A Reflection: Arthur Ashe

photo by Ron Cogswell CC by 2.0

As a lifelong competitive tennis player, tennis has been my refuge from the day-to-day battle with the world; a place where I can trash talk with my friends, hit some winning shots, and mishit many more losing ones than I hate to admit. For sure, I‘ve had some accomplishments on the courts in days gone by. However, as Bruce Springsteen sings “Glory Days, well they’ll pass you by.”

Over the years I’ve had some outstanding doubles partners. Two of them in particular got bad bounces in life, and passed away prematurely. I still think of them often, and with affection and admiration, blessed by their friendship.

Another person who got a bad bounce was one of my role models, Arthur Ashe. I admired Ashe ever since he broke onto the tennis scene. Looking back, there were several things that drew me to Arthur: (1) the quality of his game, so smooth and precise; (2) his incredibly composed manner on and off the court; (3) the way he, as a Black man, conducted himself in a white man’s game, and, most importantly, (4) the causes he stood for and fought against.

Ashe was an active civil rights activist. On the issue of racism, he modeled an alternative to the rise of Black Power advocates and their call to fight. Ashe aligned himself more in the nonviolent camp, although he was certainly not deaf to the cries of others. He used his celebrity to raise awareness of class differences.

Similarly, he became a tireless crusader against apartheid. Despite years of being denied visas to join the rest of the tennis world in the South African National Tennis Championship, he persisted using his celebrity to bring attention to the issue of discrimination. After receiving an approved visa, he refused the play before a segregated audience, causing the government to acquiesce to his requirement. His visit to South Africa, along with the work of the Rev. Leon Sullivan and many others, he solidified a movement that helped bring down apartheid, and brought with it freedom from prison for Nelson Mandela.

I felt like I knew Arthur. When I learned he had AIDS, I was saddened beyond measure. Yet, in typical Arthur form, he continued on in his life and the causes he fought for, until it was no longer possible. I remember reading when he was diagnosed with HIV after undergoing a blood transfusion during heart bypass surgery that his immediate thoughts and concerns were directed to his wife Jeanne Moutoussamy, and his fear of her being infected. She said to him, “You and me, babe. You and me.” I held my wife Lynne tighter that night than ever before.

On February 6, 1993 I was at our tennis club one evening for a team match, when news of Arthur’s death was announced on the television. He was 49 years old. I broke down and wept. Soon thereafter, I published the following article.

*****************************

Finding True Leadership Next Door

In Memoriam: Arthur Ashe

GPA Photo Archive (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Leadership is one of the most discussed and least understood phenomena. The Wall Street Journal recently ran a feature piece on a prominent leader, his work, sleeping and eating habits, and lifestyle. As the article exhibits, leadership has become a celebrity watch. It’s ironic that in this age of information, the more we know about our leaders, the clearer it becomes how little we know about the subject of leadership.

What is it that makes us dash off to the bookstore looking for a copy of biographies of leaders, or seeking Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, or Blanchard’s (the microwave leader) One Minute Manager?

Why do we measure the power of executives by the floor they sit on on, their proximity to the corner office or, as a young Turk once observed to me, “the number of window panes in my corner office.”

What is leadership? Where can it be found?

Leadership must be on another floor, or in an office down the hall. Maybe we’ll find it in the next best-selling book.

We search in vain for leaders we can have faith in. Our doubts about today’s leaders are not so much about their skills, talents and accomplishments, but about their trustworthiness. We are unsure whether they are serving their organization, institution, or themself. One thing is certain, however: they aren’t serving us.

I live in Westchester County, New York. Recently we lost a wonderful neighbor, and the world lost a truly great leader. Interestingly, he never led an army. He never ran a company. In fact, he was never in charge of anyone except himself. He never published a book outlining his leadership philosophy, although you knew where he stood on every important issue. He was an intensely private man, neither showy nor flashy. He was certainly not charismatic. Most of his life work was confined to a small area and, while he was excellent at his craft, he was not the best of his time.

In this day and age when leadership has become a celebrity watch, in the person of this quiet, unassuming man was a truly great leader. His name was Arthur Ashe.

He was born into a segregated Southern community in Richmond, Virginia. His ancestors were direct descendants from Amar, a West African woman that was enslaved and brought to America in 1735. Growing up he was precluded from playing in his home city’s indoor courts, or from playing against white children. Nonetheless throughout his career he broke the color line at scores of all-white country clubs, including – without question – the biggest all-white country club of them all: South Africa. Although he enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he served with distinction, he later quietly and peacefully demonstrated his desire to see the war in Vietnam come to an end.

When a congenital heart condition abruptly ended his still flourishing career, he used his misfortune as a way to educate others. And in the final chapter of his life he showed us we must have compassion and a great sense of urgency for AIDS victims.

Arthur Ashe taught us how to handle conflict and adversity in confronting racism, war, apartheid, heart disease and HIV. As his niece so eloquently said at his memorial service, Arthur Ashe was committed to “breaking down human fences.”

Arthur Ashe handled both success and adversity with similar dignity and class. The Rev. Jesse Jackson observed that, “Arthur managed to build a code of conduct for the gifted.” Indeed, in doing so, he connected the haves and have-nots, the well to do and the voices of the oppressed.

In a television interview one month before he died, Ashe responded to an interviewer’s praise by saying, “Look, I’m not a hero, I’m not a legend. I’m just a man.” There are no labels you can put on Arthur Ashe. Yet, by his example, he taught us all something about what it means to be fully human. It was because of his humanity that he was awarded the Medal of Freedom, posthumously.

Arthur Ashe was a great leader. He looked no further than himself to find it. And as long as we’re seeking it somewhere else, we’ll never find it ourselves.

Arthur Ashe understood that his tennis accomplishments were merely a platform to contribute his humanity to important societal issues (once again, tikkun olam – “to repair the world, and build a more just, humane future”). It is that unselfish sense of giving that is the hallmark of real leaders. When I think of Ashe, I am reminded of the words of the sportswriter Grantland Rice:

When the once Great Scorer

finally calls your name,

it’s not whether you won or lost,

it’s how you played the game.

***

Arthur Ashe was born on July 10, 1943. He would have been 77 years old next week. At a time when statues are being torn down, one stands proudly on Monument Avenue in Richmond, VA. Bless you Arthur Ashe.

Keith Darcy is President of Darcy Partners Inc., a boutique consulting firm that works with boards and top executives on a wide variety of complex governance, ethics, compliance, and reputation risk challenges. Website: Darcy.Partners

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