18 August 2022 11:56:10 IST

The CEO and co-founder of TalentEase, Fernandez is a thought leader in education and a consultant and coach to school heads, teachers and parents. He has 18 years of outsourcing leadership experience in the Asia Pacific, consulting with and servicing global and regional clients. He was previously partner/managing director with Accenture, Singapore. He was the COO with Hewitt Outsourcing APAC, and President India Life Hewitt. He has overseen teams in sales, operations, client and account management, technology, finance and HR, and has extensive experience working with multinational clients across a wide industry and geographic spectrum. He is a sought-after speaker at education and industry conferences and is a columnist with Business Line on Campus .

What Serena Williams and Sebastian Vettel teach us about stepping down

Tennis player Serena Williams recetly announced her retirement, saying she has “decided to move in a different direction.” | Photo Credit: AFP

The past few weeks have seen announcements from two world-leading athletes and a reflection from a new star that has valuable leadership lessons for us. Four-time world champion, Sebastian Vettel announced his retirement from Formula One.

As he put it, “I love this sport. It has been central to my life since I can remember. But as much as there is life on track, there’s my life off track too. Being a racing driver has never been my sole identity. Next to racing, I have grown a family and I love being around them. I have grown other interests outside Formula One.”

And Serena Williams the dominant women’s tennis player of recent times announced that she would be focusing on the next phase of her journey. “I have never liked the word retirement. It doesn’t feel like a modern word to me. I’ve been thinking of this as a transition, but I want to be sensitive about how I use that word, which means something very specific and important to a community of people. Maybe the best word to describe what I’m up to is evolution. I’m here to tell you that I’m evolving away from tennis, toward other things that are important to me.”

It’s interesting that both athletes were very clear about why they needed to move on. In effect, they were quitting something but embracing something else. One journey was ending but another was beginning. What are some of the things that could help us realise if it’s time to leap from one journey to the next and could help us make that leap successfully? 

Self awareness

Vettel hints at an important truth when he says that being a racing driver was never his sole identity. Often as leaders, we get caught up in what we have been doing and it becomes our very identity. Before we realise it, we are trapped within this identity. It stifles our creativity, constricts our choices, and eventually, extinguishes the passion we may have brought to our leadership.

Often, we let others define our standards of success whether it’s becoming the next unicorn or getting a promotion or making people decisions that project an illusion rather than reflect our personal values.

Williams reflects on this when she says, “There are people who say I’m not the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) because I didn’t pass Margaret Court’s record of 24 grand slam titles, which she achieved before the “open era” that began in 1968. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want that record. Obviously, I do. But day to day, I’m really not thinking about her....I didn’t show up the way I should have or could have. But I showed up 23 times, and that’s fine. Actually, it’s extraordinary.”

She’s happy with her version of success. Leaders need to be comfortable with what their inner compass tells them. Listening to other people’s standards is like holding the compass in a magnetic field — it swings around in all directions. You end up unhappy and exhausted chasing other people’s versions of success and meaning. 

Value consonance

Leaders must assess whether their values are in consonance with their work. There are times when their roles intrude and sometimes threaten to compromise their personal values. Vettel who has often campaigned for climate change could see how the sport with its teams jetting around the world burning fossil fuels was no longer aligned with what he believed in. He also saw that his priorities had changed.

“My goals have shifted from winning races and fighting for championships to seeing my children grow, passing on my values, helping them up when they fall, listening to them when they need me, not having to say goodbye and most importantly being able to learn from them and let them inspire me. My passion comes with certain aspects that I’ve come to dislike.”

Sebastian Vettel announced his retirement saying his goals have shifted and alluded to climate change | Photo Credit: Getty Images

He could see that Formula One was increasingly in conflict with his personal life. Some of us may not have the luxury he has to make that choice but it’s important to be aware of the price we pay — in compromises to our values and the price others especially our families pay when work comes ahead of them.

As Williams put it: “These days if I have to choose between building my tennis résumé and building my family, I choose the latter.” These decisions are rarely easy but when we are clear on our values and our priorities, we can make our decisions with more conviction. 

I recall a priest-friend of mine, both a great guitarist and singer, was at a youth event and he watched each performer race energetically onto the stage, jumping with energy and enthusiasm, and he decided to do the same. When it was his turn, he too raced onto the stage and did high-energy prancing around.

But once his grand entrance was done, he found he was so exhausted that he could neither sing nor play the guitar — the very reasons he was on stage for. A funny but insightful lesson for us when we chase the wrong priorities — we lose so much of our energy and focus sometimes chasing the wrong things that we’re worn out for the chase that really matters, for the priorities that should have deserved our attention and passion. 

‘Day One’ philosophy

One of the crucial drivers of Amazon’s success has been Jeff Bezos’ leadership. And this was very visible in his “It’s always Day One philosophy.” In fact, he named the building he worked in as Day One and when he shifted buildings, he took the name with him.

He never wanted Amazon to become a Day Two company. As he explained, “Day Two is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day One.” This is what he felt inevitably happened to many large companies as they slowly stopped listening, started resting on their past successes, took the customer for granted, and often became slave to processes rather than results.  

It was delightful to hear our newest athletics star, Avinash Sable reflect this same spirit. “I need to forget this achievement soon.” He told The Hindu when he returned from his outstanding silver-medal-winning steeplechase performance at the Commonwealth Games. “I have to restart training as if I have not achieved anything. ...I remember my losses and learn from them. I forget my victories.”

Avinash Sable wins silver in men’s 3,000m steeplechase at Commonwealth Games | Photo Credit: The Hindu

What inspiring wisdom from one so young. Leaders must keep that nervous edge alive — that sense of still being a beginner. If that’s replaced with the veteran’s cockiness the likelihood is that Day Two has set in, that learning has stopped, and to invert what Bill Clinton said — that memories have become stronger than dreams. 

Leaders must keep checking in — with themselves. Is what I’m doing, what I’m saying, what I’m deciding, the way I’m leading reflective of who I am, does it align with my values, does it provide space for my priorities, and has it kept me growing? This is important if we, to use Serena’s words must keep ‘evolving’. A leader who is not evolving is regressing. These three sportspersons show us that it’s possible to let go of our old selves and create and embrace new ones.