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What Bernie Tomic's behaviour teaches us about leadership

Peter Switzer
7 July 2017

One of the most disturbing revelations of the week came from tennis falling star Bernard Tomic. It made me ponder what set of life circumstances results in someone like Bernie.

He’s a class athlete but clearly has a lack of class problem. It showed in his on-court and post-game performances at Wimbledon on Wednesday the 4th of July.

In case you missed it, when asked about his lacklustre showing, he summed it up with words reflecting that he was bored with tennis but would keep showing up and collecting his cheques because that’s easy for him to do.

The Daily Telegraph saw it brilliantly, with one of the great headlines of the year: “Bored on the Fourth of July”!

Bernie’s indifference to his present predicament isn’t shared by his racquet sponsor, who cancelled their contract with the one-time potential superstar.

He was also slammed with a $20,000 fine for his post-game interview comments, though there’s a suggestion that his faking an injury during the game was also a contributor to the punishment.

And I use the word “punishment” intentionally. Unfortunately, although the fine is the second biggest in Wimbledon’s history, it probably isn’t big enough to shake this tennis brat out of his hubris-enriched approach to a game that has delivered to him more than he deserves.

Tennis has always produced brats and officials have never been great in dealing with them. John McEnroe pioneered the brat and used his antics to win his game.

Ile Nastase of Romania was so committed to winning that he could not control his aggressive tendencies. But at least these two guys had something you could admire — they wanted to win.

Bernie looks like he has decided that for him to win, he’ll have to work a lot harder than he’s prepared to go, so he’ll just cruise. But unfortunately, his ego is so big that he wasn’t wise enough to cover up what he really feels and has discovered that honesty isn’t always the best policy (whoever made up that cliché should never have used the word “always”, as coaches can never tell their teams that they are hopeless, a parent can never tell their daughter that she’s physically ugly and a lot of husbands think twice when their wife asks them if they think they look fat in a certain dress!)

It’s long been known that Bernie’s Dad has had a big influence on him. I wonder if Mr. Tomic Snr was cheering for his son when he said: “I couldn’t care less if I make a fourth-round US Open or I lose first round. To me, everything is the same.”

Summing up his current mindset, he added: “You know, I’m going to play another 10 years and I know after my career I won’t have to work again.”

The media and prominent tennis officials often portrayed Bernie’s Dad as an over-influencer, holding back his son’s progress. But he was never seen as a quitter and someone not committed to seeing his son as a winner.

So what’s Bernie’s problem, which he shares with lots of normal people who don’t have to show their unimpressive attitudes on TV?

Well, they haven’t got goals. They haven’t got a burning desire to win. And they’ve had a leadership problem.

I’ve often referred to the tennis great Chris Evert’s take on her own career but, with this story, it’s oh so relevant. She once reflected on her career in tennis and summed it up this way: “There were times deep down I wanted to win so badly I could actually will it to happen. I think most of my career was based on desire.”

However, even Chris left something out that maybe was natural to her. I bet she had a life influencer, who helped her bridge the gap between wanting something and doing the hard work to actually make it happen.

In his great book Open Andre Agassi confessed he had motivation problems, along with a bagful of family issues that lowered his desire intensity at various times of his career. His hooking up with the great Steffi Graf coincided with him realising there were more important things in life than him and he began to stop blaming others for his predicament and started to take responsibility for his life — warts and all.

In simple terms, he grew up. And it meant that he finished his career as a true champion of the game, who memorably bowed to the crowd after being applauded post-victory at the Aussie Open.

Him bowing and showing respect for the tennis public is something that shocked me at the time. One day I hope Bernie will shock me by growing up and becoming the champion we’ve always wanted him to be.

The reality of tennis at his level is that the 100th ranked player isn’t all that different in terms of technique, fitness and understanding of the game. However, the greats such as Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Serena Williams have a competitive advantage: it’s all about their desire.

How did they get that desire? Well, it could be just something inborn in them. In most cases, it’s a bit of that plus the good fortune to have great leadership in their lives.

Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt is arguably one of America’s greatest Presidents. Before his years of politics, he was a swashbuckling soldier and someone always happy to accommodate an adversary interested in the ‘manly’ art of pugilism.

Ironically, this bespectacled he-man was born a sickly child but famously his father, Theodore Sr. said these words to his son: “Theodore, you have the brain but you haven't got the body. I'm giving you the tools to make your body. It's going to be hard drudgery and I want to know whether you think you have the determination to go through with it.”

As history records it, Teddy said: “I'll make my body.”

Anyone interested in someone who benefited from strong leadership should look into Teddy’s illustrious life. The following quote tells you what kind of leader he became: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

I have no interest in condemning a young person like Bernie Tomic forever. What he has done so far to take himself into the top ranks of tennis shows that he has qualities beyond the normal human being. I only hope he gets as lucky as Andre Agassi and finds the leader who’ll show him what he’s capable of.

As an Aussie lover of tennis, I can even recall that Lleyton Hewitt had some bad moments when he was young. He grew up and became a much-loved champion of the game and the country.

We all need leadership. If the people you lead, be it in your business, your team or your family aren’t following you, then, as a leader, it’s partly because of you.

A lot of business owners and managers complain about Gen Y and millennials, saying they’re impossible to lead or work with. But if you think you’re a leader but turn around and find no one following you, then you’re not a leader but someone just going for a walk! Rather than look at the Gen Y’ers or your children or your team, look at yourself and the behavior you’re demonstrating to others.

Bernie has a problem that’s not all his making. But he’ll have to be the one who’ll make or break the name of Bernard Tomic. And losing his sponsorship with Head might be the kick in the pants he needs. We all get kicks in the pants. Rather than look at the kicker, look at the bum that was kicked! We can only really change ourselves, but finding good leaders can certainly set us on the right path to make those changes.

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