Serena Williams stunned and saddened the sports world when she recently announced that she will be retiring from tennis to focus on expanding her family. Her interview with Vogue, during which she made the announcement, explained the difficulty of the choice and her frustrations with the conflicts women have to face with their careers. While it is without dispute that Serena is a legend among athletes, she has accomplished far more than that. She is an activist, an investor, an entrepreneur, and an incredible leader. With that in mind, here are seven leadership lessons from Serena Williams.
Limits Are Optional
Serena has had no shortage of headwinds in her life and career. As a black woman larger than a size 2, there were very loud messages about what she couldn’t do. She paid them no heed. She worked relentlessly to be the best tennis player she could be, she embraced a love of fashion, wrote a book, and has even become a venture capitalist. She understood early on that she was only as limited as she believed herself to be, so she ignored the noise and simply did what she wanted.
In a world that practically demands conforming to social norms, Serena has consistently demonstrated the courage and confidence to remain her authentic self. She celebrates her body despite it not fitting popular beauty standards, she stands up for what she believes in even if it will cost her, and she’s not afraid to admit when she struggles. Authentic leadership is more important than its ever been, and Serena shows that it’s possible to have the strength and grace to do it. She accepts that popularity is nice, but it’s not necessary.
Leave a Legacy
Unlike many people who find fame and fortune, Serena’s ego hasn’t grown as her celebrity status has increased. She’s not ashamed or dismissive of her role as an icon; she just isn’t focused on it. Instead, she has shown her gratitude for the opportunities she’s been afforded by intentionally leaving a legacy for those who come behind her. Sure, she wants to be remembered for being a great tennis player, but it’s just as important to her to be remembered as someone who broke down barriers and paved the path for other marginalized youth with big dreams.
In the Vogue interview, Serena recounts how she was not a natural talent at tennis. In fact, it was her sister Venus that was the star. Most people would either find themselves resentful of their sibling and focus on how unfair life is or go out of their way to be rebellious to prove they don’t care (when they really do). Serena demonstrated remarkable self-awareness by recognizing her weaknesses and finding ways to overcome them. Instead of resenting her sister, she studied her and learned from her wins and losses. This awareness, coupled with her work ethic, catapulted her to a level of proficiency she never would have attained by feeling sorry for herself.
Love the Work
We’ve all heard the adage “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”, but it often seems like the people who say that are the ones who don’t have to work much at all. Yes, it’s important to use your strengths and chase your dreams, but happiness isn’t found in liberating yourself from work. Rather, happiness is found in choosing to love the work you do. Serena is a great example of someone who has spent a lot of time in the spotlight and on the winner’s podium, but behind those golden moments are endless days of relentless, redundant practice. She made a choice long ago to love the work she put in for its own sake, which is something we can all do. Living for the next promotion or vacation or award makes it almost impossible to sustain motivation. Those things are just too rare and fade too quickly. You can find happiness today, right now, by deciding to love the work.
Only Compete With Yourself
Most ambitious people are competitive, which is a great thing. Competition can bring out a stronger desire to perform, achieve, and never quit. Where competition becomes unproductive, however, is when it’s tangled up in comparison. Comparison, by its very nature, is the identification of and focus on things you lack compared to others. Beauty, money, prestige, titles, cars…there’s no end to the ways that people compare themselves and either find a deficiency in themselves or feel an unrighteous pride when they have more or are doing better than others. When competition is based on comparison, it’s flawed from the beginning and you’ve lost before you’ve begun. That’s because when you’re competing against others the goal posts are arbitrary and constantly shifting.
The only way to reap the benefits of being competitive is to only compete with yourself. Pushing yourself to be better than you were yesterday, rather than better than someone else is today, means that you can really never lose. Even if you don’t lead the standings or get the promotion, you can take pride in your efforts and improvement. Competing only against yourself is also the only way for winning to be sustainable. If you only know how to compete with others, what happens when you’re at the top of the game and there’s no one left to win against? Compete with yourself and there’s no limit to how far you can go.
Find Good Mentors
Despite incontrovertible evidence proving the value of having mentors, too few leaders make the effort to intentionally foster mentor relationships. As people climb the corporate ladder, they find themselves mentoring more often but having fewer mentors themselves. For some, seeking out mentorship feels too much like conceding weakness and they can’t bring themselves to do it. This is a fallacy and a shame. Serena, despite being an unequivocal success, candidly talks about the irreplaceable impact that her mentors have had on her life and her career. There is no position in any industry that wouldn’t benefit from mentorship.
As Serena’s tennis career comes to an end, we can look forward with anticipation to her next endeavors. In the meantime, we’d all be well-served (pun intended) to apply her leadership lessons to our own careers and lives.