if I said it enough, I would convince the world that I really was the greatest.

Overconfidence is not for everyone. Many of us are reluctant to hype our talents to our full Ali-ness. If displays of showing off, insulting others, or other types of pomposity make you cringe, may I propose the half-Ali.

The half-Ali encourages you to admit your greatness through more subtle means. When you have a skill, you proudly acknowledge it without feeling the need to sound humble. When you complete an impressive task, you let others know without minimizing your efforts. When you receive a compliment, you accept it graciously without deflecting the credit. It may not get you as much press as Muhammad Ali, but at least you can avoid getting punched in the face.

David Kahn, PhD is an Organizational Psychologist focused on delivering business solutions that link culture and engagement with the business goals of the organization. Check out his latest book, "Case, Spandex, Briefcase: Leadership Lessons from Superheroes" and read more of his work on