This morning I had the privilege to listen to sports icon and social justice pioneer, Billie Jean King, as she spoke to an audience of leaders in Philadelphia. Her quiet and humble demeanor is quite the contrast to the considerable accomplishments of her life story (winner of 39 Grand Slam tennis titles, defeating Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes and being a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom). Her philosophy of leadership where all talent is promoted and celebrated equally and inclusively is truly inspirational.  During the talk, Billie Jean shared a number of thoughts which I will attempt to share below.

1.      What it takes to win

When asked what it takes to win, Billie Jean answered simply ‘bring your whole self’. Whatever it is make sure you bring your heart, your head and your guts – if you focus your energy and are present with your whole self you will win. She also shared that ‘practicing your strengths’, not focusing on your weaknesses are what can help you to succeed. Knowing that so many of us try to improve through fixing our weaknesses – the idea of building the muscle of our strengths and perfecting what we are good at is refreshing.   

2.     Viewing mistakes as feedback

Her approach to coaching was also interesting, her use of language – from ‘should’ to ‘could’ illustrated how she transitions the relationship from one of dominance to one of guidance. If you think about it, this simple transition converts most feedback into a positive constructive teaching moment. Similarly, Billie Jean talked about how she viewed every missed ball or shot not as a mistake, but as feedback, reinforcing the idea that every thing that goes wrong can actually teach us something about ourselves and help us to improve. 

3.     Relationships are everything

Billie Jean defined herself as a curious person who loves to continuously learn. She talked about how she has met many of the world’s leaders during her lifetime and what sets many of them apart is that sense of curiosity, their ability to ask questions, listen intently and recognize that ‘relationships are everything’. With this, I couldn’t agree more, the willingness to listen, learn and build relationships is critical to any leader’s ability to succeed. The minute you become aware of the value of the people around you and recognize that none of us can do it alone is when you become a stronger leader.

4.     Self-awareness is key

Billie Jean also talked about being open to the influence of those around you and being aware of your impact on them.  As a leader I think it can be easy to forget the influence you have on others, sometimes simply by your presence, being aware of when your support or guidance is needed or when it is not, is critical to your ability to lead successfully.  

As someone who is grateful to people like Billie Jean King for paving the way for equality not just in sports but in business, I hope that many more leaders have the opportunity to hear her story.   Many thanks to LEADERSHIP Philadelphia for providing the opportunity to hear her speak.