For tennis fans, the US Open is a special treat, a major tournament with literally every match now covered on networks or streamed online. The spectacular serves, tremendous rallies, and mind-boggling athleticism are awe-inspiring for both the casual player and ranked star.
But leaders should take note of something beyond the actual play—the longevity of its top players. Roger Federer has been a pro for nearly 20 years. Venus Williams has been playing tennis professionally since she was 14—she’s 37 now. Rafael Nadal is only 31, but he’s been winning professional matches for 16 years. Indeed, at a time when CEO tenure keeps shrinking, experts say that tennis pros both present and past (Jimmy Connors and others had long careers) are lasting long not through athleticism or training but with some key behaviors leaders need to have: decisiveness, reliability, adaptability, and the power to inspire.
Decisiveness is the ability to address problems directly. Thriving in today’s digital world requires leaders to make decisions at speed and courage, even if those decisions are wrong. Studies from Korn Ferry and others have shown that indecisiveness is among the most negative and detrimental traits to a business leader’s career.
The same is true in tennis. Federer, the Williams sisters, and the rest have only fractions of a second to figure out where the ball is going off an opponent’s racket, decide which stroke to use, and where to hit the ball back across the net. Plus, they’re often doing it while sprinting across the court.
Both successful leaders and tennis pros also deliver reliably. Federer may hold the most majors title victories ever by a men’s singles player, but the finals of majors tournaments often come down to the same handful of top players. Nadal has won 10 out of the last 13 French Open tournaments. Martina Navratilova held the No. 1 ranking in singles for more than six years and competed in 32 Grand Slam tournament finals, winning 18 of them.
Leaders often can’t sustain their success without being adaptable, agile, and willing to make changes, either to their organizations or to themselves. In a study of MBA students five to 19 years after graduation, a strength in adaptability predicted not just career satisfaction, but also career success. Tennis players make minor adjustments all the time but the best players are even willing to remodel their entire game to stay competitive. Federer’s resurgence after an injury last year is, in part, to upgrading his backhand and second serve.
Leaders are increasingly realizing that engaging their employees and others is essential. Korn Ferry found that firms that engage and enable their employees post up to 4.5 times more revenue growth than companies that don’t. Top tennis players already inspire people. The sport’s individual nature, along with its relative accessibility (you don’t need much equipment to play), and the authenticity of the players creates an intimate interpersonal relationship between fan and athlete. The players then can turn those relationships into advocacy—like Navratilova did and Serena Williams does—or lucrative product endorsements, or both.
The individual nature of tennis makes comparing player tenure to that of CEOs or other leaders not quite apples-to-apples, of course. Tennis pros can control nearly everything they do, for instance, while the performance of business or public-sector leaders is highly dependent on others. But the four broad behaviors that sustain success in tennis can help do the same for leaders everywhere.