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What Serena Williams Teaches Us About Anger, Compassion, and Women Leaders

Inc. logo Inc. 9/9/2018 Lisa Abeyta
a person wearing a hat: Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams. © Getty Images Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams.

Sometimes leadership requires anger and aggressive action. Sometimes it requires compassion. Here's how Serena Williams exhibited both.

It was during the second set of the U.S. Open Grand Slam match between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka that chair umpire Carlos Ramos decided to warn Serena for being coached. His decision set off a maelstrom of reactions, first from Serena, then the fans, and, finally, the rest of us watching at home.

I may need to back up here and clarify that I am not a sports writer or even a fan of tennis, although I did take tennis lessons one summer when our kids were little.

At the end of those lessons, my very patient coach encouraged me to find another way to enjoy the great outdoors besides tennis.

I will probably use the wrong words to describe what was going on during the already infamous match that resulted in Serena Williams's being penalized and ultimately losing the Grand Slam title to the first Japanese to win a major singles title.

But this match eclipsed the world of tennis and became about every time a woman has been held to a different standard and judged far more harshly than her male counterparts.

I may not know a lot about tennis, but as a founder of a tech company within a male dominated field, I do know a thing or two about the double standards that women often face.

OK, so first off -- this whole thing in tennis where it seems being coached is not allowed -- what is up with that? It seems in tennis that being coached by your coach when you are actually playing tennis is tantamount to cheating. Unless you're a guy. Then it seems the rules are viewed differently.

Back in 2015 at Wimbledon, Boris Becker's coach said, "Yes, I communicate with Boris, but you can't call it cheating." Maybe someone should tell Carlos Ramos that, because he pretty much accused Serena of cheating during today's match, and she not only responded angrily, she did not back down or let it go.

Here is my issue with all of this -- when a woman gets aggressive, pushes back, and remains insistent that she be heard, there is almost this visceral negative reaction toward her. Even by other women.

When Australian tennis player Nick Kyrgios slammed his tennis racket down so hard it bounced into the stands and when he shouted "dirty scum" during a match, he brushed it off afterwards by saying he wasn't calling the referee that name. (My kids used to try this tactic when they were toddlers: I wasn't hitting him; I was hitting the fly on his shoulder.) Yeah, sure. I didn't believe them, either. But, miraculously, Kyrgios wasn't sanctioned.

Tennis star Novak Djokovic once said to a referee when the crowd was noisily cheering for his opponent, "Tell them to shut [up]." He wasn't penalized for that outburst either.

Even John McEnroe, who was rewarded with parts in movies because of his infamous on-court behavior, defaulted a Grand Slam match almost 25 years ago. He said that penalty was "the price he had to pay after years of favorable treatment."

In a study published in 2015, both men and women viewed anger from women as less persuasive than anger from men -- despite the only difference being whether a male or female's name was assigned to what they read. In another study, men and women both said they wanted to work for an aggressive CEO if the name was male, but not if the name was female.

Our implicit bias causes us to believe that when men are angry, they are responding in the moment to a situation. Alternately, we believe when women are angry that it must be triggered by something internal -- that they are too emotional or not thinking clearly.

Because of this tendency to stereotype women's anger as less persuasive, we can also see her as less of a leader. That was certainly not the case for Serena Williams after she lost to Naomi Osaka.

After the match, as the crowd's booing increased, Serena put her arm around the young woman and chided the audience, reminding them that this woman had played well and deserved to be celebrated for her win.

Serena exhibited leadership in her aggressive response to an unfair call and in her compassionate response to an unfair crowd. And she even showed leadership in not backing down when asked what she would change. She understands the stakes are far beyond herself and extend to the way all women are viewed and treated -- and whether it is the same as their male counterparts.

Related Video: Different standard for women and men in tennis? "Yes," USTA CEO says (Provided by CBS News)

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