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Leadership Sand Traps: Tips from the Links to Build Leadership Skills

What a wonderful day in central Florida it was.  The sun is shining, a woodpecker gently taps on a nearby cypress tree, and I’m standing on the first tee at Diamondback golf course, ready to light up the scorecard by shooting in the low eighties.  I use a three iron and stealthily launch a perfectly placed shot in the center of the fairway.  This is going to be big.  My next effort is a four iron, safely landing 75 yards from the bunker-guarded green on this short but hazardous par 5.   Suddenly the heart palpitations are fast and furious, my palms begin to sweat, and I’m feeling the heat because two people I’ve never seen before who my partner and I were paired with are awaiting my magnificent approach to the green.  I skull the sand wedge into the woods, and suddenly the little setbacks that every person who has ever played this game has faced start to loom larger and larger.  I make it off the course alive four and a half hours later—sweat under my arms, sand in my shoes, and expletives escaping my lips about the 110 I just regurgitated on this beautiful landscape.  The flight back to Pennsylvania and more comfortable, wide-open terrain cannot leave soon enough.

Like many male homo sapiens often do, I spent hours psychoanalyzing every failure of my performance, and realized that I failed to manage the golf course that was set before me on this day.  Bad things happened and I exacerbated them through a series of seemingly orchestrated miscalculations and poor decisions, and I came to an epiphany, an understanding that today’s organizational managers and wanna-be leaders can do the same things.  Since many from this set are familiar with the game of golf, I provide the following comparison and advice for consideration.

Ego in the bag

On the links, particularly for men, the ego can cause a disruption in common sense and discretion.  Too much testosterone will ruin your day.  When confronted with a 525-yard par five during the Florida fiasco, I was fortunate enough to get off the tee and into the fairway for about 250 yards.  That leaves 275 to the hole.  What does the sensible angel on my left shoulder tell me to do?  Take a mid-iron and lay the ball in the fairway about 120 yards out, then take a full wedge to the green to make it on in regulation.  So what do you suppose the evil ego on my other shoulder tell me to do, which of course, I act on?  Hit a much more difficult three wood across a water hazard in front of the green that I cannot reach anyway, leaving myself, even if I make it across the swamp, a difficult up and down chip shot.  Bad call.  I fade into the water, take multi-stroke penalties and take a resulting 8 for the hole.

How many times do you make decisions that impact your organization to gratify your ego?  Do you call meetings just so you can give a speech and impress, or does it benefit the people who will hear you?  Are opportunities missed with customers just to prove you’re a hard-nosed negotiator?  Do you dump good money after bad into losing projects just because it was your baby from the beginning?  Sometimes we can win the battle and lose the war, but as long as the ego is satisfied, we can rationalize these decisions away as the right thing to do.  I’m not suggesting that risk or tough management styles are bad; they’re not.  Just make sure its calculated risk, well thought out decisions with help from your support team, and the worst score you’ll card is a bogey, and most of us can live with that.

Cart golf and misalignment

Cart golf is when your partner and yourself hit shots in similar locations (hopefully the fairway!) to prevent excess travel and shorten the game.  If your shot slices to the right and your playing partner hooks right into the oncoming fairway, comic theater results as one of you gets dropped off with a handful of clubs and the other dude finds his ball in a land far away.  Maybe you’ll meet up again at the green.

Often we lead in different directions than the troops are going, and we’re lucky to get back on the same page.  Oh the goals might be the same, but if we’re not careful, the practices that we use, the roads taken to reach those goals, can diverge.  Just like in golf, everything will eventually come together in the end, but at what expense and waste of time and energy?  Leaders need to constantly engage feedback systems to let them know when key functions of a company become misaligned.  Engineering is designing cars and Sales wants to deal in jet planes.  Knowledge of the divergence will steer you toward corrective action, getting back in the fairway and proceeding together.

Wrong club

This has a bit of ego management in it as well.  On the golf course, not enough club means you have underestimated what it takes to get the job done, in this case making the green on your approach shot.  You think if you can just catch it right, you can hit that six iron 170 yards—but you fail to account for the wind, or the level of the green, or the thickness of the rough, or a hundred other things that can affect the shot results.  You come up woefully short of the mark.  You’re chipping when you should be putting.

Leaders do this to when confronted with tasks.  Sometimes we think that things take place by the force of our own wills and fail to plan for the contingencies that can and do happen.  Murphy’s Law reigns supreme.   What we get is the under-funded project, the implementation without enough training to make it happen right, and the embarrassment of answering to the board for not delivering.  When driving change, it is critical to make sure that you get an accurate resource analysis done before you start.  Many failed projects would never have started if the required capital, people and other resources were clear from the beginning.  The cost to benefit ratio would be too high.

Negotiating the hazards

The better the golf course, the more hazards you will face.  The reward of doing well must be counterbalanced by the risk of the game.  Diamondback had over 90 sand traps (bunkers).  That’s more than five per hole and that’s a lot.  Water hazards were everywhere too, and there’s no coming back from them.  Then of course comes my personal favorite—trees and woods.  The thing that golfers good and bad learn is that you will always, eventually, find a hazard or two.  Even with the best-laid plans, execution will never be perfect.  Success, then, comes from how you respond to encountering a course hazard.  The good golfers quickly shake it off and just try to get back in the fairway, penalty stroke and all, and possibly save bogey.  The hackers like myself throw a party around the hazard, playing in and out of it over and over, trying to punch the ball through a six-inch fork in a tree and wondering why we don’t achieve success more often.  The golf mind focuses on whatever the dominant thought is, and as I found out in Florida, whenever I thought, “Don’t hit it in the bunker again,” guess what happened?

Business hazards come at you the same way, whether it’s the quagmire of negotiating the union contract, dealing with a trouble employee, or losing that major customer.  True leaders recognize them for the bumps in the road that they are and don’t hold vigil over them.  They move on and cut their losses, knowing that you don’t win every day, just as long as you don’t lose too big.  Business hazards may ruin the moment, but they don’t cost effective leaders the mission.

The gentleman’s game of golf is amazingly symbolic of the challenges that we as leaders face.  Pay attention to what works in your golf game, whether it’s checking your ego, your alignment, picking the right club for the task, or dealing with the myriad hazards you encounter.  It will provide you with keen insights for leadership on the job.

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  1. student loans January 5, 2011 at 11:10 am #

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  2. Karl January 7, 2011 at 4:41 pm #

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