Ronda Rousey: Just an Athlete?

“Ronda Rousey is a game changer.” Dana White (2015 pxiii)

Ronda Rousey’s debut as an athlete in the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC) back in 2013, was not her first foray into highly combative sports (Rousey 2015). From a very young age, Rousey followed in her mother’s Judo footsteps, and became the first female to win an Olympic medal in Judo for the United States (Rousey 2015). From then on, Rousey has been at the forefront of the women’s UFC division, remaining undefeated for twelve matches, and holding the fastest submission time of sixteen seconds (rondarousey.net 2017). Her successful career in the cage has given her movie roles, magazine front covers such as Sports Illustrated (si.com 2015d; si.com 2016e) and ESPN’s body issue (ESPN.go.com 2012b), and more than three million followers on Twitter (twitter.com 2017f). But, do these achievements make her a leader?

Zehndorfer (2013) posed a question regarding how leadership should be measured: by power, authority, wealth: or, by the effect one has had over others. However, Zehndorfer (2013) agrees that the question only explores part of the potential leadership ideal. One cannot look at Ronda Rousey and determine leadership, answering this question alone.

The term ‘Leadership’ holds many definitions and theories (Price and Weiss 2013). Yukl (2013) advises, that while many diverse definitions exist, the leadership concept is to influence and guide relationships. It also must be understood that use of any definition in this essay will be based on western ideology (House and Adilya 1997) and continues to be subjective in judgement (Mullins 2011). To explore the question, whether Ronda Rousey is just an athlete, we must look to various leadership theories and models that allow evaluation of Ronda Rousey’s style and attributes as a potential leader.

It must be noted, as Rousey is not an organisational figure, the transformational leadership theory by which the transactional leadership theory is its foundation is applied here, the latter is more concerned with structures and systems (Bryman et al. 2011). In Bass’ book, Leadership and Performance Beyond Expectations (1985), he writes that transformational leadership is in essence, about elevating those that follow, to a better understanding and awareness of subjects that matter, whilst also pushing those to achieve beyond their expectations. The limitation to Bass’ (1985) description is that it was written more than two decades ago when leadership was looked upon in a more organisational or political setting. However, some of the four behaviours were distinguished under transformational leadership that could answer this question: idealised influence (charisma), inspiration motivation, individual consideration, and intellectual stimulation.

Idealised influence and inspiration motivation indicates that a leader harnesses respect and admiration from their followers and also motivates those followers. Choi (2006) describes this type of leader as empowering others, although discussing colleagues, the same could be demonstrated in Rousey. Weaving’s (2013) research characterised Rousey as leading the way in challenging traditional stereotypes of female passivity by being the first female to be signed to UCF back in 2013. This is also coupled with her unapologetic assertiveness in her personal philosophy “I’m not a ‘do nothing bitch’” relatively unseen by female athletes in the past (ufc.tv 2015; Weaving 2013). It must be noted that the director of UFC, Dana White, once said on camera that he would never put women in the cage (tmz.com 2011a) yet Rousey’s persistence, charisma and energy (White 2015) made his decision for him. Clearly, Rousey’s influence and motivation is very persuading. Rousey’s athletic fame could be misconstrued as overnight success when she entered the UFC cage for the first time, though she is no stranger to conflict and fighting her way to the top. As a young child Rousey had to deal with the tragic suicide of her father and apraxia of speech (a speech impediment), all before she hit nine years old (Rousey 2015). This not-so-easy background gives her followers opportunities to form emotional bonds and identify with their own personal struggles which lends itself to the empathy of the charismatic leader (Choi 2006): the followers need to know that their leader has struggled and ultimately succeeded. Furthermore, being a charismatic leader enables your followers to be empowered by your actions, where Ronda has succeeded, followers can live vicariously through her actions and bolster their own efficacy (Bandura 1986).

Whilst her overcoming of obstacles has played throughout her life, Rousey’s fame has also inspired and motivated women and young girls worldwide to love the body they are in. Her advocacy for a healthy body stemmed from societies label of her own body as masculine in appearance and her battle with bulimia (Rousey 2015). In a UFC Vlog series (2015), Rousey said about her body, “I think it’s feminist-ly bad-ass as fuck, because there isn’t a single muscle in my body that isn’t for a purpose”, this is essentially dropping the outdated view of how women and femininity are looked upon (Valija et al. 2012), sparking a campaign by Rousey titled “Don’t Be a DNB” speaking out against body shaming. Her outspokenness with regards to body shaming also led to being the recipient of the Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services leadership award in 2014 (rondarousey.net 2014). Thus, Rousey’s confidence carries far beyond just those that watch UFC.

How Rousey carries herself however, has been seen by some as blatant displays of arrogance (Hall 2016). The issue with arrogance though, is that Rousey does not believe herself to be infallible (incapable of error) enough to be seen as a role model to others (UCF 2015). Based on Neilson et al. (2005) work, humility is a key but overlooked attribute to a charismatic leader and something that Rousey has had to possess in order to rise again from her first UFC defeat against Holly Holm back in 2016. While the Holms defeat broke her undefeated record in the cage, it brings her even closer to those that follow as she remains even more relatable and more real than an infallible role model ideal that is realistically unobtainable (Novick 2015). Even with a second back-to-back defeat against Amanda Nunes at the end of 2016, sponsors are willing to stick with her. Rousey’s sponsors, Reebok, released a statement to TMZ Sport (2017c) backing Rousey regardless of her defeat commenting that the partnership is about far more than that of just the wins or losses and will remain in her corner.

Whether she prefers to wear the role model title or not, Rousey certainly garnered the respect of the team under her when she was asked to coach during The Ultimate Fighter series (TUF). TUF is a knockout style competition that pits one coaches team against another for the the title of the ultimate fighter (ufc.tv). Jessamyn Duke, a participant under Rousey, was interviewed part way through the series describing Rousey as “ an incredible leader, friend, and athlete…I saw a level of trust, respect, and caring that you don’t come across often.” (Palmquist 2013). Avolio et al. (2004) identified processes in which authentic leadership impacts followers behaviour and attitudes, trust being integral to commitment, engagement, and effort. Whether it is an organisational perspective or a sports coaching perspective, Rousey has the ability to build trust amongst her followers.

Finally, one situational theory that poses a different leadership style is that of the Leader-Member Exchange theory (LMX) whereby the leader is only as effective as the relationship quality between leader and member (Zehndorfer 2013). LMX therefore, would suggest that Rousey is only as effective as a leader for as long as she has a quality relationship with her followers. Drawing from her coaching efforts during the TUF series, based upon Duke’s description of her relationship with Rousey, one of trust, respect, and care (Palmquist 2013), it would seem to fit what Graen and Uhl-Bein (1995) would identify as a reciprocal relationship of the LMX theory, empowering both leader and follower to positive outcomes. Difficulties arise in this leadership theory as it is one not based on traits or characteristics but of a dynamic theory in which the leader must evolve with the ever-changing environment and the needs of the follower (Zehndorfer 2013).

Taking theories of leadership and applying them to answering whether Rousey is more than just an athlete but also a leader, is easy yet also difficult. Rousey’s displays of great self confidence, the humility, the ability to be able to relate through struggle, the determination and drive all belong to what some look for in a leader. The weakness in the argument put forth however, is that Mullins (2011) is correct in stating that judgements made are in fact wholly subjective. What one sees as confidence, another may see as arrogance, something with which Rousey can be seen straddling both sides depending on who you ask. There is no doubt that Rousey has inspired many, you do not amass over three million Twitter followers by simply being, or bring in more than 40,000 pay-per-view sign ups for your first fight in UFC (Novick 2015). It would be accurate in stating that one size does not fit all when discussing leadership and ultimately, leadership is still evolving with our dynamic western culture, albeit slowly on the research for new or adapting theories.

The theories of Transformational leadership, Charismatic leadership and such, are all founded on decades ago research where the majority of leaders were white males, business-like and or politicians. There is a new paradigm where leaders have the opportunity to exercise change without formal titles or positions and this needs to be explored. Where Rousey is concerned, yes, she is a leader, Dana White (2015) was correct when he said “Ronda Rousey is a game changer” but whether she remains an active leader depends wholly on how she conducts herself after her latest defeat to Amanda Nunes, which some predict may be her last fight in the UFC (Telegraph 2017).

In a time where the western world feels uncertain for which way the rights of women will go, we still need passionate leaders such as Rousey to show the way in unapologetically going after what you want and continuing to challenge the stereotypical female passivity found not just in sport but all walks of life. If she picks herself up and can grow along with her environment, striving for her goals in a positive manner, perhaps she can stay in the limelight for longer yet and be the beacon of strength to those that look up to her.

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If you want to nerd out…

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