Skip to Main Content

Leadership Doesn’t Mean You Always Know What You’re Doing

puzzled business woman in deep thought

Photo credit: (Hiraman)

After becoming a four-time Grand Slam champion and the highest-paid female athlete in the world, Naomi Osaka became a leading role model for mental health.

She did this by withdrawing from the French Open in 2021 – a rather challenging year for most of us – to prioritize her own mental health. 

For her openness, she was both praised and criticized. But she also learned an important lesson. 

“It has become apparent to me that literally everyone either suffers from issues related to their mental health or knows someone who does,” she wrote in Time Magazine. And by publicly acknowledging her own struggles, the Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps told her, she may have saved a life.

“If that’s true,” she wrote, “then it was all worth it.” 

So how does the 25-year-old who is expecting a child this year and plans to return to tennis next year think about leadership? 

“I would say the leadership or role model conversation is a bit overwhelming to me because I feel it is a big responsibility and, at the same time, I’m very honored,” she said before a Conferences for Women audience. 

“For me, the biggest thing is I always tell people I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m just trying my best to live my life, make the best decisions I can for myself, and try to help as many people as possible. I can only ever be myself and try to stay true to myself.” 

“I’ve learned a lot about myself through this process,” she added. “And I accept that I don’t know everything and don’t want to know everything. I think being a student in life is much more interesting.”

Asked how she handles criticism in her new leadership role, Osaka said: “I’m a very competitive person. So when I hear criticism, it just makes me want to do everything I can that people say I can’t do. Usually, it works out well for me.

“Other than that,” she added, “I try not to put myself in negative spaces. I’ve stayed off social media as much as possible and try to keep myself in my positive bubble.” 

Osaka said she has also learned that it helps to recognize taking a first step may be lonely, but people are usually encouraging after that. 

“You just have to get your foot in the door; other people will help push it open.” 

Naomi Osaka

Naomi Osaka spoke at the 2023 California Conference for Women in conversation with sports journalist and anchor Taylor Rooks. This article is excerpted from the conversation and lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Get The Conference in Your Inbox

Join over 300,000 like-minded people for inspiration, insights and community for working women — plus Conference news and speaker announcements.

No thanks, I don't want to learn