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Emotions - The Path to Your Potential in
Leadership and Golf

by John Haime


"Tennis, running, and golf: depending on whether I want to abuse my elbows,
my knees, or my emotions."

Phil Knight, Chairman, President and CEO of Nike Inc.
when asked about his passions outside of work

Golfers Phil Mickelson and John Daly are both talented professionals. So too are business leaders Bill George and Michael Eisner. So why has Mickelson consistently been one of the PGA Tour's top money winners, while Daly, despite two major wins, labors to have one good year? How did George transform Medtronic into a continually profitable powerhouse and retire on top of his game, while Eisner, despite some major wins, continues to struggle to keep Disney -- and himself - on the leader board?

For that matter, what stops you, a recreational golfer, from taking your game to the next level? And why do you too often find yourself struggling in your role as a corporate leader? In both cases you have the talent, the resources, the experience. What's holding you back from reaching your potential?

Whether you're leading a business or playing golf, whether you're playing at the Fortune 100 / PGA level, or running your own startup and struggling to lower your handicap on the weekends at the local public course, the answer to these questions may lie within easy reach. It doesn't require hours of practice at the driving range (although that never hurts) or two years in a leading MBA program (again, not a bad idea). Nor, do you always need to always have the latest in equipment, as fun as that may be.

What can take you to a new level? The answer, simply put, is a better understanding of your emotions and their impact on your action. Why do you tend to do the things you do, whether on the golf course or in the boardroom? Once you learn that, you can quickly learn to more effectively manage your emotions and behavior to your advantage.

Old news, you say. After all, everyone knows that people perform better when they "play within themselves," when they're in "the zone." So if it's such common knowledge, what's keeping you and Daly and Eisner out of that zone so much of the time?

The issue, for most of us, is learning how to maintain awareness of our emotions and how to manage them to our advantage - especially in times of stress: the six-foot putt that will put us ahead of our opponent; the meeting with a client that, if it goes well, will lead to a major new contract; or, the employee on the team who isn't quite reaching their potential and slows down our objectives.

The best of the best recognize the importance of this "emotional intelligence" not only in realizing their potential, but in sustaining it over time. The world's best golfer, Tiger Woods, told reporters that controlling emotion was the key to winning both The Masters and the United States Open in 2002. Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch recently made a similar observation about the importance of emotional control in the business world. "Emotional intelligence," he noted, "is more rare than book smarts, but my experience says it is actually more important in the making of a leader - you just can't ignore it."

Woods and Welch are not just blowing a bit of humble smoke to mask their outstanding careers in their respective fields. New research has shown the importance of emotional intelligence in both driving and sustaining performance.

Two top researchers in the field, Daniel Goleman and Dr. Reuven BarOn, have independently done studies that show emotional intelligence to be a better predictor of success than the traditional measure of cognitive intelligence (IQ). More importantly, Goleman's research also shows that unlike IQ, one's emotional intelligence, with awareness and practice, can be increased over time.

Are Golfers and Leaders Reaching Their Potential?

Unfortunately, since most training continues to focus only on developing technical skills, most people, be they golfers, leaders, or both, fail to maximize their abilities despite deep knowledge and textbook technique.

Take the average golfer for example. As a group they spend billions each year on new equipment, lessons, and range balls. Yet most remain frustrated - not over their inability to compete with Woods and company, but rather over their inability to maintain a high level of consistency while gradually enhancing their skills.

The problem is that golfers are unequipped to handle the emotional challenges of golf. Under various pressures in a round of golf, the average golfer mutters inappropriate words and blames any outside factor as an excuse for poor results. The fear of public humiliation, not really knowing where the ball is going, the disappointment of not reaching expectations which are often unrealistic and the impatience of waiting for things to finally come together, leads to frustration and prevents golfers from reaching their potential.

The same problem confronts potential leaders. Our brilliant, young business hopefuls march through business schools studying the systems and processes of business while spending a negligible amount of time on developing skills to motivate and influence the number one asset of business - the people that make it work. UCLA research indicates that only 7% of leadership success is attributable to intellect while 93% of success comes from trust, integrity, authenticity, honesty, creativity, presence, and resilience (cited in Cooper and Sawaf,1996). People make and sell the products in organizations. People manage the processes and systems in organizations. Why then has understanding and motivating this asset not been a priority?

Like golfers, leaders take little time to define capabilities, strengths and limits. While golfers only have the task of understanding their own strengths and limits, the leader faces the further challenge of understanding both their own capabilities and the capabilities of others. Unsure of themselves, unsure of others and challenged by organizational expectations and restrictions, the leader gets frustrated and is impeded from reaching his or her potential.

Where Does Emotion Fit in the Golf and Leadership Picture?

Emotions clearly play a key role in golf and leadership. Not only are emotions directly linked to how well we perform, but also to how much we enjoy the "game".

In golf, the "emotional" side of the game is typically blended in with the mental game. Of the three key elements of golf (physical, mental, emotional), emotions receive little or no attention in the volumes of golf books written. You'll find mention of the importance of emotions in the "mental" section of a golf book - but little else. Similarly, information on leadership strategy and tactics fill the business bookshelves, while discussion of the emotional aspect is surprisingly absent.

Only now are we acknowledging the importance of emotions in a leader's decision-making. Confused, frustrated, angry golfers and leaders do not reach their potential as frequently as self-aware, engaged and confident ones. Not only does this apply to golf and leadership, it applies to everything we do.

Have Golfers and Leaders Improved Over Time?

You'd think that the levels of achievement in golf would be in line with all of the high-tech advancements.

Golf's original golf ball, a stitched leather pouch with goose feathers, has evolved into a multi-layer elastomer rocket that flies farther than we ever dreamed a golf ball could. Today, golfers are fitted for equipment by measuring ball launch angles and ball speeds. Shafts are light and strong and driver heads are made from the earth's strongest materials. Putters are an industry themselves with better materials, new designs and better balance. The opportunity for world-class instruction is a phone call or click of a mouse away. Golf schools, books, videos and training aids are all designed to help us improve our game. We have access to a myriad of books and tapes on mental practices, like Dr. Bob Rotella's best-selling series highlighting that we do not have to be perfect to play golf.

The golf industry is now a billion-dollar market. Baby boomers are looking for any advantage or tip to decrease that slice and increase their enjoyment of the game.

So then, are golfers getting better?

Not according to the game's governing body. With all of the great advances, the average handicap index, as collected by the United States Golf Association, has not dropped in decades. (i) With better equipment, knowledge and information, you'd think that today's golfer would be getting substantially better and enjoying the game more, but that's not the case.

There is the shining moment where the golfer puts it all together and reaches golf euphoria. The perfect drive, the low score, that feeling we all get that we've "got it now". The problem is - it vanishes as quickly as it arrives. How many times have you heard golfers talk about one good hole and one bad one…or one good round and one bad one? The challenge is sustaining good performance over a period of time.

The fact is most golfers today, armed with Star Wars technology and a mountain of golf tips, are as frustrated and inconsistent as ever and not reaching their potential.

Our leaders seem to be struggling too. And the problem is not a lack of information or education.

The Leadership section in the bookstore is as impressive and stocked as the golf section. Books, tapes and videos for leaders line the shelves. Similar to golfers marching off to golf schools for secrets to cure their slice, leaders attend traditional development programs and return to their organizations with binders full of great leadership intentions.

Leaders also have the benefit of history - watching and reading about great leaders and how they did it.

If leaders have similar opportunities to learn and improve that golfers have, are THEY getting better?

Not according to recent results.

Leadership breakdowns in high profile organizations are hitting the news with more and more frequency. Leaders are struggling to deal with global pressures, changing climates, quarterly profit targets and large compensation packages. High profile companies are crumbling, employees are cynical and shareholders are dubious.

And they've got good reason.

Leaders at Enron, Worldcom, Tyco, Qwest, Global Crossing and others have destroyed $7 trillion in shareholder value and interrupted thousands of careers.

The implementation of the Sarbanes Oxley Act in 2002, a law holding organizations to a higher standard of financial accountability, is proof enough that the public's trust in company executives has wavered. The tenure of CEOs is shorter than it's ever been.

Employee turnover is also a growing problem in business. (ii) Organizations are having difficulty retaining high-performing employees. Look no further than the quality of leadership as a primary reason why valuable workers are leaving. Surveys consistently show that more than 40% of people who quit do so because of a lack of appreciation by leaders, lack of teamwork (developed by leaders) and a perception the company doesn't care about them (a responsibility of leaders). The Center for Creative Leadership (Greensboro, N.C) tells us that "insensitivity to others" is the most cited reason that executives and leaders fail.

So if golfers and leaders have access to the latest information and technology, then why is it so difficult to get sustainable results?

No matter how advanced and user-friendly equipment is and how much instructional techniques improve, the fact remains that human beings play golf and lead people. The biggest obstacle that golfers and leaders will eternally face is the challenge to understand their emotions, manage those emotions and/or understand the emotions of others.

If robots played golf and led people, the improvement of golfers and leaders would parallel the advancements in equipment and techniques. It would be as simple as programming a robot to hit the ball at a target, or plugging in the distance and direction on a putt. This would be true if conditions never changed.

But, golfers and leaders live in a world that changes from tournament to tournament, quarter to quarter, shot to shot and decision to decision. The human feelings and dynamics involved when hitting a golf ball or leading people is what makes golf and leadership a challenge for all of us.


i. The United States Golf Association

ii. Study by HR Consultant Kepner-Tregoe Inc.


The Author


John Haime is President of LearningLinks Inc. and a former World Tournament Professional Golfer. LearningLinks adds value to corporate initiatives through the game of golf. The company's "Mastering the Game" program is an industry leader in experiential emotional intelligence education and has been delivered for some of the world's top organizations. Visit for additional information and Mastering the Game for the path to the next level of leadership.

Many more articles in Emotional Intelligence in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2005 by John Haime. All rights reserved.

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