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Dare to Lead. A simple but compelling message.

October 26, 2007

“Dare to lead.”  That was the simple but compelling message that tennis legend Billie Jean King served up to an audience of 600 women leaders from 30 countries who gathered in Chicago recently.

King was being inducted into the Hall of Fame of the International Women’s Forum (http://www.iwforum.org/), a pre-eminent organization that connects women of accomplishment on five continents.  

Watching the 64-year-old King prowl the stage, full of the energy and passion you would expect from one of the greatest athletes of the 20th Century, I thought most about her legendary leadership qualities, which she has honed and put to use as skillfully as she has her powerful serves and volleys.  

King’s tennis accomplishments http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billie_Jean_King include 39 Grand Slam Titles and 13 U.S. Open titles. But her greatest legacy has been her off-court leadership.

 For King, it wasn't enough to be the greatest woman tennis player in the world.  Not in a world where women athletes were regarded as inferior and paid peanuts compared to their male peers.  What she did about it, according to the United States Tennis Association (http://www.usta.com/home/default.sps), “ . . changed the sport of tennis throughout the world and sparked the drive for gender equality in sports and society.” 

If you can’t remember where you were during the 1973 version of the Battle of the Sexes, when 50 million people watched King defeat former Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs, let me refresh your memory.

Three decades ago, Title IX was just a section in the federal Education Act of 1972.  There were few opportunities for girls to play sports and develop competitive and team skills now recognized as so valuable in the professional world.  The women’s movement was gaining steam, permeating the U.S. national consciousness.  Women were dreaming big, but had little evidence to back their push for gender equality.  Men were feeling a bit defensive as their position at the top of the cultural pecking order was being challenged.

Bobby Riggs, the #1 player in the world in 1941, ’46 and ’47 was 55 and at the end of his career when he challenged King to a gender grudge match.  Riggs took every chance he could to proclaim to the media that women could never be the players men were.  “They are simply too weak, just women,” he said and dared the top woman player in the world to prove him wrong on national TV.

Can you imagine the advisers who urged King not to accept his challenge?  How many well-intentioned friends must have warned that she had everything to lose and nothing to gain if a has-been champion beat the reigning queen of tennis?

Yet King followed her own advice, daring to lead, when she put her reputation on the line and accepted the challenge.  She understood how much was to be gained for women’s sports and the collective female psyche if she were to win. 

She also did it with great humor.  I’ll never forget Bobby Riggs arriving courtside in a carriage drawn by women.  King was carried in on a red litter lifted on the shoulders of football players in Roman togas.

But as soon as the match began, the kidding was over.  Two champions were playing for blood, not to mention the egos of men and women all over the country hanging on every shot. King not only won the match, she did it in straight sets.  To his credit, her self-proclaimed sexist opponent jumped over the net to congratulate her and said afterwards, “She was too good. Too fast.”  

It was a great victory for Billie Jean King, but an even greater one for women.  The bragging rights from that match seemed to put wind beneath their wings and helped lift them as they rose toward the peaks we see millions of women standing atop today.  King went on to found the Women’s Tennis Association, the Women’s Sports Foundation and World Team Tennis.

Young women making their mark in the professional world today or testing themselves on athletic courts and fields may not know who Billie Jean King is.  But they stand on her shoulders and have been lifted by her legacy.  And society has evolved in ways that have benefitted everyone as women's full talents have begun to be tapped.

Courage and the Willingness to Take Risks are leadership qualities that have stood the test of time.  Next time you have an opportunity to do something that scares you but holds great rewards, remember two things.  Remember, it’s not just about you.  It’s about what each of us can do, in our own circles of influence, to move our community and our society forward.  And remember Billie Jean King.  Her leadership, her legacy and her simple challenge:  Dare to Lead.

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