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Serena’s Anger Opened A Debate - But Let’s Not Miss the Real Leadership Lesson



Last weekend I, Susan, watched the women’s US Open final. Even if you didn’t watch the match, I imagine you have at least heard about the aftermath, which focused on Serena Williams, her angry outburst and how it was handled by the umpire.

I have my opinion about what transpired, but what I think is most unfortunate is how the press coverage of Serena’s anger overshadowed the amazing tennis of Naomi Osaka.

I agree with a great deal of Serena’s thoughts about her treatment and the subsequent press coverage. I do think there is a double standard when it comes to how men and women are penalized for actions on the court. I, like many tennis fans, have heard men scream and say things far worse than “I think you are thief” and not get penalized. And don’t even get me started about coaching from the sidelines.

Still, as a reactive, passionate person myself, I am not sure I want to make the argument that men and women should both be able to throw rackets and yell when calls don’t go their way. I don’t think that is a viable or a healthy solution and I don’t believe that was Serena’s intent in asking for this to be reviewed. I think she was demanding equal consequences for players of both genders.

What is interesting to me is looking deeper into the differences between what is considered acceptable behavior for women and what is acceptable behavior for men. The New York Times shared an article that highlighted this issue called, “Women are Penalized for Anger at Work, Especially Black Women.”

I dug into the research behind the article. According to the study, titled “Can an Angry Woman Get Ahead?” men benefit from expressing anger. They are seen as influential and given more power and autonomy as a result. The opposite is true for women.

I went deeper because attributing the difference to gender seemed too easy. That’s when things got even more interesting. The research does confirm the summary statement. However, what was also revealed was that when men are angry it is viewed as a reasonable response to external circumstances (in other words they were provoked). With women, the anger was attributed to an internal trait (she is an angry person or hormonal etc..).

Digging further still, the study revealed that if women later attributed their anger to an external cause they did receive higher status and higher salaries.

The implication here is astonishing to me. If I can attribute my strong, emotional reaction to a cause outside of myself, I am likely to be rewarded and gain status. If I can blame someone else or outside circumstances, I can get power and more money!

That, to me, is a serious problem in our Western thinking!

I am a big believer in self-responsibility and relational living, meaning I am ABLE to respond or react and that I am response – able. When I say this, I mean I am capable of owning my internal reactions or responses. To me, that is more empowering than attributing everything to external circumstances! “You or it made me do it – therefore it’s okay!!”

But why are we in Western culture wired this way? I think it is because we are not good at dealing with uncertainty and helplessness.

In Western cultures, we reward people who get control by dominating and blaming something - anything - out of their control in order to eliminate a sense of helplessness or uncertainty.

This is insane and frankly gives us an odd sense of security that we can and will out-think, out-smart and power over anything that frightens us!

Are we really that scared of helplessness?

I started this post because I so admire leaders who are willing to be in uncertainty. (Dare I say - willing to feel helpless.) Leaders, who don’t fight to be right or defend their behavior, but acknowledge and work to find a path or just be okay with the uncertainty. I know I like myself better when I am willing to acknowledge my fears, my helplessness and when I don’t have the answer.

It hasn’t come easy. I can’t say I like the vulnerability and lack of control that comes when I acknowledge and hang out in my uncertainty and helplessness. Especially, when facing challenges that involve a person or event outside of my control. In these scenarios, I want to provide some reason to explain it all.

This isn’t a comfortable, fun place to be. But it is a real one and honestly when I go to that vulnerable honest place I feel so much more. Yes, sometimes I feel rage and anger, and sometimes I feel deep sorrow and ache for what seems impossible to comprehend. But in those deep emotional spaces, I can reach across the chasm between me and another person, not to fix or make it right, but simply to make contact.

That experience is so much more relational and vital to our humanity than power or dominance.

How can we really change the equation?

The truth is, we cannot. We cannot change the way women are perceived or whether or not they are treated fairly by tennis umpires and the press. The only thing we can do is change is our own behavior in our individual lives.

I don’t want to become a woman who can rationalizes mistakes and reactions.

I want to be the woman who can stand in her mess and clean it up. I want to be the woman who can fully acknowledging when she is terrified and not feel the need to pretend.

It is true that we do not reward this type of behavior right now, but I look forward to the day when we are willing to embrace our emotional capacity and the fullness of our resources to respond and relate.

In the meantime, I may not become as powerful with these choices, but I will be relational and live my life in line with my values.

Because that is all I can do. All I can do is show up and live a life that is true to me. All I can do is sit with the uncertainty of what this behavior may or may not bring me in the future.

And hope. that someday this behavior is equally rewarded and treasured.



CrisMarie Campbell and Susan Clarke

Coaches, Business Consultants, Speakers and Authors of The Beauty of Conflict

CrisMarie and Susan work leaders and teams, couples in business, and professional women.

They help turnaround dysfunctional teams into high performing, cohesive teams who trust each other, deal with differences directly, and have clarity and alignment on their business strategy so they create great results.

Check out their website: www.thriveinc.com. Connect with CrisMarie and Susan on LinkedIn. Watch their TEDx Talk: Conflict – Use It, Don’t Defuse It! Find your copy of The Beauty of Conflict: Harnessing Your Team's Competitive Advantage here.


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