If Bille Jean King had been a man, there is a good chance that numerous books on leadership would have been written either by or about her. While her exceptional prowess on the tennis court is legendary, what is not so abundantly clear are the amazing leadership skills she displayed throughout the course of her career. Here are 5 of the greatest leadership lessons to learn from Billie Jean King.
1. She wasn’t afraid to be aggressive
When it comes to leadership, women and men have different challenges and obstacles to overcome. Girls are often socialized to be soft, gentle and non-threatening. This not only puts them at a severe disadvantage against men as they grow up but it is also an obstacle they will need to overcome if they ever hope to be leaders.
The fact is, women live in a world of men that often do not react well when they feel threatened. Without meaning to or intending to, many parents may unconsciously try to protect their girls by teaching them to act and behave in ways that are as non-threatening to men as possible. The truth, however, is that more often than not they are simply raising their girls to be victims.
A girl who displays any kind of aggressive behavior will often be chastised, while boys will generally be applauded for the same thing. As a result, women often grow up with an actual fear of doing or saying anything that may make them seem aggressive. If you want to do or accomplish anything in this lifetime, however, you will have to get over your fear of being seen as aggressive. From the very beginning, Billie Jean King played to win, which meant she wasn’t afraid to play like a man.
2. She walked the walk for years before she talked the talk
Many people have strong opinions that they aren’t afraid to express. These days, it’s even easy to find a platform to do so. If you want people to actually value your opinion, however, you may want to spend more time building the expertise to back it up before expressing it.
When other girls were spending hours gossiping, talking about boys or doing each other’s hair, Billie Jean was out on the court practicing her swing and perfecting her serve. She spent years training and sacrificing for her sport long before she ever took the international stage. While Billie Jean certainly had strong opinions, it was her expertise that gave her a strong platform for expressing them.
Billie Jean King didn’t set out to be an international icon or change the world, she just wanted to play tennis. Most of what she accomplished was simply a matter of overcoming all the obstacles placed in the way of achieving her goals. In the course of pursuing those goals, however, she completely changed not only the world of tennis but the entire world around her.
3. When she wasn’t given a seat at the table, she created her own
Women spend a lot of time talking (and complaining) about not getting a seat at the table. While in some cases (such as government or public offices) these may be valid complaints, the truth is women are not actually entitled to a seat at every table. When men build a company or organization, they have a right to fill the seats with whomever they please. While diversity and equality may make for a stronger company or organization, the leaders and founders of a company are not obligated to create it.
From the earliest days of Billie Jean’s career, she pushed for pay and gender equality. When the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) refused to make the women’s prizes more than just a fraction of what the men’s were, Billie Jean and her husband struck out on their own to form the Virginia Slims Tour. That, in turn, created the basis for what would become the first women’s players union; the Women’s Tennis Association.
Starting something of your own is hard, particularly when you are also trying to be a professional athlete. Billie Jean had to work far harder to start a league and be a player in it than she might have had to if she had just stuck with the USLTA. If she had, however, America might have never heard of Billie Jean King, much less Venus or Serena Williams.
4. She chose to make friends rather than enemies
When you’re trying to climb your way to the top, not everyone is going to be supportive. Some people might even try to tear you down. When that happens, it can be easy to want some payback once you make it to the top. While that desire may be understandable, following through on it may simply destroy everything you worked so hard to build.
In the early days, other rising stars in women’s tennis scorned Billie Jean’s efforts. As her efforts gained traction, however, it wasn’t long before some of those dissenting voices actually wanted on the bandwagon. Rather than snub them, she accepted players like Chris Evert, Margaret Court and Virginia Wade with open arms. The newly formed Women’s Tennis Association was better (and stronger) for it. When asked about it years later, she said “Forgiveness is important. Our job was to have one voice and win them over.”
5. She always knew who her greatest competition was
When so much of your life is a competition, it can be easy to make everything in your life a competition. When that happens, it also becomes easy to view everyone around you as competitors. It can be difficult to shape and form relationships when you see other people only as competition.
While Billie Jean King was a fierce competitor on the tennis court, she also understood that other women weren’t actually her greatest competition – she was. She had one and only one fiercely unwavering goal – to be the very best tennis player she could be. It didn’t matter how many titles or matches she won, she never stopped pushing herself to be her very best. Perhaps that is why her professional career spanned nearly 25 years, winning all the way to the very end.