Yesterday I was at my golf course, walking among the drifting leaves as autumn continued to create at once both beautiful images and challenging golf conditions. It was my last weekend playing before the course closes so I was thinking back over my year of golf and all of its ups and downs.
Golf is a game of constant intrigue and challenge to me. At the sporting level, it is a challenge against oneself, looking for personal bests and new accomplishments. It is also a game that is elusive to master, in that how we play one day does not foreshadow how we will play the next. To help me with consistency, I had coined an expression for myself that helped remind me of how I want to approach each shot if I am to play well.
I want to play “loose and long”. “Loose” means that I want to carry my self in a relaxed and loose manner, including addressing the ball with a soft grip on the club. “Long” means that I want to think of making a complete golf swing, starting with a slow and deliberate back swing, then not just making contact with the ball but finishing my body rotation through the ball with the club travelling down the flight path of the ball and finishing high over my shoulder. I play my best when I do this.
Yesterday was not a “loose and long” day. I was squeezing the club, rushing my back swing and then lunging at the ball without finishing the full rotation of the swing. The results weren’t good. Post game diagnosis told me that the real issue was that I had shown up for the game in a more anxious state than normal, so it was difficult for me to put myself in the “loose” state that allowed me to play “long”.
It struck me that there is a direct parallel between this state on the golf course and the rest of our world, and in particular how we approach our work. If we show up at work anxious, and perhaps gripping our role or our activities too tightly on a given day we might find that we miss out on the bigger picture that we would see by working “loose and long”. For example, a sales person may show up anxious to close an order on that day and in doing so hang on to the importance of that so tightly that they miss that the longer play for the day is to continue to develop a deep, collaborative relationship with the client. A leader might meet a deadline, but lose trust with a team member by not considering what else might be at play for them.
As I thought this through while walking around on a beautiful day with good friends, a few other lessons also began to emerge for me. Such a great game golf is, that it can teach us so many things about life!!
Here’s a few other lessons I thought I heard from the whispers of the blowing leaves across the fairways.
- Get out of jail first.
Our golf course is lined with large trees. Errant shots often result in being stymied (or nearly so) by one or more of these beasts. We might arrive at our ball and try to recover from our mistake all at once and force a shot through a small gap that has low odds of success. The ball often then caroms further into the trees and problems continue. The more seasoned and successful golfers understand that they need to “get out of jail” first by playing safely back to the fairway, taking one extra shot to prevent even bigger scores from high risk attempts.
How often do we do that at work? We make a misstep and then we keep on plowing forward down that path hoping that things will get better instead of stepping back, admitting the mistake, doing what is necessary to correct it then moving on from there. Our teams really appreciate it when we own our part in issues, slow down and take care of the problem, and then proceed with meeting our objectives.
- Swing slower, hit it further.
This is one of the great paradoxes of golf, and it does seem logical that if I swing harder that the ball will go further. In fact what happens is when we swing harder, a few bad things happen. We have to tighten our grip on the club which will then cause our supporting muscles in our arms and shoulders to tense up, taking fluidity out of our swing. Second is that the extra effort we put into the swing also impacts the accuracy of our swing and the timing of our technique, so the clubhead has much lower odds of optimal contact with the ball. So even though we swing harder, we get less distance. If we had just trusted the club and eased off …
Isn’t that true in our business lives as well? If we really drive hard at something, do we sometimes show up a little unaligned with others? Do we have additional tension in our way of being that maybe causes us to miss some of the subtleties around us? When we relax and know we have the right tool for the job in our hands (or minds) and let the tool do the work, do we not get better results? Same for our team … what comes of team performance when we relax and believe in them?
- Great swings don’t always produce great results.
Yesterday on a par 5 I hit two pretty mediocre shots that left me with a long shot to get to the green. I applied lesson 2 above, and I made what I considered to be a near perfect swing and really felt great as I watched my ball soar towards the green. And then over the green. And then a little further. It’s what golfers call hitting it pure. It was my best swing of the day and it was one of the worse results I experienced measured by final ball position. I had to check in with myself to confirm that indeed it was important just to be happy making a perfect swing.
Do we allow ourselves this grace at work as well? Even more importantly, as leaders do we allow those who we lead the grace of knowing that they made a great effort, but despite doing an amazing job things just didn’t turn out. Just as in golf where there are lucky or unlucky bounces, it is important to acknowledge luck in business. How do we maintain equilibrium in the face of luck, good or bad? How do we manage the luck we are given.
- Sometimes its about the walk, not the game.
Mark Twain once said “golf is a good walk spoiled”. When we are only interested in our score, this might be true. When we aren’t getting results, we get tense or upset and lose perspective on everything else. We might start to impact the enjoyment of our playing partners if our mood spills out, and almost certainly we will miss the beauty of our environment and lose out on the camaraderie and connection that come from shared passions. My best golf memories come more from a good walk with great people than the game itself.
Business is like this as well. We keep score in profit and growth. Sometimes it becomes all about these measures and we lose perspective. Not all opportunities will go our way, and conditions can adversely affect us. The question really is do we continue to show up engaged and present, ready to give our best effort while recognizing that we are on the journey with others? Others who have their own ups and downs and that also want more than results out of the journey.