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Phil Mickelson or the IRS

Volume: 1 Issue: 5

First of all, I want to say a public thank you to Phil Mickelson. His Sunday victory at the Master's golf tournament has provided me with two things I desperately needed. First, his play was such a clear example of the future focus that I wrote about a few weeks ago that I have the opportunity to revisit the subject with a clear and inspirational example. Second, having this subject has saved me from writing a case study on the IRS, in honor of (or is it in spite of) today's tax deadline. An article in Business 2.0 this month on changes at the IRS showed a very clear example of failure to stay focused on results- and the $255 billion shortfall it created.

But writing about the IRS is dicey. A lot of people would argue that they were only collecting that other $255 billion from strong arm tactics and should not have been getting it to begin with. It is a great case, but I do not want to find myself caught in a debate over tax policy. So, for all our sakes (and to keep myself from becoming an audit target) I will write about a leader's focus on results at a future date.

For now, lets turn to Phil Mickelson and his performance this past Sunday. There is a wonderful lesson here. For those who are not golf fans, all you need to know is that Phil Mickelson has been the winningest golfer never to have won a major tournament. His talent and his focus are exemplary and he has won many times on the PGA tour. However, in any interview or article, he has had to face the inevitable question about choking during a major event- and he has played in 42 of them! He has been in a position to win a number of times and never been able to deliver- until last Sunday.

Phil took to the course in the last group of the day on Sunday in a tie for first with only a narrow lead on a very talented field. While that is not a stress free place to be, he had played well on Saturday and put himself in a position to take home a championship. I am not going to drag you through a hole by hole recap- but I do want to look at 3 important phases of the day.

Resilience in the Face of Possible Disaster

Early in the round, Phil did not play well. His play was not terrible, but in a field that competitive, it was clear that he would struggle. In fact, he gave up 2 strokes to the field on the front 9 holes. What is important however is what did not happen. In bars, restaurants and living rooms all over America and in fact the world, the commentary began. Comments such as "He is going to choke again.", and "Well its Sunday and here goes Phil, washing out again." were pretty common.

I do not know what was in Phil Mickelson's mind when he did not go out strong on Sunday morning. Only he knows that. But I am willing to bet that he was not focused in the past. If he were busy thinking what a lot of others were thinking- that he had tanked so many times and that it was happening again- that is most likely what would have happened.

Instead, Phil Mickelson focused on what he was doing. You could see it in his play. Every shot was an opportunity to get back on track. His focus was clearly on the present. Shot by shot, hole by hole he was clearly focused on staying in the match. Even when his lead was taken by Ernie Els, Phil stayed focused on his game. You could see it in his course management and in his demeanor.

Focus on Possibilities

About mid round, a player a few groups ahead, K.J. Choi, set the gallery (or Patrons, in Augusta-speak) on fire by putting his second shot in the hole from 200 yards out. Choi's eagle lit up the entire competition. (In fact, there were odds-beating back-to-back holes in one later in the match!) Phil allowed the excitement and the reality that competition had just ratcheted up a level to influence him. He caught fire with the rest of the field.

By now, he was trailing Ernie Els and they both knew it. But something else was happening to Phil Mickelson. He was having fun! You could see it in his eyes and in his gait. You could see it what almost looked like a battle grin which he wore through the back nine. My guess? Phil Mickeslon clearly saw himself with a green jacket on- the symbol of a Master's champion. In that moment at least, he did not know (or did not care) about 42 failed attempts to win a major. He knew that he was having a great time, he was playing his own game and that was all that mattered.

For those who saw the event, you know it came down to the last hole. Ernie Els was in the clubhouse at -8. Phil was at -8 as well. His play on 18 had brought him to the green with an 18 foot putt for birdie. If he misses (and makes his par putt) he goes out on the course for a head to head competition with Els. Instead, he did whatever he does to calm his nerves sufficiently to stand over a putt that delicate and important. And he walked away a Master's champion, finishing at -9. Of course, the only person who knows what his experience was is Phil Mickelson. But it seems to me that he made decision early in the day to stay present and stay focused on the future.  And for that courage- he won.

The Importance of Attitude

Phil showed a lot of behaviors common to leaders.  He has great command of his craft from long hours of practice and development of his innate talent.  He has marshaled resources to support him in his efforts, including great coaching, a supportive family. and commercial sponsorship. And, he has made his vision for playing at the top of the game a priority for all involved.  But the same can be said of any golfer with sufficient game to play at the Master's.  One thing has become very clear to me in working with leaders and the issues of leadership- and that is the importance of attitude and interior beliefs. It is our attitude and our belief system about ourselves and others that drives behavior. Daniel Golemen explores this subject deeply in his books on emotional intelligence. Two quotes clearly give us a view into Phil's belief system and attitudes that impacted his play.

Before the Master's began, he had this to say about his mindset. "I'm very excited about the four majors this year, much more so than I've ever been, for the reason that I feel I've got the game now that I can play a major championship test without getting in nearly as much trouble."

And after it was all over, even in his jubilation, Phil's focus was on the future. "I think that winning this tournament, the reason it's so special, is that now I get to be a part of this great event for the rest of my life. I'll be back here every first week of April, and I will look forward to this tournament every year for the rest of my life."

So, while Phil Mickelson may not be leading an organization or wrestling with sales quotas or quarterly guidance to the street, he has clearly modeled the power of some of the most basic behaviors of effective leaders:

  • Resilience in the face of challenge, surprise or possible disaster
  • Seeing the past as something other than an inevitable future
  • Staying in the present
  • Allowing himself to be influenced in a positive way
  • Keeping his focus on executing against a compelling vision 

And it all lined up to contribute to Phil not only beating the curse of having no major victories- it got him a lifetime pass to play at the Master's and a green jacket. The press photo of Phil getting his Green Jacket is now my desktop artwork, as an inspirational reminder to what is possible.

So- what is your "green jacket"?

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