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Leadership lesson from tennis: Don’t lose advantage by publically breaking ties

  • Nicknamed the Indian Express, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi promised a fruitful future—but it wasn’t to be
  • The feud between them would often come out in the open and they wouldn’t shy away from taking digs at each other in public

Leander Paes (L) and Mahesh Bhupathi (R)
Leander Paes (L) and Mahesh Bhupathi (R) (Reuters)

The year 1999 was historic for Indian sports. The doubles pairing of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi enjoyed a breakthrough season on the tennis circuit as it went on to reach the final of all four Grand Slams, winning the French Open and Wimbledon—thus becoming the first Grand Slam winners from India.

Nicknamed the Indian Express, the duo’s remarkable year promised a fruitful future—but it wasn’t to be. The differences between the two saw them part ways and play with other partners. They did come together for national team competitions, like the Davis Cup and the Olympics, but their mutual acrimony would prevent them from forming an alliance in other competitions.

During the early years of the duo’s partnership, there was hope that they would overtake Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde’s haul of 11 Grand Slam doubles titles.

But, Paes and Bhupathi’s differences would come in the way of prolonging a winning partnership. That is, in turn, a powerful lesson for any team.

Sumeet Yadav, Group CEO, DO IT (Sports, Retail & Family Entertainment), recounts from experience how unchecked ego could be destructive for a team. “From what I have seen in the corporate world, as you go higher the egos get bigger, so a lot of the time you are managing egos instead of managing work, unfortunately", he says.

“When we were re-launching Nando’s in India, we had a similar problem with one of our franchises. Just because of his ego, the person was not willing to look at what was the right thing to do, and, in a sense, running the business down to a point where we had to replace the franchise itself. We had to take a hard decision for the team and the brand, and the business flew after that," Yadav adds.

Aside from being non-cricketing sports stars, a rarity in 1990s India, Paes and Bhupathi were also unique in the way they aired their differences publicly. The feud between the two tennis stars would often come out in the open and they wouldn’t shy away from taking digs at each other in public.

Yadav, who is the group CEO of DoIT Sports Management, which owns sports franchises in professional kabbadi, table tennis and hockey leagues, believes the tendency of keeping things private when things turn unsavoury is part of Indian culture, reflected even in the way business honchos deal with differences.

“In India, there is a different culture. There is confrontation in the West, like in the case of Uber with how the guy (co-founder and then CEO Travis Kalanick) was behaving and how the board was upset. India doesn’t have that culture, boardroom battles do not come out in the open. At the senior level, people don’t talk openly about issues. Even if you look at the tussles between Elon Musk and the Tesla board, very rarely will you find in India something like it except what happened between Cyrus Mistry and the Tata board. In my 25-30 years in the industry, I haven’t seen boards publicly decrying CEOs.

“Our culture is all about finding solutions. You either work to solve issues or you find a way to move on. There are very few public sackings in our country," Yadav adds.

But that wasn’t the case in Indian tennis. The gulf between the tennis pair deepened to an extent that Bhupathi as well as compatriot Rohan Bopanna would refuse to partner with Paes for the 2012 London Olympics. Paes, the 1996 Olympics bronze medallist, was forced to play with third-choice Vishnu Vardhan and failed to progress beyond the second round in London.

In April 2017, Bhupathi, the now retired and the non-playing captain of the Indian Davis Cup team chose Paes in the six-man squad for the clash against Uzbekistan but ignored the veteran for the final four. At 45, Paes, who is not showing any inclination of bidding adieu to the game, slammed Bhupathi for insulting him. Bhupathi, on his part, revealed that he had made Paes aware of his decision well in advance. But their fight would move to press conferences and then to social media.

Bhupathi, 44, went on to post WhatsApp screenshots of their conversation that suggested Paes was made aware of the final team well in advance so his insult accusation didn’t hold water. Over the years, Indian tennis fans have grown inured to this back and forth.

Yadav believes that more assertive millennials in the workforce things will also change in corporate India in the future and we might see more examples of public feuds, like the one between’s board and its co-founder, Rahul Yadav.

“In the future, things will change. If you look at all the new start-ups that are happening and growing, they are built on a performance-driven culture that is less based on respect. I know of several companies that have an open charter where they tell employees that if you don’t perform, we have to move on. Things like this were never said in the open", he says.

DoIT’s Yadav attributes the changing dynamics in the workplace to the plethora of opportunities available for current and future generations.

“If you were to lose your job in the past, it would kill you as a person because there were social implications. Today, that doesn’t make a difference. There is a high level of understanding on both sides now. It’s not a train crash if you lose your job today.

But, as the case of Paes and Bhupathi proves, Yadav says bringing out differences into the open will always be counterproductive and never good for a team.

“When egos come into play at a workplace, things get petty. Once the differences come out in the open, there is no end to it. Teams start disintegrating, people lose morale and stop focusing and then move out. Then their focus is on ‘how do I survive?’. The team then realizes that nothing is going to get better," he concludes.

Fielding Leadership is a series that draws lessons from sporting events for managers.

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