Golf and the Art of Leadership

“How could anyone make a connection between the frivolity of golf and the serious business of leadership?” I can hear the e-mails being typed already! In fact, it is my strong belief that many key lessons of leadership are taught quite effectively through the game.

Before anyone begins to level charges of elitism (or insanity), I want to say that it is my firm belief that life and leadership lessons can be learned through any activity that we choose as recreation. Note the etymology here: “re- creation.” Neither would I contend that golf is the only place these lessons can be learned. But because golf mirrors life so well, it is a particularly effective teacher. Why else would the pursuit of a small white ball over the countryside engender an almost mystical enthusiasm, an almost universal frustration and even its own space on the editorial calendar at Arkansas Business? In fact, I have been collecting stories of life and leadership lessons as learned on the golf course for years. Here are some highlights of those stories and lessons.

  • It has been said that 90 percent of life is just showing up. Golf shows us that how we show up is critical. Whether it is running to the first tee unprepared mentally and physically — or dashing into meetings poorly prepared — the impact on performance is evident. I am in meetings every week for which no one is prepared, and participants are so distracted that in fact little real work gets done. Showing up physically but not being fully present is a waste of time and resource. One key leadership lesson that every golfer learns is that not showing up prepared to play your own best game and being fully present while you do is seriously detrimental to your performance.
  • A young man from Canada shared a story with me last year about his surly behavior on a golf course as a teen. Rather than lecture him, his father simply helped him understand his impact on the course and on the others playing that day. As in life, our decisions and behaviors have an impact, whether or not we intend them to. Probably one of the hardest lessons that we must learn as leaders is an understanding of the impact our decisions and actions have on others. Leadership development in most environments includes work on understanding how to gauge our impact and use influence as well as invested power in ways that have a positive outcome. The most dangerous of organizational personalities is the leader whose power is derived from organizational authority but who is unaware of his impact.
  • In golf, as in life, we play in the company of others, yet our game is our own and our results are impacted by a combination of talent, desire, practice and coaching. There are rules and etiquette that govern that play, but ultimately each player must be responsible for his own game. It is always interesting to watch players who execute poorly and have every excuse in the world — every excuse except that they have not done the work necessary to play to their potential. Skilled organizational leaders understand that the development of talent is not something to be left to chance. You can see it in the form of well-defined, appropriately funded executive development programs that identify talent and provide a structure to nurture and grow those individuals to be able to play their best game.

The mystique around golf runs deep. Books such as “Golf in the Kingdom” and “The Legend of Bagger Vance” have explored the connections between golf and life, and I recommend both. When we understand that leaders have the responsibility for nurturing their organizations to be their own best, then it is easy to grasp that anything which helps to deepen our potential as human beings also serves to enlighten our way as leaders. Hit ’em long and straight.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, March 21, 2005.