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Conversation with leaders

The leadership in conversation series showcases inspiring stories of influential women leaders from around the world. We invite you to follow their journeys and their unique insights on leadership, careers and impact. 

A conversation with Dr Deng Yaping

Professor Sucheta Nadkarni interviews Dr Deng Yaping, six times world champion and four times Olympic champion in table tennis.

Video interview with Dr Deng Yaping – Part I

Read the transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] Oh.

Ah. I’m Sucheta Nadkarni. And I am the Sinyi Professor of Chinese Management at Cambridge Judge Business School. And I am the Director of the Women’s Leadership Initiative.

It is my honour and privilege today to host and introduce Deng Yaping, who has been recently named the Athlete of the Century in China. And she has been a huge role model to not only athletes but also to the new generation of women around the world. So a very warm welcome to you.

Thank you for inviting me here. Thank you.

So I would like to start today with you were named the Athlete of the Century in China. China has already produced some of the best athletes in the world. And you have been singled out among this very top group of athletes as being one of the most influential athletes of the century. What does it feel like? And what were some of the things that contributed to you becoming such a powerful force in sports?

Wow, this is a very good question. I had my dream to become a world champion. So since when I was five, I started. And I started with my father.

So I trained extremely hard. And the conditions which for me, you can see, I’m not too tall. And I’m quite small and quite short.

So at the beginning, even I won most of the champions in my province. But the provincial teams, they couldn’t to recruit me because I’m too short. The coaches think I won’t be good in the future. So they just asked my father to take me home. So my father told me that because you are too short, you have to find a way. And you have much harder training, maybe 10 times harder than the other girls to train.

So I just wanted to try. I just wanted to fight because I think I can beat them. So I’m out from the team. But still, I want to stick on my dream for the world champion. So I think I play extremely hard, but I have a passion about ping-pong.

And so through many years, even extremely hard– the training conditions in 1980s– China was still a very poor country at that time– I trained in a public bathroom and only four tables in the winter time. You can’t imagine. It’s so cold, extremely cold, minus 10 degree without any heating.

So what made you sort of keep going because there have been so many sort of adversities that you pretty much overcame to really become such a top athlete? So what kept you going every time being told about you don’t have the physical build to be, and you get all this negative feedback and reinforcement? So what made you sort of keep going in the face of this adversity?

Well, because I have a dream to become a world champion when I was young. So I won most of champion. I show I have some talents with sports. But some of the coaches think I won’t be good because I’m too short. I think this is not right, actually, and not fair for me. Why a shorter one can’t compete?

It matter you can win for the competition. So I think the importance for that is the sport spirit. And so I wanted to show that the national team coaches, they have a similar sort than the other coaches. The four out of five that coach from the national team think I wouldn’t be able to play with the European girls.

It is a great lesson for everyone in terms of how to fight adversity and really keep going through the passion, the dream, and the determination.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Video interview with Dr Deng Yaping – Part II

Read the transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] So now, I would like to turn to you as a woman and also a very influential leader. So we would like to know more about you as a leader. Research has shown that women who are sports champions are very good leader. So how did you, being a table tennis legend, shape your leadership?

I think as athletes, we be very confidence for that. And it is we are nervous, particular when we play the finals in the Olympics, such a lot of people watching you. But the things that we can cope with.

Yes.

We can control ourselves quite well. So I think that’s as important for the leaders. When you lead the teams, obviously, you will meet so many difficulties.

Yes.

And you have to find out the way. The leaders, you have to tell your team members how to go, where to go, when to go. So I think of around the sports, we have to train quick decision. And so when you become the leaders, you definitely have to make sure in everything you order, everything unplanned. And also that everybody will be happy or make a full effort for the achievement.

Yes.

So you have to know, not only yourself. You’re controlled over not only yourself. You have control over actually.

That’s right.

And you have to find out that they are feeling sad or happy or something happened for their family, or whatever. You have to know. You should be very sensitive. Otherwise, how can you become a leader?

Exactly. And I think what you say is very much in line with some of the more recent research in leadership we just talked about, how the leaders have to really work collaboratively, and collaborative leadership is much more powerful and influential than, say, for example, the traditional charismatic leadership where the leader is on the forefront. And basically, all the light is on the leader.

But I think shining light on your group members is very important. And that’s the leadership that has been shown. So I think what you said is very much in line with what people are talking about now.

Yes, and also, you mention I think just now, I think the women’s athletes have become good leaders because the women sometimes look more detailed.

Yes.

And they are, I think, automatically from their character–

Yes.

–they care everybody.

Yes.

And they are quite sensitive.

Yes. And that’s exactly what we found actually in the research that I did on with my collaborators in China, actually, in four major cities in China in startup companies. And what we found is that when the founding teams of the new ventures where it had greater gender diversity, the decision making process was much more open. People felt much more safe speaking up.

And that actually enhanced the capabilities of the firm. So this is very much in line with what you said is creating a culture of listening better, opening better, making other people open up, that, I think, is very, very important.

I would like to know focus– we would love to hear from you about, everyone is talking about the new generation of women in China. And there was a special feature recently in BBC as well. And many of these new generation of women look up to you as a very strong role model. So how would you describe this new generation of women and how they are transforming China?

Actually, what I understand about women in China nowadays, because many of their parents, many of the middle class people, they set their children, in particular for the girls, they wanted to have the best education they can. And provide the best conditions for them. Because still in China, in fact, men still dominated in the society, in the country, in the government, in every aspect.

So let the girl have to make stronger. Otherwise, you can’t compete.

Yes.

You can’t compete with the same position with men, with the boys. So this is actually, we have to have fight to make the girls more stronger, more competitive. So that is, I think, the reasons why so many middle class people families send their girls to be a more competitive, to learn something more.

But for the boys, they too spoiled as a family. This is kind of culture in China.

And it’s also a virtuous circle. Because I think having strong role models, such as yourself, further reinforces and helps these new generation of women have the aspirations and the motivation to rise up as well.

Yeah. Yeah.

I would like to thank you for providing all these insights and opening our mind up towards your views, as well as your experiences. And thank you again for being a part of this, being a part of this interview. And I personally really enjoyed having the opportunity to have this dialogue with you. And I look forward to a more stronger collaboration in the future. Thank you.

Thank you very much.

Thank you.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Dr Deng Yaping bio

Deng Yaping is a Chinese table tennis player, who won 18 world championships and four Olympic championships between 1989 and 1997. She is regarded as one of the greatest players in the history of the sport. She was voted Chinese female athlete of the century, and joined the International Table Tennis Federation Hall of Fame in 2003.

Deng began playing table tennis at age five, and four years later she won her provincial junior championship. She was age 13 when she won her first national championship. Despite her success, she was initially denied a spot on the national team because she was so short (she stood only 1.5 metres/4 feet 11 inches tall). Her talent, however, could not be denied, and she was finally included on the national team in 1988. She teamed with Qiao Hong to win her first world championship title in the women’s doubles competition in 1989. Two years later Deng won her first singles world championship. At the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, she won a gold medal in both the singles and doubles competitions and repeated the feat at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. She also earned singles and doubles titles at the 1995 and 1997 world championships.

After retiring at the end of the 1997 season, Deng served on the International Olympic Committee’s ethics and athletes commissions. She also was a member of the Beijing Organising Committee for the 1991 and 2008 Olympics. She gained a bachelors degree from Tsinghua University, a master’s degree from the University of Nottingham, and a PhD in Land Economy at the University of Cambridge (Jesus College).

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