The Game of Golf and Business Leadership Lessons
Now that it’s winter time and temperatures have plummeted, I can’t help thinking back to last spring and summer when I had the opportunity to spend some time improving my skills at something I’m highly passionate about: the game of golf.
Even if you’re not a golfer, bear with me and please keep reading.
It occurred to me that working with a golf coach to improve my game is analogous to what I do for business owners and managers.
Proficiency at golf and great business leadership are similar in the sense that they are both highly developed skills that require extensive training and preparation before the practitioner can excel.
With both skill sets, the golfer’s and business leader’s abilities must be constantly examined, evaluated and improved – those abilities are not innate and are ultimately developed through training and careful refinement. While natural athletic ability certainly helps an individual with their golf swing when they first start to play the game, to master it requires practice and dedication.
Business leadership is much the same way. As leaders, our personality, charisma and background contribute to our ability to engage and inspire others. We must also have focus and dedication to improving our leadership skills if we’re going to be highly effective.
Just like golfers who spend hours working on their swing, great business leaders have to carefully refine their ability to work with others and, ultimately, inspire and empower employees to implement business strategies and achieve enterprise objectives.
Both skill sets have a variety of tools for the job.
The rules of golf state that a golfer may have as many as 14 golf clubs in his or her bag. Violation of this rule results in a 2-stroke penalty for each hole played, up to a maximum of 4 penalty strokes.
Those 14 clubs usually include a driver, woods, irons, wedges and a putter. Each club has its distinct use and purpose, mostly dictated by the distance to the target. A skilled golfer can employ different clubs for the greatest effect in any situation – for instance, curving a shot around an obstacle such as a tree.
A business leader also has various tools that must be employed to efficiently achieve the desired outcome. For example, leaders need to possess the ability to delegate tasks. Understanding which tasks to delegate to which people is a skill that is learned and improved on over time.
A leader’s ability to work with staff, influence their behavior – and when necessary, even discipline them – comes through experience and informed, insightful mentorship. Awareness of all the tools available, and when to employ them, is vital because using the wrong tool at the wrong time is just as bad as using the wrong tool at the right time.
No golfer attempts to hit the ball 150 yards with a putter. The wrong club at the wrong time will never produce the desired result.
One thing I learned from my golf coach is that the ‘setup’ is 90% of proper execution. After selecting a club and approaching the ball, the ‘setup’ is how you position yourself for a successful outcome. Gripping the club, positioning the legs, aligning the shoulders with the line of the shot are all essential pieces that need to be in sync before swinging the club at the ball.
When all the setup preparation and forethought is complete, the result is usually a smooth and natural swing that achieves the greatest effect with the least amount of effort. Leadership is very similar: how we approach situations, and our mindsets in dealing with them, will be reflected in whether or not we succeed.
After the setup, the execution of both the golf swing and leadership opportunity should be fluid and decisive. One thing my coach consistently reminded me was not to try to ‘force’ the ball. With a proper setup, the natural mechanics of your body – called ‘muscle memory’ – take over and should produce the desired result.
Something as seemingly insignificant as a bad grip, slight shift in the wrist or shoulder misalignment will ruin a shot every time. That’s one of the frustrations about the game because the negative result is guaranteed every time.
Business leaders who are overly authoritarian or too cautious and guarded fulfilling their roles will not be optimally effective because they're not approaching each situation with the true open-mindedness and creativity in seeking positive results. Truly effective leaders are keenly aware of their abilities and options when dealing with challenges and opportunities. Those are essential elements to successfully reach strategic objectives.
There’s a fine line and delicate balance that highly effective leaders tread and maintain. Being overly dictatorial or disciplinary is usually a certain recipe for failure. Conversely, being non-committal and reticent will lead to the same negative result.
It’s important for business leaders to stay authentic, genuine and confident in their abilities. Those characteristics go a long way toward motivating colleagues to strive for their own personal best performance.
In many ways, authentic, genuine and confident leadership is usually a ‘deal maker’ or a ‘deal breaker’. In their absence, staff will be hesitant to buy into and fully support action plans. Team cohesion suffers, and the probability of success diminishes.
It’s often been said about the game of golf that there are a million variables involved in every shot that can go wrong. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but some days it seems that way.
Leading people is similar in that there are countless variables that combine to produce results. How leaders evaluate, analyze and work with people differs from one situation to the next.
Leaders must be able to plan and clearly articulate the course of action necessary. By maintaining an open mind to various response options, assessing probable outcomes, and selecting, articulating and implementing the optimal response, leaders are far more likely to ultimately succeed.
Of course, it is impossible for a leader to control the outcome of every situation and ensure 100% success – even the most accomplished professional golfers hit bad shots into the rough, bunkers, and other difficult hazards. Interestingly, great leaders and accomplished professional golfers share an ability to make a smooth and almost effortless recovery to daunting challenges.
Great leaders and accomplished golfers also recognize that not every situation or shot is ideal: but they rapidly assess the situation and its implications and then formulate a strategy or plan that leads to a successful outcome.
Ultimately, what we have to keep in mind is that leadership skills, like golfing proficiency, must be constantly refined and developed. Where a professional golfer can spend hours on a practice range working on his or her swing, business leadership must be demonstrated ‘on the job’, with no ‘Mulligans’ or ‘retries’ available if the first effort fails.
That’s why great leaders have great mentors: trusted advisors who listen to new ideas, make insightful suggestions and help minimize disruptions created by stressful business developments. Don’t ignore one of the age-old cardinal sins of leadership – testing out new ideas on staff without first vetting these ideas with objective input from outside counsel.
I had an incredible journey last spring and summer working with my coach and many others to learn and refine my golf game. I'm still not perfect (that will never happen, I know), but I'm proud to say that my game has improved significantly, and so has my enjoyment of it.
Leaders face similar challenges building and developing their acumen in their leadership abilities. Doing so, however hard it may be, results in both professional and personal satisfaction for themselves and their teams.