Make no mistake, Serena Williams is a force to be reckoned with. Probably the greatest tennis player of her generation, she has been an inspiration to young girls and athletes around the world. Without a doubt, she is a leader in women's tennis.
However, no one should be beyond reproach, and Williams's actions this past weekend fell short of the expectations we should have of leaders.
Here are the facts.
Williams was given a warning by umpire Carlos Ramos after he caught her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, gesturing--something he later admitted constituted advice from the stands, according to the rules. It was an infraction, whether Williams benefited from the coaching or not.
A warning is no big deal, but things got worse when Williams later smashed her tennis racket on the court in frustration after losing a game--an automatic code violation. Since she had already received a warning, this was her second offense and she lost a point.
Soon after, Williams lost her cool in a way worthy of famous tennis hothead John McEnroe. Still reeling from the loss of the point, she called Ramos a liar and a thief --for "stealing" her point--and said, "You still owe me an apology."
Many argue that Serena's frustrations were validated in that Ramos' penalties would not have been given to male players in similar circumstances.
This last outburst cost Williams a game, impacting the match and tarnishing what should have been a great win and a shining moment for her competitor, Naomi Osaka.
These events provide four valuable lessons for leaders of all kinds:
1. Own your actions.
Ramos followed established USTA rules and protocols with his penalties, even if there are those who believe he should have been more lenient--or would have been if different people had been playing. Williams has implied that she was treated more harshly than an angry male player would have been, but within the context of the game at least, no one has suggested that Ramos' officiating favored one player over the other.
Williams might have a valid point about sexism in tennis, but it's very shaky moral ground to defend poor actions by saying that other people get away with the same behavior--the point made by both she and her defenders. This is not an explanation anyone would ever tolerate for poor or unethical behavior by a colleague or a child.
She lost her temper, and while the reasons behind that might have been building for months, years or generations, that's really beside the point. She smashed her racket on the court out of frustration at losing a game, and needs to own that--just as her coach has admitted his mistake.
2. Lead by example.
Williams was quick to demand an apology from the umpire, but she has so far been unwilling to admit to any wrongdoing herself, either for her behavior on the court or for the way this controversy has overshadowed her opponent's hard-fought victory. This is not the way to lead a serious discussion about the larger issues at play.
3. Realize that anger isn't persuasive.
We almost never make good choices when we act in haste and anger. If Williams wanted to address the issue of her integrity and/or sexism in tennis, an outburst in the middle of a public match probably wasn't the best choice of venue.
In believing that her greater cause has merit, she seems to be conveniently overlooking her actions in the moment. I believe her message would have had a far greater impact if she had put out a well-thought-out statement after the match was over, when she had some time to reflect and cool down.
4. Stand by your people.
Williams is definitely not the only one in this situation demonstrating a failure of leadership. The U.S. Tennis Association has hung Ramos out to dry, prompting an angry backlash from other referees who are threatening to form a union. The USTA's party line has been that punishing Williams was solely his decision to make, and those decisions cannot be overruled.
By now, the USTA should have either defended Ramos' decision-making or admitted that it was wrong. If it was wrong, it should prompt a discussion about what needs to be changed in either the rules or the interpretation of the rules to reduce officiating errors.
For a great example of this, look at the National Football League, which now grades its umpire crews after each weekend of games and points out publicly where incorrect calls were made. This tactic holds referees accountable for their performance and ensures that everyone can learn from mistakes.
Sadly, in what should have been a triumphant moment for Naomi Osaka--becoming the first U.S. Open winner from Japan--we got a playbook of leadership faults to learn from.