Leadership Lessons from the Game of Tennis

In an article entitled “7 Worst Career Mistakes You Can Make”, Jeffrey A. Krames, author “The Unforced Error: Why Some Managers Get Promoted while others Get Eliminated” quotes Tim Gallwey and on of the principles of The Inner Game. Here is the quote:

Tennis and business have a lot more common than you may think. In 1982, a tennis professional coined the term “unforced error” to describe what happens when one player who is in position to return the ball makes an error by hitting the ball out of the field of play — or missing the ball altogether. That same kind of error happens all of the time in the business world.

Research shows that even the smartest managers make the worst career errors. Once again, the same is true in tennis. Even the best players in the world make unforced errors in every match. In professional tennis as in business, the player with the fewest unforced errors usually wins.

Research also shows that at the top levels of corporations unforced errors have taken a greater toll than ever before. For example, CEO turnover is up 60 percent between 1995 and 2006 and shows no signs of slowing down (that according to a Booz Allen). However, you do not have to be a CEO to make a costly unforced error.

In my career of nearly three decades, I have had a front row seat to countless number of unforced errors in the workplace. Much to my surprise, I have witnessed egregious, stupid errors made by people I regarded as the smartest, most effective of colleagues.

So what kind of tennis mistakes also translates to your life and career? Consider the following:

Mistake No. 1: Always playing with a singles mindset
“Playing doubles,” alongside a partner, is more realistic than acting like the Lone Ranger who does everything on his own. There are some individuals — think of them as cowboys — who have no ability to delegate or work with colleagues. This could be a huge unforced error; given the complexity of today’s operating environment, every employee and manager can use all of the help he or she can get.

Mistake No. 2: Not facing reality at all times
Many great tennis players have wasted precious time arguing with referees insisting that the ref’s calls were wrong (think John McEnroe and Serena Williams). In business, the same phenomenon occurs all the time. For example, managers cannot come to terms with the fact that their latest new product is a failure and they pour more good money into bad chasing something that should have been abandoned.

Mistake No. 3: Not taking learning seriously enough
This is another problem that exists in both the tennis and business worlds. In tennis, one needs to put in the requisite practice hours to improve his or her game. John McEnroe felt that Ivan Lendl became the incredible champion he did through “sheer rehearsal.” In business, one needs to take learning just as seriously. Former GE CEO Jack Welch affirmed that when he said that it is the responsibility of every worker to find a better way of doing things.

Mistake No. 4: Not experimenting on a consistent basis
Celebrated tennis writer W. Timothy Gallwey once said, “Perfect strokes are already within us, waiting to be discovered.” Tennis great Billie Jean King explained that champions keep playing until they get it right.” In business, a perfect stroke might be a marketing presentation that wins a million dollar account, or a strategy presentation that that helps you to win that elusive promotion.

Mistake No. 5: Not being prepared at all times
Being prepared counts for a lot in business as it does in tennis. And unlike other traps, this one is entirely within your control. For example, if you go to a meeting and your boss asks you about a project that is your responsibility, can you give her up-to-date-information on the account? Do you know important deadlines? What landmines must you look out for? These are the kinds of things that a manager must be prepared to answer at all times.

Mistake No. 6: Not protecting your flanks
Tennis players need to see and be in command of the total court. In business, one needs to be in touch with all aspects of the game if they are going to have a good chance of success. Everyone is affected by turf wars and power plays that take place every day in your office. The key, says career expert Dr. Kathleen Reardon is that if you “choose any two competent people, the one who has political savvy, agility in the use of power, and the ability to influence [others] that will go further.”

Mistake No. 7: Not taking ownership of your part of the court
Not taking responsibility is another of those tricky unforced errors of omission. The mistake is not in something one does, but in something that one doesn’t. So this is an easy mistake to make and one of the more common of unforced errors. While you can’t control everything, step up and take more responsibility — within reason — whenever you can. If there is nobody addressing a problem that you notice or taking advantage of an opportunity that you identify, think about whether you should be doing it yourself.

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2 Responses to Leadership Lessons from the Game of Tennis

  1. Great article. As a tennis fan, I love the comparison between business and tennis.

  2. Great article. As a tennis fan, I love the comparison between business and tennis.