Golf, Philosophy and Management Theory – 4 short articles

First appeared in ‘Golf Today’ (U.S.A.)

1. Looking Good .v. Getting the Job done

There’s a concept I’ve recently come across in the training room that helps to explain a fair amount of my inability to break 80 with any regularity (I’m currently playing off 14). I learnt this pearl of wisdom attending on a training course run by a psychologist. He was talking to us (a group of trainers, consultants, personnel folk) about management, and more specifically the relationship managers have with staff, customers, etc… In his words (and Freud’s) “It’s all about relationships”. He discussed how the quality of the relationship you have with a client is a measure of the effectiveness with which you do business with them. Which is interesting enough. The particularly relevant aspect to this for me (and my consistency in golf – remember the golf) was the question he asked us about our relationship with our clients;

“What are you committed to? Are you committed to looking good or are you committed to getting the job done?” For me this translates as “Why do I choose a pitching wedge from 3 feet off the green rather than use a putter?” I know a putter will get me closer on 8 out of 10 occasions yet somehow it doesn’t feel right. I feel that I should use a wedge. There’s a pressure on me, a macho, male thing about having to copy the professionals. I can see it in the faces of all my playing partners – they all feel the same. They’d rather lose a hole going for that ‘tiny gap between the trees and fading it around the corner’ shot than adopt the sensible ‘just chip it back on the fairway’ route. Now I know (I’ve come to terms with this at least) that I’m never going to win the Open. I also know that I get a great deal of pleasure by shooting a low score and lowering my handicap. Yet I still can’t quite get that putter out. It’s the same on some tees. I’ll automatically reach for a driver when all the logic in my head is screaming “3 iron! 3 iron!”.

So having attending the training course next time I’m on the edge of a par 5 in 2 I’m going to reach for a putter, lag it up and tap in for a birdie……. well, maybe as long as none of my regular playing partners are watching.


2. You’ve got To Hit Someone before You’ll Work on That Hook

You know what it’s like – your swing isn’t quite working. It’s reasonable most of the time, not quite bad enough for you to get a lesson and change it, so you just carry on. Perhaps it’s developed a hook. So you start compensating and begin aiming further and further right, until you’re practically aiming at your playing partners on the tee.

So, what to do? I’ll tell you what I did. I found myself in a similar situation to the one I described above. My swing worked for most shots – had a slight ‘fade’ occasionally and a major ‘fade’ (or slice as it’s also called) on the odd occasion. One day I was delivering some change management training for some senior executives and it suddenly struck me – This would work for me, I thought.

The particular theory I was dealing with concerned change and dissatisfaction. Basically it was saying that before people change they need to be dissatisfied with the current state of affairs. This seems so obvious when you think about it. Yet, in a management context this was new to me. I’d been weaned on various models of change dealing with vision, planning, critical path analysis, etc. etc. but never addressed this.

For the change process to kick off the dissatisfaction needs be real and significant. Thinking of it in golfing terms real and significant dissatisfaction may equate to…. being sued for hitting someone behind you, an embarrassing 10 on your card, or general laughter at the annual ‘members and guests’ tournament.

The road to Damascus‘ moment I had when I was teaching this model made it clear that I should actually do something before any of those dreaded disasters kicked in. It moved this thought from the back of my mind “yes, I know I really should do something at some stage”, to the front of my mind and I thought “I’ll just do it. It’ll make me happier. It’s something I’ve been putting off for a while so I’ll see if this really works”. It felt so much better taking control. I booked the lessons. Now let’s see what happens….


3. You Need a Vision

Reading biographies of great leaders a number of common traits appear. Most have overcome some major adversity in their lives and they all seem to be able to inspire people with their vision. This vision needn’t be political, revolutionary or ‘visionary’ in the “To put a man on the moon by the end of the decade”, sense. However it should be personal. Most leaders are very aware of themselves and know exactly where they want to get to. Having never been one to think of my life in terms of getting anywhere I was intrigued and thought how I could apply it.

I’ve been playing off a handicap of 14 (give or take 2 or 3) for quite a while now and I’m comfortable with this. I would quite like to get better but it seems a lot of effort to me. However my research has told me I needed to articulate my vision. After a few days thinking I came up with something Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-Bound (SMART) – “get a single figure handicap by Christmas”(some of my colleagues may argue with the achievable aspect however).

The realistic part is important. “Winning the open” may not be that realistic if you’re 98 years old and playing off 28. Similarly “to get better” although laudable isn’t something that would be particularly inspiring or would you ever be able to really know when you’ve achieved it.

Having set my vision the next part was to define the first steps. This aspect comes from a great illustration of achieving a vision where the vision is a beacon in the distance and you are a boat. You, the boat, can’t sail straight for the beacon as so many other factors get in the way – wind, waves, weather, etc. You need to tack. So, it’s reasonable to define the first steps and then define the next steps. This works nicely as it takes the stress out of having the whole process mapped out. Well, that’s the analogy anyway. I decided that the first steps needed to be to book some lessons.

Plan the first steps and see where they take you. Then plan the next steps. If you can build in small wins, small milestones along the way so much the better. For me it was straightforward, well the planning was straightforward anyway – “let’s get to 12 in 2 months”. It may not work, but at least I feel happier having some control and something to aim at.


4. Comfort

To change anything, or to learn anything (which is essentially change anyway) is uncomfortable. There are a number of well-worn phrases that people trot out to remind you of this – “If you’re not churning, you’re not learning” – thanks a lot.

A useful model I came across with this one is the Comfort Zone model. On the inside is the Comfort Zone. The donut next ring is the Discomfort Zone and the Learning Zone is around the outside. It does remind you that it’s uncomfortable to learn anything new. It means that to get to the Learning Zone you have to get through the Discomfort Zone. There are no short cuts or tunnels. However it does give you hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

So, to the lesson. It was uncomfortable. I turned up alongside the fearless youngsters and brand new starters and felt very out of place. I’d been trapped in that comfort zone for too long. My grip was comfortable. My stance was comfortable yet they were so wrong. I knew if I held the club this way I could more or less guarantee it would be straight – not very long but straight. Now I’m being told to discard all those comfortable feelings and start again. It really did feel uncomfortable and tempting to go back to the old way.

I learnt that there are no short cuts or secret passages across the discomfort zone. We all know that. We know that all the teaching aids, special balls, magic golf clubs don’t work – or at least they don’t work on their own. We’ve all seen (or bought) that expensive set of aluminium, alloy, enhanced, cavity-backed, nickel platted, NASA designed golf set and stood next to a 12 year old with basically a long metal stick and seen them hit their tee shot thirty yards further than us.

What did help me though was some wise words I had picked up from a colleague a long time ago about this stress and anxiety.

“Anxiety isn’t pain” he assured me ” It’s the anticipation of pain.”

True enough. The most anxious and stressful times for me has been the waiting for something to start – the dentists, the job interview, waiting by the first tee. Once the event kicks off the stress diminishes a great deal.

“The trick”, he continued, “is to live in the here and now”(he was a bit of an old hippie), but very true. If you concentrate on what you’re doing before a stressful event; eating, preparing, practising, and try to concentrate fully on that you’ll save yourself a fair amount of stress.

So I’m taking the lessons. I’m staying in the ‘here and now’ and things are starting to improve. Not as quickly as I’d like, of course and I do feel that I’m living most of my life in the discomfort zone but… in a perverse way I’m starting to enjoy it.

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