Sunday, April 10, 2005

1000 Golf Balls a Day Revisited

Tiger Woods’ epic battle with Chris DiMarco for a fourth Masters underscores the magic and the joy of mastery. We know it when we see it. When the going gets tough, masters rise to the occasion. Both Tiger and Chris demonstrated that years of hard work do pay off when it counts. They combined skill, sheer determination and superb management of their emotions to create an unforgettable 2005 Masters. But, as they proved to us, mastery is a “shot by shot, hole by hole” challenge. It is elusive and must be earned again and again. So it is with great leadership.

I first wrote about the analogy between mastery in golf and leadership in June 2004 for the “Leader’s Edge” a newsletter for members of my website, At the time, Tiger was into his second year of struggling to regain his winning momentum against a formidable field of top golfers. V. J. Singh, Phil Mickelson and other masters in their own right were relentless in their pursuit of bettering their best. When Tiger skipped a beat, they stepped in to raise the bar. They reminded all of us, including Tiger, that there is no final destination with mastery. Like life itself, it is a journey. The results of the 2005 Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta, Georgia suggested to me that revisiting this interesting topic of “mastery” would be timely.

Howard Gardner’s study of extraordinary individuals such as Albert Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi (Creating Minds) reinforced already well-known research in cognitive psychology circles. It takes at least ten years of focused dedication for an individual to gain initial mastery in a field of endeavour. Thereafter, hard work still prevails in maintaining mastery and innovating beyond the first level. Assuming that the field of leadership is no exception to the ten year rule, it follows that few leader-managers will become great without using the tools of mastery. Leadership like everything else is hard work.

In the golf world, the tools of mastery continue to evolve in relation to the field of players. A high level of fitness is now a given since Tiger Woods turned pro. Many have followed Tiger’s lead improving their eating habits and transforming their flab and pot bellies into “buffed” works of art. Like Tiger, they work on their mental toughness with their “thought coaches”. They adhere to rigorous, deliberate pre-tournament regimes, for example, hitting 1000 balls a day is not unusual. They surround themselves with coaches on every aspect of their game who provide them with regular feedback. During the tournaments, they track their performance diligently and maintain an optimistic outlook in the face of adversity of which there is naturally a great deal in golf. In that few find themselves at the top of the leader board, they philosophically acknowledge the lessons learned and move on preparing for the next tournament…back to the tools of mastery to hone their gifts.

How many leaders do you know, yourself included, who work that hard at becoming a masters? We have much to learn from the masters in other fields including a sport such as golf.

Let’s examine three of the major tools: keeping statistics, maintaining optimism (acting like you are a pro) and practicing deliberately every day.

As a culmination of all their preparations, on an operational level, elite golfers are encouraged to record at least three key tournament statistics:

The number of greens in regulation (GIR). For a par 3, a GIR would be 1 shot on the fairway, 2 drives for a par 4 and 3 for a par 5.
The number of putts to put the ball in the hole. Two per hole on average is a good statistic.
The number of up and downs. When the golfer is in a mess, has not hit the fairway but a bunker, for example, if he gets the ball in the hole with 2 shots (or less), that’s an “up and down”.

If a golfer has a sense of how he is doing on his “stats” as he’s playing, he can gage his strategies and control his mind somewhat better with each ball. He can also use the statistics to set goals later.

How do these translate to leadership? What are the relevant statistics? We tend to default to the business measures familiar to all accountants and line managers responsible for budgets. Certainly, they are vitally important, but the majority are “lag” measures occurring after the fact of leadership, good or bad. What are the “lead” measures that reflect leadership mastery? Here is a list derived from those described in Robert Quinn’s book, Building the Bridge as You Walk on It, and from other practitioners:

Walking the talk—being internally-directed, continually examining any hypocrisy and closing the gaps between your values and behaviour.
Emotional IQ--being other-focused, letting go of your ego and putting the common good and welfare of others first, seeing the world through their eyes, not just your own.
Risking--moving out of your comfort zone to experiment, seeking real feedback, adapting and learning as you go. Nurturing a grounded vision that is based on “bread and salt” gained from walking around and listening to employees.
Engaging—energetically pursuing goals with and through others (no lone wolfs).

If a day for a leader is like a tournament, then these softer leadership measures are the hole by hole/conversation by conversation guide to outcomes. Imagine how much better leaders we would each become if we paid attention to these statistics every day as elite golfers do for every tournament?

The second tool of mastery, maintaining optimism in negative circumstances, is a test of character constantly. On the golf course, it can make the difference between recovery (back to par or better) or a string of bogeys and double bogeys or worse. Martin Seligman (Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness) asserts that optimists, besides being generally in better health, are unfazed by defeat—they see it as a challenge and try harder. Pessimists give up more easily and get depressed more often. Clearly, in golf there is no room for pessimists! For leaders, realism is important but no one follows a pessimist or someone who goes around bemoaning the situation or the deficiencies of others. Optimists inspire and offer hope. They challenge people to dig deeper into their wells of creativity to overcome the obstacles.

The third tool of mastery, deliberate practice, means consciously knowing what you intend to work on and doing it every day most of the day. Golfers, to become and remain elite, need to practice three to five hours per day. For “elite” leaders, the 80:20 rule applies: spending most of your time on leadership rather than having your head buried in desk work. All of the aforementioned indicators require a leader to get out of her office frequently and when in the office to have an open door. Try this little test: when a person enters your office, do you stop what you are doing (for example, emails) and focus your attention on that person? That’s the mark of a leader showing respect for another—being “other-focused”. Just as too many priorities undermine achieving anything well, we can’t become a master by practicing more than about three things at once. These will vary for each leader on a journey of mastery, as they do for each elite golfer.

As in golf, achieving mastery in leadership, even in difficult circumstances, brings about a greater sense of confidence and aliveness. That increased well-being becomes infectious. We attract others to us to join in doing extraordinary things. Positive energy overcomes cynicism. The community of which we are a part as a leader gets stronger, more resilient and effective. There is no other choice then for leaders—they must become masters otherwise their organizations will stay below the radar of greatness.

In June, 2004, I reflected on the future for Tiger. I wrote: “Note to Tiger: Gardner and others’ research indicates that mastery occurs in ten year cycles. So, Tiger, you’ve had your first breakthrough in mastery at a relatively early age in golf (but you started young). Most don’t get there until their 30s. You are now slogging your way toward your second level of mastery. It’ll take a bit more time and we know that because you never give up, you will rise to another astonishing level in golf.”

His fourth Masters title does indeed prove that Tiger is a master par excellence. He kept his focus, worked on his game, learned from his mistakes, rebounded from missteps on the spot, and checked his emotions as best he could. He has propelled himself into another stratosphere of mastery, joining other greats in the game. It is a new beginning for Tiger and, relatively speaking, a new challenge for his competitors.

Leaders take notice. To become and remain great, with building a vibrant and successful organization as proof, never stray from the tools of mastery.

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