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Faculty Viewpoints

Who’s Your Leadership Role Model?

We talked to Heidi Brooks, an expert on leadership and an avid tennis player, about what we can learn from the leadership styles of prominent public figures. She explained why we may benefit more from analyzing tennis players than presidential candidates.

Serena Williams at the 2015 Wimbledon Championships. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/Pool/AFP via Getty Images.

Serena Williams at the 2015 Wimbledon Championships. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/Pool/AFP via Getty Images.

Q: We’re seeing a lot of different styles of leadership on display in the presidential candidates, and also hearing a lot about how people demonstrate emotions like vulnerability, anger, and passion on the campaign trail. When a candidate turns up the volume on his or her emotions, do you think that’s a positive model for leaders?

I deeply enjoy teaching everyday leadership because the topic invites us to be curious about what it means to be human well, effectively pursue a meaningful purpose, and stand for the common good. During presidential campaigns, we have a chance to see the viewpoints and character of each candidate to decide how to cast our vote, often based on which candidate resonates the most with our vision of the world. Emotional connection is part of the picture of building trust and resonance—and it’s hard to build emotional connection without seeing any emotion from the candidate. But display of emotion in itself is not a high enough standard for effective leadership. We really need leadership that can be human well, including wise emotion management.

It’s a complicated question because we have different standards by gender and race for who’s allowed to show what kind of emotion, and who gets dinged for showing emotion. For the most part, women get dinged for showing anger, but to a certain extent, men get boosted for showing anger—Trump is certainly one of them. People who support him may be particularly inclined interpret it as a sign of strength or commitment.

We don’t perceive others objectively—the way we perceive others comes through a lens of our preferences. It’s not a conscious process. We’re not necessarily doing this on purpose, but I think it’s good for us to be aware of our own biases so that we understand how we’re perceiving the same behavior in different people quite differently, and to not parade those preferences as objective rigor. So, while it is not clear to me that presidential campaign displays of emotion will provide useful role models, reflecting on own our reactions to the candidates may provide a learning opportunity. But there is a lot of noise in trying to learn and understand emotions of a candidate. For that reason, I prefer to talk about these same questions on the tennis court.

Q. You’re a tennis player. Do you see analogues for these behaviors in the sports world?

Tennis is terrific for opportunities to witness talented people engaging in a focused way to pursue a clear purpose. It’s particularly rich to be able to observe emotion-regulation strategies and styles. Tennis is an emotional game, so you can sometimes see the choices that people are making, and who displays passion and anger, and who really is quite committed to a more calm, cool, collected approach. It’s not really about the display or the presence of emotion but about how the players marshal their emotional-regulation strategies to engage their emotions in support of purpose. The audience can get quite involved in this aspect of many sports and of course add quite a bit of emotion from the stands.

Roger Federer, who has the reputation of calm, cool, collected poise, got angry in an interview because he was accused of having a privilege in the timing of his U.S. Open matches, and he was uncharacteristically defensive in saying he was not influencing that assignment. People were a little ruffled to see him ruffled. Of course, he probably has as much defensive capacity as the next tennis player, but doesn’t tend to display as full a range of emotion, so that display made the news. Whereas with other players—like Rafael Nadal, who plays with much more passion and more emotion on his sleeve—you have more accessible data to at least guess what you might think he’s thinking.

I prefer the tennis court for my own questions about role modeling everyday capacity to be human well. I think the presidential candidates are more intentionally trying to be role models for what leadership should be, or at least to advocate that their own leadership model is persuasive and inspiring. I’m not necessarily always persuaded or inspired, but I think we could probably learn something. Less, I think, from them than from our reactions to them.

Q: Serena Williams seems to be occupying a position of physical and cultural and psychological power that is unprecedented. What do you think she can teach us about how to own our own power?

There’s really a lot to observe from the case study of Serena Williams and who she is. She’s been out there for almost 20 years now, which is unprecedented data from our perspective, to honor it and make it an objectively amazing opportunity for us to learn. The physical strength and commitment and discipline to be out there at this level for all of these years, to the point where her biggest opponents and highest competition now are people who were inspired by her and wouldn’t be on the court if it were not for her and her sister Venus Williams—it’s just an amazing story of role modeling and mentorship. Now as she moves more into realms of managing business and is also role modeling around parenting, and speaking to and for women and motherhood, she’s visible in other domains of influence and leadership.

“Tennis is a place where we can study behaviors that have a leadership-relevant correlate, because we are all dealing with managing stress and performance pressures.”

I really love thinking about her. She also has the body type of a woman who is strong and walks with confidence, and is not a thin fragile model. I certainly welcome that, as a woman who’s always walked with an identity both as an athlete and just with a stronger body. I love the presentation of women as strong and having a musculature that’s part of a valued way of being human, especially a human woman. I think it’s good. Not all of the responses are positive, but it’s a testament to her character and focus that she can stay the course and withstand the negativity.

Q: Are there any other examples from politics or the tennis world that you bring into the classroom, or into your study and analysis of power, including leadership, micro-moments, interpersonal dynamics, and all the other myriad fields that you work in?

The reason I don’t often use political examples is that they bring so much off-topic content into the classroom. We’re really trying to pay attention to the everyday effects of experience and our connection to each other, and politics boosts us into a realm—a valuable realm, but one that interferes with what I’m trying to create—of political debate. It’s too many things to pay attention to from a learning perspective. It’s not that I’m not involved and don’t care and don’t think we could craft learning from all of those examples, but it’s too much data in some ways. I care about all of my students independent of their political leanings, and I don’t want them to disconnect from my learning and teaching because of my political preferences. Tennis is easier; it’s more of a fair playing ground.

Because I’m a tennis player and I tell personal stories, that allows me to not only study Serena Williams and admire or be disappointed by whatever’s happening with her or Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer or whoever else we might bring up, but I can also talk about my own game, and learning that my serve completely changes when I’m at a higher level of competition. What happens to me under stress and pressure, and how do I adjust in real moments, and how do I fail to adjust, and what have I learned from that, and how did I manage my dynamic with my teammate when my serve fell apart?

These are relevant, everyday moments. Not everybody plays tennis, and you don’t have to, but the question is, can you find a lived experience from which you can learn? Can you observe it, can you share it, can you find the hard moments and find them discussable in your mind, your heart, your spirit? Can you find collaborative learning opportunities with other people? You have to do it around stuff that you actually care about. Because, reasonably or not, I care very much about tennis and my own tennis game.

It’s really different to try to take that to a political conversation, because there’s too much divisive content, and this doesn’t serve the learning forum. Whereas nobody really cares—including me, at a higher level—what’s really happened with my tennis game, it’s a place where we can study behaviors that have a leadership-relevant correlate, because we are all dealing with managing stress and performance pressures.

In tennis, there’s very much a question of managing your own power and control, and at my level of the game, I’m just at the juncture where I can sometimes on a very good day have both control and power. On most days, I can have either control or power, and that’s what the leadership conversation is like for most humans. Can we actually handle the level of sophistication and upgrade our capacity to both see and enact the game we so wish we could play? It’s almost never anything like Serena Williams’s game, but we do the best we can.

Interview conducted and edited by Emily Gordon.

Department: Faculty Viewpoints