Sunday, April 12, 2009

Leadership Perspectives - Lessons From Arthur Ashe

Leadership Perspective – Lessons from Arthur Ashe
By Doug Dickerson

Spring time across the country means different things depending on what part of the country you live. Here in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, one of the many festive occasions that mark the arrival of spring is the Family Circle Cup tennis tournament on picturesque Daniel Island.

During this renowned tournament, the top women’s tennis players from around the globe come to claim the top prize and demonstrate for their adoring fans why they are the best in the world.

One of tennis’ most recognizable and revered players is the late Arthur Ashe. Ashe was a top ranked player in the 1960’s and 70’s. Raised in the segregated south, he was the first African-American tennis player to win a Grand Slam tournament. Over the course of his storied career, Ashe won 33 career singles titles and 18 doubles. Ashe died on February 6, 1993 after a courageous battle with cancer.

Ashe was much more than an athlete though. His commitment to social justice, health and humanitarian issues left a mark on the world as his tennis did on the court. You can read more of about his life and legacy on his website at

During his battle with cancer, Ashe received letters from fans from all over the world. He read all of his letters, but only replied to one. The fan who wrote to him asked him, “Why does God have to select you for such a bad disease?”

Ashe replied, “In the world, there are 50 million children who start playing tennis each year, 1 million of them really learn to play tennis. Half a million manage to learn professional tennis. 50,000 come to the circuit, 5,000 reach the grand slam. 50 reach Wimbledon, 4 reach the final round, 2 reach the final round, and only one wins the championship. When I was holding the cup, I never asked, ‘God, why me?’ and today in pain, how could I ask him, ‘why me?’”

Ashe demonstrated on and off the court a leadership style that is worth another look at today. I’d like to share a few leadership thoughts taken from quotes by Ashe as we look at leadership perspectives.

First, success is a journey. Ashe said, “Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome.” Whether you win or lose, it’s how you played the game that matters. In the end, retaining your character and integrity will mean more than what you achieved. Take care of the former and the latter will take care of itself.

Second, we have a responsibility to serve. “From what we get, we can make a living; what we give, however, makes a life,” Ashe said. It’s a timeless concept. True happiness in life is discovered as we learn to give. He later said, “True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It’s not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.” Ashe is a wonderful example of someone who got it.

Third, get in the game. Ashe said, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” The principle is larger than tennis. The gifts, abilities, and talents you have are a means to benefit others. It’s not about the talents you don’t possess, but what you will do with the ones you do. Don’t miss opportunities around you because you were a spectator. Ashe didn’t allow obstacles to hold him back, neither should you.

Finally, decide upon your legacy. “I don’t want to be remembered for my tennis accomplishments,” he said. Do we remember Ashe for his accomplishments on the tennis court? We most certainly do, and rightfully so. His accomplishments off the court are what he wanted to be remembered for. He fought for causes that transcended the game and his legacy lives on today. It’s just a good leadership principle; there are causes greater than us.

Ashe provides a leadership perspective that is applicable today. Tennis is a better sport today because he played. The world is a better place because he served.

© 2009 Doug Dickerson

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