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NBA Players’ Union Chief Michele Roberts Rides a Wave of Confidence

The first woman to head a major North American pro sports union has made several major splashes in her first seven months on the job while exuding confidence every step of the way.

Big Think has partnered with PwC to bring you big ideas on the future of women in leadership.  Register here for a live webcast presented by PwC on February 27th with Claire Shipman and “The Confidence Code” co-author Katty Kay.

This past July, Michele A. Roberts became the first woman to head a major North American pro sports union when the National Basketball Players Association appointed her as its executive director. Roberts has no prior experience as a labor leader nor is she an NBA lifer. The closest she had been to the business of basketball was as a Washington Wizards season ticket holder. On the surface that doesn’t sound like the profile of the person a major labor organization would hire to represent them ahead of a monumental round of CBA negotiations expected to occur in two years. 

Then again, Roberts is much more than what you see on the surface. She’d be the first to let you know that.

Roberts has made major waves in her first seven months on the job. She’s been profiled by numerous publications such as The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, ESPN the Magazine, Time, and more. Her remarkable life story has echoed from page to page — how she rose from being a kid growing up in the Bronx projects to becoming Washington D.C.’s “finest pure trial lawyer” according to Washingtonian magazine. There’s also her notable and historical ascendency as a ceiling-smashing African-American woman; that’s understandably gotten a ton of ink too. All in all, there’s a certain mystique to Roberts. She’s the audacious outsider, a ferocious mind who refuses to take “no” for an answer. And she’s guided by the most powerful weapon equippable by a woman of her status.

As you sift through the excerpts I’ve prepared below, see if you can spot the most common, if not the most subtle, throughline: 

Andrew Keh of The New York Times shortly after Roberts’ appointment as union chief in July:

“Michele A. Roberts stood before 117 N.B.A. players — towering international celebrities with millions in their bank accounts — and declared that she should be their leader. Roberts confidently ran through her credentials … and then addressed the many problems facing the players union that she hoped to lead as executive director. But as the private meeting went on, she sensed an unspoken question hovering over the proceedings. Keeping with her style, she confronted it head-on. ‘I bet you can tell I’m a woman,’ she said, ‘and I suspect the rest of the world can, too.'”

Curtis Bunn of the Atlanta Black Star:

Roberts took a pay cut to take over the Players Association that was rife with corruption and inefficiency. For her to get the job, however, she had to prove her worth in an all-male profession, which is never easy…

It might have been her confidence, which can come off as brash to some, that clinched it for her. Her most memorable comment to the 117 players and other league personnel:

‘My past is littered with the bones of men who were foolish enough to think I was someone they could sleep on.’

And the job was hers.”

Pablo S. Torre of ESPN the Magazine:

“Given the context of a nine-year, $24 billion TV deal set to begin in 2016, and the players’ ability to opt out of the league’s collective bargaining agreement after the 2016-17 season, Roberts’ relatively radical perspective could prove to be just as profound a change.”

Roberts: “I don’t know of any space other than the world of sports where there’s this notion that we will artificially deflate what someone’s able to make, just because … It’s incredibly un-American. My DNA is offended by it.”

It’s not overtly stated in that last one, but the running theme in all these excerpts is Roberts’ impenetrable confidence. Prior to her hiring, she confidently addressed the stigma attached to her being a woman. She confidently sold herself to the union with that cold-as-ice line about the bones of foolish men. And she continues to confidently amass power and leverage ahead of what’s certain to be a fireworks-laden next few years culminating in a showdown with the office of new NBA commissioner Adam Silver.

We’ve been talking a lot about confidence on this site lately as part of our partnership with PwC and the authors of The Confidence Code. Without trying too much to extrapolate a direct comparison between Roberts and the messages espoused in the book, we can simply say that Roberts entered competition for the union chief position as a long shot yet ascended to the position on the strengths of her tenacity and poise.

I keep thinking back to the “foolish men” line that so many insiders point to as the rhetorical coup de grâce that won her the keys to the union. In one concise and simple comment, Roberts smashed any apprehensions about her ability to lead. She evoked her past successes while simultaneously communicating the unshakeable confidence she has in herself to make it happen again. And she let a room full of powerful men know that, as a woman, she could hang with any of them.

Having confidence in yourself instills confidence in other people. No one wants to be lead by someone who appears uncomfortable in their own skin. Team players such as professional basketballers know and understand this; it’s integral toward success at the highest level of competition. That’s why there’s little doubt that confidence was key to Roberts’ eventual hiring.

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One of the key themes of The Confidence Code is that women aspiring to be leaders are at a disadvantage due to what’s referred to as a “confidence gap.” The research conducted by authors Claire Shipman and Katty Kay suggests that women generally underestimate or undervalue their abilities relative to men. Shipman and Kay therefore want to teach women not only to be more confident in their own strengths, but also to communicate it to others. Closing the confidence gap, they argue, will help women lean in and lead. 

As for Roberts, she represents a brand of confidence to which Shipman and Kay likely hope all women leaders can aspire to. She doesn’t understate anything. She refuses to be perceived as anything but an accomplished and capable leader who will fight tooth and nail to achieve her goals. 

Even with the Berkeley law degree, the job at the prestigious law firm, and the high-profile gig as union chief, the most impressive and lasting thing about Michele A. Roberts is the thing that will keep her in the headlines for the foreseeable future: confidence.

Read more at the Atlanta Black Star, the The New York Times, and ESPN the Magazine.

Photo credit: Brocreative / Shutterstock

This article is part of a series on developing women leaders presented in partnership with PwC. Watch Claire Shipman and “The Confidence Code” co-author Katty Kay in a live webcast presented by PwC on February 27th. Register here for the webcast, and follow the conversation on Twitter:#PwCAspire


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