Holding Court: Leadership Lessons From Rafa Nadal

The dramatic finale of the recent Australian Open showed what real resilience looks like.

I love tennis. Playing or watching, I always want it to be a great match. The Australian Open finals did not disappoint.

Both Rafael Nadal and Ashleigh Barty had history on the line. Their opponents—Danil Medvedev and Danielle Collins, respectively—were intent on making history of their own. All four played with extreme skill, adapting and evolving as the tournament progressed—precisely what you’d expect from world-class players.

Watching Nadal’s dramatic comeback to win after falling two sets behind, I was reminded of three leadership lessons:

1. The greater the challenge, the more you need relentless focus.

Rather than allowing his precarious situation to dictate his future, Nadal retained focus. He launched the third set with discipline, playing each game—and subsequent set—one point at a time. Assessing what did or did not work is useful only if it prompts change. Sometimes, the required change is simply to reconnect to your strengths and rely on the months of preparation and experience that brought you to this moment.

• How do you handle setbacks or failures?

• What actions do you take habitually to learn from current performance?

• What will you do differently as a result of what you’ve learned?

2. You’ve got to believe.

Down two sets in a best-of-five match, Nadal returned to the stadium with a fresh shirt and fresh resolve. He systematically attacked each point and countered the experts’ doubts. Leaders project confidence in their team’s ability to get the job done and to achieve the objectives. They trust the team’s understanding of their collective skills and gaps, then guide team members to execute in that moment.

• To what extent is your team for you or against you – and what does this say about your leadership?

• In what ways do your current practices give up on people versus fostering development?

3. Mindset mattered most to the outcome.

A leader’s mindset impacts their own performance. Repeatedly, Nadal returned from the brink of disaster, with his mind set on executing the point. Yet, sustaining high performance in business requires more than an individual star. Leaders also shape the collective mindset and hold both themselves and the team accountable for results.

• In what ways do you cultivate a champion’s mindset in your team?

Every business has competitors. And no one gets it right every time. Nadal did not win every point or every game in the last three sets—far from it. In fact, for spectators, this is what made it exciting. Having the mindset of a champion does not guarantee the win. It simply governs the way you move forward and how you progress.

CEOs and executives who demonstrate relentless focus and belief power their teams to greater heights. And those who intentionally cultivate the mindset of a champion will ultimately achieve better outcomes.

Tara Rethore, CEO of Strategy for Real, works with CEOs, boards and executives to take strategy off the page and into action. Throughout her career, Tara has led strategy development and execution within global organizations and as a highly valued consultant. She is known for discovering leadership and strategy lessons in everyday situations which then become relatable examples for her clients. Currently, Tara serves on several private and nonprofit boards. She is also a Marshall Goldsmith Certified Stakeholder-Centered Coach. Tara earned an MBA from the University of Chicago. Learn more about making strategy work in Tara’s book, Charting the Course: CEO Tools to Align Strategy & Operations, or on Tara’s Real Strategy blog.