• Leadership

Leadership and Empowerment

WNBA’s Lisa Borders says leadership is about influence, not authority


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"If you will allow people to take their own personal audit of their strengths, their weaknesses, where they can improve, and if you help them to develop, they will follow you almost anywhere," the WNBA president, Lisa Borders, told students during a conversation with Bill Boulding, Dean of Fuqua School of Business, Duke University.

Borders discussed her experiences and approach to leadership as part of Fuqua's Distinguished Speaker Series. See below for the full video of the conversation.

These are some observations from her talk:

On Motivation

From school onward Borders has often felt people underestimated her – and she liked it! When people underestimate you, she says, it gives you the chance to calibrate others’ expectations and this gives you something to reach for. It provides the motivation to succeed.

On Uncomfortable Conversations

“When you are trying to talk about issues that are highly emotional you have to diffuse the situation and give people a safe space to have a conversation,” says Borders. When people say something you dispute, rather than fighting back, you should give them space to express their concerns (and the fears you will often find they have). This allows you space to ask why and to reveal their preconceptions and biases. She uses two key phrases: “You don’t put out a fire with fire” and “Listen twice as much as you talk.”

On Empowering Teams

As a first child Borders had always been a leader and she was 40 before she realised it’s not necessary to do everything yourself. It’s important to learn to let go and let others shine. As she points out, “You can get in your own way.”

“You should do what you do best and outsource the rest.” This leaves you less exhausted and helps others develop. Part of developing people is to make sure everyone gets their fingerprints on what you are trying to do.

Influence is the key. You can help people develop and step-up but you can’t demand it. “You can only influence others,” she says, “The only person we have authority over is ourselves. We are the CEO of me.”

On Balance

“There is no such thing as balance. There is only rhythm. You should move in the moment,” says Borders. It takes time to understand what this means to you, but in the typical case of work/personal life balance it is about the need to compartmentalize. In her case, now approaching 60, Borders has got to place where she doesn’t do anything she does not want to do any more. The lesson being that she has sought work environments where she is a good fit, that are philosophically aligned, and where she can bring skills and make a difference.

Lisa Borders offers these and many more valuable insights, including powerful observations on racial and gender issues in America today, in this video:

Whether you're a new manager just starting out or a CEO expanding globally, Duke Executive Education has a program to help you lead.

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