Recently I got invited to a leadership class. All participants were asked to carry along an object to the class that represents their personal style of leadership. Each of us had to present this to the class.

I kept thinking and wondering about a bunch of objects and which one had the most influence on me as an individual and my style of leadership. Objects kept coming in and going out of the mind till my eyes got stuck to a tennis ball lying on the garage floor.

I started realizing that the thing that had the biggest impact on my personality and specially my leadership style was “tennis”. Over the last 7 years, I have learnt a few leadership lessons by being a “tennis parent” for my 2 daughters, who are right now in U-16 and U-14 age divisions in Texas. In my opinion, they play pretty decent. But to be honest, more than them learning the the game of tennis, I learnt a few important lessons that I had a major influence on my leadership style.

1-0: Storm Inside, Calm Outside

Watching your kids play tennis (or any sport) is not an easy task. You live and die by every shot, every point. And the emotions are bound to come out in every point they win or every point they lose.

There is a storm going on inside. But the thing I realized is that displaying my emotions is probably not very helpful when my kid is looking at me in between the points, specially any negative body language when things are not going well.

Like a coach told me once “When I pass by the court, I should not be able guess by looking at the parent and guess if the child is winning or losing”. I responded by saying “You mean a parent should be calm outside even if there is a storm inside”. He smiled and walked away. But that interaction resonated with me a lot and it completely changed the face (literally) of how I watched my girls play.

I try to apply the same principle as a leader. I believe it is key for every leader to be able to manage their emotion well. When things aren’t going well on a project or activity, I try not to display any sort of extreme emotion, certainly not a negative one. I believe that it is important that a team finds a safety net in their leader and every member feels secure to be part of the team. And a key ingredient of this is a leader being calm and mindful, specially during tough times. Being calm helps solve the problem better and helps bring out the best in team members. It reflects on the EQ (Emotional Quotient), a key ingredient of leadership.

2-0: Efforts matter more than results

Every parent want their kid to win and I do too when my girls play. I certainly feel happy when they win their matches. But then I realized I am also happy when they put in their best effort but still did not win a match. And to be honest, sometimes even when they win a match, I don’t feel satisfied. I realized what was going on. It was the effort. Wins and losses are sometimes not in one’s control. But the effort is. Now I only try to focus on the effort they are putting – in practice and in matches. When they have put in their best effort, it makes me happy. Lack of effort bothers me.

As a leader, I value the effort of my team members the most. I do realize that having a successful project is way better than a project that is not so successful. But sometimes the outcome of a project is beyond the control of the team members and the team. It could be based on external factors, on which the team may not have any control of. So I like that the team focuses on what they do have control of. And that is putting in all the effort every individual possibly can. Leaders are in a position to promote such a culture where great effort definitely gets recognized.

3-0: Keep making adjustments

Every time my girls are ready to go into a match, one of my key coaching point is “Keep making adjustments”. What that means is that they have to be aware of exactly what’s going on in the match. They need to be aware of their opponents strengths and weaknesses, weather conditions, direction of the wind and sun, court speed, any aspect that may not be working well on that day etc. And they need to be able to make adjustments to how they play the match based on all of these factors. If they are not aware and don’t make adjustments, the probability of success is greatly reduced.

I believe that the same would apply to most teams and leaders. I think every team member and most certainly the leader needs to be aware of everything that’s going around that could impact the work that they are doing. In project or organization terms, we call them risks. And all of us need to be able to making constant adjustments to keep managing and mitigating the risks. The probability of success is greatly reduced when leaders who are not able to sense risks and keep making adjustments.

4-0: Asking the right questions

Most junior tennis matches are played in a “2 out of 3 sets” format. When each player wins a set each, they “split sets” and they can come out for a break and get coaching from the parent or a coach. Initially I used to coach them based on my analysis from the outside. While reading one of the players biographies, I read about a coach who coached the player by asking “What do you think you should do to win the match ?”. I liked the approach. It’s the player who probably knows the most about what’s going on in the middle. If they are able to analyze and figure what needs to be done to win, they can execute better. After all, it’s their plan, not the parent’s.

I believe this is a very effective leadership style – asking the right questions to provide guidance or improve performance. Asking the right questions probes into the mind and gives a better understanding of a team members thinking process. Asking guiding questions can help frame a very effective conversation where a team member is able to make a good plan for themselves and able to stick to it – because its their own plan.

5-0: Having Fun

I always hear coaches and parent say to their kids before a match “Have Fun”. At the beginning it sounded like a ritual to me. But over time I realized, its more than a ritual. Players make maximum progress when they enjoy the process and have fun whether they are out there training or competing. If they are not having fun, no matter how hard parents try, its not going to sustain for very long (in most cases. I have read player biographies where a top pro did not enjoy playing tennis all of his junior life. But I would say that’s just an exception).

The same is true at workplace. Teams are most productive when they are having fun at work. They need to enjoy and love what they do. Teams need to be wanting to come back to workplace every day and that happens only when they are having fun. It is the leaders responsibility that they maintain such a culture. Such an environment creates high performance and happy teams resulting in “great workplaces”.

6-0: Game. Set. Match.

This is what I shared with my class and they all seemed to have enjoyed listening to the correlation. I am glad they had this pre-req exercise which forced me to think and realize how being a tennis parent was impacting me in areas outside of tennis.

I hope you enjoyed reading my learnings too. Please share if you have comments or have additional thoughts on this topic.