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Leadership Lessons from Serena Williams and Michelle Obama

When it comes to female role models in business, many of us turn to CEOs of Fortune 500 companies (of which there are very few), the women leaders in our network, or our mentors if we’re lucky enough to have them. Where we don’t often look, however, is on the tennis court or in the […]

DEBBY WONG / SHUTTERSTOCK
DEBBY WONG / SHUTTERSTOCK

When it comes to female role models in business, many of us turn to CEOs of Fortune 500 companies (of which there are very few), the women leaders in our network, or our mentors if we’re lucky enough to have them. Where we don’t often look, however, is on the tennis court or in the White House. As the #MeToo movement and push for equal rights continues, both Serena Williams and Michelle Obama have come to the forefront as role models for women, especially mothers, in leadership. Read on for the three key lessons Serena and Michelle are exemplifying. 

Self-Doubt is Real

One of the most vulnerable things a leader can do is share when they are feeling self-doubt. When that leader is either the former First Lady of the United States (and a Harvard-educated lawyer, I might add) or the most winningest female tennis player in history, it can make the rest of us feel normal. Michelle Obama shared her experienceof self-doubt while visiting a girls’ school in North London, admitting, “I still have a little [bit of] Impostor Syndrome. It never goes away, that you’re actually listening to me?”.  Serena Williams agrees, stating in her Fortune essay, “I’m honest about my struggles as a working mom because I want other women out there to know they are not alone. We have to show ourselves and our female counterparts compassion and reality.” If women as successful as these two have doubts, then we’re not alone. In fact, studies showthat over 80% of people battle Imposter Syndrome, and this feeling increases with success. Opening up to other women in your network is crucial; you’ll realize you aren’t alone in your feelings as well as have others validate your success. Serena sums it best, saying, “While I think all women are superheroes, we are not superhuman and we need each other’s support. Trust me when I say: we’ve all been there before.” 

You Can’t Have It All

Michelle caused headlineswhen she took a stand against Sheryl Sandberg’s popular “Lean In” mantra. During a stop on her book tour, the former First Lady stated, “That whole ‘so you can have it all’ thing, that’s a lie. And it’s not always enough to lean in, because that shit doesn’t work all the time.” While some took offense to her cursing, many women were thrilled to have the truth of their experience spoken out loud. In our overly-connected world we are bombarded day after day with images and messages of what “having it all” looks like. The house, the big job, the family, the PTA volunteering, the perfect home-cooked dinner; it’s not possible to have all at the same time. 

That’s where the key distinction is; these things happen in different phases of life, not all at once. Michelle shares this in her memoir Becoming, and also shares her frustration with this antiquated idea: “I am always irritated by the ‘you can have it all’ statement because it’s a ridiculous aspiration. You can have it all, but oftentimes it’s hard to get it all at the same time.” Additionally, we’re often trying to achieve this without help. In her same Fortune essay Serena writes, “forget the cliché of ‘having it all,’ the reality is, women are trying to do it all.” I could not agree more with this statement and find that many female leaders struggle to ask for and accept help. Finding ways to delegate (both at work and home) is key to having more time for what you want. 

Balance Is B.S.

Most of us have agreed by now that balance is B.S., but it’s still comforting to hear it affirmed by women we admire. The reality for women in leadership is that our lives will never be an even 50-50 split. Sometimes we’ll spend more time and energy at work, and sometimes we’ll spend more at home. All sorts of circumstances tip the scale and striving for work-life integration is a better pursuit. One of Michelle’s practices for prioritizingis to schedule all family events and activities first. This allows her to integrate her life into her schedule and make compromises where she needs to. “Even when you schedule [around] your family, there’s still plenty of time for work, but we don’t plan like that,” she says. “We let work inundate everything. We have to start setting the priority of allowing people to put their lives before their work.” Handling a career and motherhood is especially difficult as we are pulled in opposite directions. Serena shares this sentiment, saying, “[my daughter] is my absolute priority ― spending as much time as possible with her every day is so important to me. But I’m still training to win Grand Slams and sometimes I have to make hard choices about how I spend my time.” Making those hard choices is part of being a woman in leadership. Finding ways to compromise, trade time where you can and integrate work and life, however, can help make those decisions easier.

As we work to become our best having authentic role models can help immensely. Seeing the women we admire most be open about their struggles and doubts allows us to feel normal and take the pressure off, knowing that they don’t fully have it figured out either. By acknowledging their self-bout, renouncing the ideal of “having it all,” and calling B.S. on work-life balance, Serena Williams and Michelle Obama are my truth-telling leaders of 2019. 

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