The Leaders Notebook

Hard questions, ambiguity and opinion for leaders

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Leading in a Fishbowl: Another Ryder Cup Clinic

October 6th, 2010 · No Comments · Leadership Lessons from the Links, Organizations at Their Best

Another Ryder Cup competition is history and as usual, the event has not disappointed.  The Ryder Cup is a proving ground, squeezing the best performance from the best players in the world.  It is also a pressure cooker, exposing weaknesses or lack of focus.  And as usual, the Ryder Cup has provided great lessons for leaders- even those who do not play golf.  Here are a few of my favorites from this year’s competition.

Comfort with Ambiguity

The Ryder Cup is a match play event.  That means heads to head, I win- you lose competition.  And while golf is a game of singular performance, match play stresses that your opponent is the other player, not the course.  And since one team is in friendly territory with galleries clearly supporting the home team, while the other is 4,000 miles from home, then the cheering is clearly partisan as well.  There was no mistaking the fact that there were 100 fans of the EU team for every American present.  And yet, they could acknowledge a brave effort, a well-played shot and even the efforts of a vanquished opponent to pull out a win.  Their ability to hold that ambiguity, that “both/and” point of view serves the larger environment for the game without requiring that they give up their clear support for the home team.

Effective leaders know that even if the situation is win-lose (I take your customers, I get to market before you do, I close the big deal you are chasing) that the more effective focus is on winning.  A focus on the other side’s loss is not sustainable and can be in fact a major-league organizational distraction.

I once worked with a CEO of a software company whose initial product created the category (and thereby, competitors).  In the early days, his focus on was the vision for his product and the capacity it could enable for customers.  But as competitors began to push the market, his focus changed.  He took competition as a personal attack and erected “memorials” to those companies in the office lobby.  Soon he talked more about beating them than about his vision for his own company.  While all the competitors suffered in the tech collapse that followed the dot-com bubble, his company exited early, being acquired by a firm from a related market that had already bought and managed into the ground another competitor.

Survival of the Most Resilient

Another big lesson from Celtic Manor is also the need to adapt to change.  After months of planning and strategy on the part of both captains, the weather trumped all.  The storms on Friday forced organizers to change schedules and formats for the event, tossing carefully crafted strategies to the winds.  And it was the team that could adjust most readily who won the day.  It is easy to forget how quickly an event, a new technology or a decision out of our control can change everything.

Some Things are A Mystery

And lastly, I think leaders can take away one of the hardest lessons of all.  Sometimes getting to the core of a problem is just not possible- at least not fast enough to prevent disaster.  The Americans left the course on Friday mid day when the rains hit with their tails between their legs.  They were bleeding all over the course.  But when they resumed play the next day, they were a different squad and ended the first round of matches ahead of the Europeans 6 to 4.  But as those matches ended and the new ones began, two very curious things happened.

The American’s play became uninspired and the Europeans caught fire, annihilating the US.  When the smoke cleared on the next team matches, The Europeans had all but a clean sweep, saved only by one split match and the score stood at 6 ½  to 9 ½, leaving the US team requiring a miracle for the final singles matches.  So what happened?  Did Corey Pavin sneak some magic herb into the US breakfast on day 2?  Did Monty have some secret incantation he could share with the EU team as the momentum turned over?  I have read lots of opinion on this very question.  But in truth, sometimes we do not know what is helping or hurting our efforts at execution.  When it comes down to it, we are dealing with people and people are complicated.  And while analysis may show us in hindsight what caused a meltdown, in the moment a leader must make choices without that information.

In many ways, this is the toughest and most telling test in leadership.  Both Captains showed, in their own ways, that all they could do was remain engaged and look for opportunities.  Corey Pavin’s famous stoic style did not prevent him from being everywhere and ensuring that his assistant captains were there to encourage and provide support.  Monty on the other hand focused on getting the gallery involved, which, in the end, may have been the “secret ingredient.”

Kudos all around for a wonderfully played competition.  Now, the planning can begin all over again for Medinah in 2011.

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