In the world of professional tennis, athletes are often trained to present a composed and polished demeanour during media interviews. Players are typically groomed to act this way, with interviews often characterised by rehearsed responses and calculated control over emotions. The same is true of pretty much all professional settings.
The purpose of this is to ensure we tick all the right boxes, and nothing is said that might risk puncturing our carefully crafted image, and thus risk damaging others’ perception of us. We could all agree on that logic.
That is, until yesterday.
After losing in the Wimbledon final, Novak Djokovic’s Finalist Interview was a historical moment in professional Tennis, and a mirror for organisational culture.
He began by offering his industry standard polished response, offering the precise sequence of words to indicate a perfected blend of humility and sportsmanship. His emotionless declaration of being ‘obviously disappointed’ all came to an abrupt end when he looked over at his son.
For 30 seconds, it was just him and his son, the 12 million strong audience melted away – leaving just a dad who loves his kids. We watched on as the sight of his son pierced the polished mould and facilitated an upswell of raw emotion.
The most fascinating thing about this moment was not that of an apparently emotionless high performer showing his feelings. It’s that, in these 30 seconds of heartfelt emotion, he completely transformed his approval ratings in the eyes of 12 million viewers.
Djokovic has not been a well loved figure. Despite winning continuously and saying all the right things in his interviews. He’s been respected, but not loved. In fact, he has spent the tournament railing against this – railing about how he is not accepted by the Wimbledon crowds, how they always cheer for the ‘other guy’. He was never accepted in the way Federer was, even though he is just one short in terms of WImbledon titles. . If pundits are to be believed, that all appears to have changed.
If the current emotional outpouring of Wimbledon fans towards Djokovic shows us anything, it is that when you show your true nature, a bleeding, open heart – those people that otherwise rejected you can come closer – they can accept you a little more. Breaking down with love and grief – uncurated, impression management out the window – can be the catalyst to transform the opinions of people who resent you. This moment has showed us that, in a professional world religiously devoted to the careful crafting of public persona, nothing is as powerful as an authentic moment of unmediated human expression.
This is true in my experience. The biggest breakthroughs I’ve had with my teams on my Founder journey have all been achieved through my own version of the above. When engaging in crucial conversations with my people, true vulnerability has always been the catalyst that repair ruptures and promotes renewal.
The detail that made this moment an absolutely precise reflection of the cultural patterns of modern organisational reality was how Djokovic said ‘sorry’ at the end. He apologised for this moment of authenticity.
One of the great tragedies of our time is that socially expressing pain is not welcome. At least, supposedly not welcome. Perhaps Djokovic is sitting on his sofa today, looking at his approval ratings going through the roof, and questioning whether this story he and so many subscribe to is actually true.
Despite organisational life being dominated by the professional, polished mask, our experience in Mycelium and with our clients says it’s the exact opposite that breaks corrosive energy or resigned inertia, and unlocks the pathway toward productive organisational energy.
In business, leaders often feel the pressure to present a flawless image, devoid of vulnerability or emotion. Especially when people don’t approve of us. Djokovic did. We all do. But when he dropped the ‘gamesmanship master’ thing, when he transcended his role as a tennis superstar and became relatable as a father and a human being, the people welcomed him – he received the one thing that had eluded him this whole tournament – love and acceptance.
Modernity trains us to be closed, defensive and committed to being right. If nothing else, this moment of shared humanity in a professional setting should encourage more leaders to risk becoming just a little more genuine in the face of disapproval, because this Wimbledon interview reveals that this is what inspires trust and loyalty – the true foundations of restoring collaboration, innovation, and success.
We all long for it. Someone just has to go first. Leaders, I’m talking about you.
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