The recent women's U.S. Open final between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka was more about what was said and done during the match than the outcome.
Much has been made of Serena's verbal and physical outbursts with the umpire, as well as the professional way she conducted herself during the award ceremony after losing to Osaka in straight sets.
To many observers, Serena was caught in the paradox of double-standards that many women in business face on an ongoing basis--not being treated the same as men in their profession and being criticized for appearing "too strong."
Whether you supported Serena in this particular situation or not, how she reacted (good and bad) offered three valuable lessons that businesswomen can learn from.
1. Practice empathy.
When Osaka was awarded a point by the umpire because Serena smashed her racket in anger, Serena's response was that the men tennis players do that all the time without repercussions. (Of course, her language was a bit stronger and more confrontational.) She had a good point--the media have shown many incidents when this was true--but it created a hostile environment for the rest of the match that took away from Osaka's ultimate win.
However, Serena made up for it later when the match ended and she graciously congratulated her opponent on a well-deserved victory. She practiced empathy for the experience she created with the umpire, one that left her opponent with a less than satisfying victory.
Serena also did this during the awards ceremony when she quieted a rude crowd that was upset at the outcome. "Let's give everyone the credit where credit's due and let's not boo anymore," she said to the fans as she placed her arm around the victorious Osaka.
She lifted up Osaka and gave her the validation she deserved. People noticed and responded to that graciousness. That empathy is cherished in business leaders--when you admit you've created an unintended negative result, do your best to take ownership of it.
2. Be authentic.
Women often struggle with what is considered appropriate behavior in the workplace. What is too much? What should you do to make people feel more connected to you? I have seen many businesswomen try to take on male qualities in order to blend in. I believe the more authentic you are as a business leader, the more your teams will feel they know you, even the flaws.
Even if people didn't agree with Serena's actions or choice of words during the match, you couldn't say she was not being her true self. She didn't worry about whether her behavior was considered "right" or what others might think. She was trying to highlight a bigger issue, and now that people understand that, they have aligned with her perspective for the most part. So be yourself. Be real. For every critic, you will gain two or more admirers.
3. Don't be afraid to take a stand.
It's tough for women in a competitive business culture to voice a viewpoint or opinion they know may not be popular. But it's important to never be afraid to support your beliefs.
In her case, Serena addressed the larger issue of inequality in the hope that women after her may have it better. "Maybe it didn't work out for me, but it's going to work out for the next person," she said afterward.
People respect leaders who are assertive and stand up for themselves and their values even in the face of criticism. When you are clear about your intentions, and why you do what you do, people feel more engaged.
Women face many personal challenges in the workplace (fair and unfair.) They may still battle double standards regarding behavior and character that men don't face, but as Serena Williams showed, there are many ways women can better navigate those rough waters like a champ.