20 Sep 2018 18:31 IST

Manners maketh the leader

Naomi Osaka during the 2017 US Open | File photo   -  REUETRS

How a leader reacts in times of crisis says a lot more about them than just their abilities

The news from this year’s US Open Women’s finals should have been about a brand new champion — Naomi Osaka. Instead, it was all about Serena Williams’ on-court outburst at the umpire, Carlos Ramos. Serena was first given a code violation, after Ramos judged a gesture from her coach Patrick Mouratoglou to be coaching (something the coach later admitted to). Serena then went on to call the umpire a liar and a thief, and demanded an apology. A game was docked from her score after a racquet abuse tantrum — which is, no doubt, a stiff penalty for a final. Serena refused to take the court, demanding an intervention from the tournament referee. When she finally returned, Osaka closed out a much-deserved and historic win. There was much debate about whether Serena was right or wrong, and whether the umpire crossed the limit or not; but what can we learn from the incident?

Bad behaviour is bad behaviour, whatever mask it wears

Serena justified her bad behaviour by saying that she was the victim of sexist behaviour; that male players got away with worse behaviour. Several players spoke about the incident; some supporting Serena and some backing the umpire. But perhaps, former tennis champion Martina Navratilova put it best, in an article for the New York Times

“Serena Williams has part of it right. There is a huge double standard for women when it comes to how bad behaviour is punished — and not just in tennis.

But in her protests ...she also got part of it wrong. I don’t believe it’s a good idea to apply a standard of “If men can get away with it, women should be able to, too.” Rather, I think the question we have to ask ourselves is this: What is the right way to behave to honour our sport and to respect our opponents?”

Very often bad behaviour is justified with all kinds of reasons.

“Everybody is doing it.”

“I was the victim.”

“If I’m not rude people will take advantage of me.”

These are all masks. If a leader is going to lead from principles, then these excuses don’t hold. If a client is rude, that’s no reason for me to be rude back. If a boss is abusive, there’s no need to abuse back. If a colleague keeps me waiting, that’s no reason for me to be late. Being well-mannered and doing the right thing should be a personal leadership choice. It cannot be hijacked by circumstances or by other people. To try to defend or justify it with excuses makes the crime of poor behaviour even worse.

With great power comes great responsibility

The team follows what the leader does, not what the leader says. So a leader has the responsibility to demonstrate the expected behaviour, not just talk about it. The leader has to choose how she will wield her power. That will set the tone and culture for the team and the organisation. If the leader chooses to show off her power through rude and boorish behaviour, she is a poor leader.

If a leader believes that being a leader is a licence to shout, scream or abuse, they are an extremely insecure leader. Real leadership does not need the fireworks. Leaders must realise that they have to be role-models. As Navratilova wrote in the aforementioned NYT piece, “There have been many times when I was playing that I wanted to break my racket into a thousand pieces. Then I thought about the kids watching. And I grudgingly held on to that racket.” That is the awareness a leader needs to carry with them. This is a responsibility that comes with leadership — to be a class act.

When the going gets tough, that’s when manners matter

Many leaders are the epitomes of grace and politeness when things are going well. When people agree with them, they are all smiles and sweet talk. But when somebody disagrees, when somebody calls them out, when things go wrong, they go berserk and are unable to keep their emotions in check. These unchecked emotions then come out as bad behaviour, as it did with Serena.

During the recent crisis, when children trapped in an underground cave in Thailand had to be rescued, Elon Musk suggested the use of a mini-submersible for the rescue. When a diver was circumspect about the plan, Musk was rabid in his tweets, abusing and calling the diver a ‘pedo’. Again, poor behaviour just because somebody does not agree with you.

Very often it is these kind of alpha leaders, who eventually crack under pressure, who show that beyond the braggadocio, are brittle egos. As the Phantom comics would say — old jungle saying “The bigger they are, the harder, they fall.”

It’s when things are not going our way, that we need to really demonstrate grace and good manners. When a colleague disagrees, when a team mate has goofed up, when a client loses their cool — it’s in the crisis that we are called to rise above the fray. In fact at the US Open finals, it was Naomi Osaka who emerged more than just the tennis champion, she showed her class by staying calm, by not letting the situation get the better of her. She displayed poise and grace under pressure. We can only admire and emulate her.

Leadership behaviour is often about the simple things. Remembering to say thank you, making a habit of saying please, not hesitating to say sorry when we have made a mistake. Good manners is a sign of a leader who is comfortable with herself, secure and genuinely focused on contributing and leading.

Manners maketh the leader

There’s a temptation to treat good manners as wishy-washy stuff, that does not belong in the rough and tumble world of business. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I remember when one of the teams I was leading had just completed a particularly demanding project. I sent each of the twenty members of the team, a small gift and a ‘thank-you’ note. Two out of the twenty acknowledged and said ‘thank you’ for the gift and the note. My point is — was there a correlation between the fact that they had an ‘attitude of gratitude’ and that they were the top two performing members of the team?

Which is why when I interview candidates I’m always looking for whether they have a grateful approach to life. There’s a higher chance that they will be more focused on contributing, less prone to excuses, and just be better and happier at their work. The ones who don’t have too much of a count-your-blessings approach, usually tend to be the whiners, always moaning about what the organisation should be doing for them, always tending to compare with others and are usually more negative than positive about their work and life. It’s easy to decide which kind of team mate we’d all want. It also reminds us about the kind of team mate we should try to be.

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