Whether in business, politics, entertainment, or sports, there are many stories of fast-ascending stars who lose themselves under the spotlight of success and fame. That’s one reason why the exceptions stand out. In this week’s blog, I’m featuring a modern-day super star who really stands out… 18-year-old tennis player Coco Gauff, recently profiled in New York Times Magazine. The choices Gauff has made in her young career can serve as lessons to leaders at any point in their career as they find themselves in the public spotlight.

Play to win AND wish your competitors well. In sports and business, it’s easy to confuse an adversary with an enemy on the playing field. We turn the competition into the object of our contempt (e.g., “we will destroy our competitors”). Coco Gauff embodies a different mentality. Just before she walks onto the court she pauses and says a prayer for her continued health and that of her opponent. Astute business leaders understand that an ecosystem with healthy competitors challenges everyone to continuously raise their game and keep innovating.

Remember that you are more than your ranking. The Times article recounts an episode a few years ago when Gauff’s agent counseled that her content on Tik Tok should be more befitting a professional tennis player. Gauff responded, “That’s not what I am. I’m a girl who plays tennis.” Regardless of the endeavor, when you are playing at the top of your game, others will try to convince you that “you are our latest stats” – and that’s all you are. Overidentifying with your latest performance or ranking makes you vulnerable to arrogance when things are going well and to a crisis of confidence when, inevitably, things don’t go your way.

Embrace vulnerability and humility. What does it take to be a true champion? If you examine the young career of Coco Gauff, fame and flawlessness are not useful aspirations. Part of being a leader, for her, entails “acknowledging the ways that fragility and power can co-exist in the same person”. She has talked openly about her experience with depression and social anxiety. When it comes to leadership, authenticity and relatability are important sources of credibility because, in the end, nobody really believes in the perfection story.

Deploy your power in service of a higher purpose. Two years ago Gauff spoke at a Black Lives Matter rally in her hometown of Delray Beach, FL. She spoke with conviction about the dangers of remaining silent in the face of oppression, recalling how her father always told her, “You can change the world with your racket”. And, more importantly, that is not a perk of becoming a tennis star; it is the driving reason to become one. Great leaders are clear in their answers to questions such as: Who am I here for? and How can I contribute to the world?

What can a recent high school graduate teach us about leadership? A lot if she’s Coco Gauff! Lessons about leadership are all around us. Who has inspired you to be a better leader?

Image credit: Simone Viani on Unsplash

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