Compared to men, a much lower percentage of women occupy the C-suite, a concern inspiring many thoughtful career-ists to theorize and postulate solves such as leadership seminars and workshops. The benefit of professional development noted, another tack might be more effective — make it mandatory for all school-aged girls to learn to play golf. Perhaps too simplistic, but just maybe…
Ahh, golf. For such a simple-intended game—hit ball and repeat until said ball lands in a cup meant for its capture—I doubt the western European herders accredited with its origin ever dreamt it would become a such a high-stakes stage for anyone with professional or political aspiration. Or maybe they knew all along and are bemused watching the drama from the nether regions of their after-life. Well done, lads. Touché!
Many ambitioned men and women alike realize the fairway offers transport to the C-suite, even accepting it as part of the ‘ladder package’ of graduate school/passing exams-certifications/slaying an internship/securing growth-potential, mid-management hire. But while the ethos of golf has evolved the past few decades its deep roots in (male, Caucasian) privilege will likely hue it as long as tee times continue to be made.
For women, the career climb vis-a-vis golf is polarizing: we love to love it or love to hate it. Those who love to love it savor the access opportunity, if not the game itself. I would guess these are the same who also lightheartedly appreciate ‘Mad Men,’ albeit as a (coed) drinking game. Some who love to hate it arrive at acceptance but not without angst, kind of like walking in gravel wearing flip-flops—a constant irritation from getting rocks—but also not stopping to change one’s shoes. Others who love to hate it loathe everything it symbolizes, morally refusing to tee it up so to not compromise their values.
If you are a love-to-love-it you probably wonder what all the fuss is about! Well, there is undeniable discriminatory history even if it’s not a struggle you’ve had to contend with. If you are a love-to-hate-it you KNOW you aren’t going to get anything out of reading this and are mad that you have read this far! But, hey, you might as a well finish. If nothing else you can offer a clever comment at the end.
What we already know is a little white ball can sure cause ruckus! The point here is to move past the love-to-love-it or love-to-hate-it cluster to explore what it is about golf that can support our career aspiration. If you already tee it up hopefully you will gain insight to hone how best to (continue to) use it to climb. If you don’t care for it, hopefully you can glean something you can apply to a more appealing context. Bottom line, this is about climbing the career ladder, and golf just happens to be in the mix. It’s not going to solve the debate but since golf HAS stood a test of time there must be something worth exploring, and if not playing golf risks the professional advance you want then you need to play golf. Stop wasting your time debating merit or ethics – don’t kid yourself, no one cares! Get yourself out of the dialogue mire and onto the driving range, don’t waste another day! Hit the dang ball, already!…
And, with that, why it IS about golf.
The dynamic of who else is there: I believe it is Disney’s Ariel who so eloquently yearned ‘I wanna be where the people are’, sage wisdom that surpasses her computer-animated imagery. If ‘the people,’ and you know YOURS, are on the golf course then why for even a nanosecond would you hesitate to develop competency in whatever is going to help you get in front of them? Beyond the (mis) ethic of access/privilege, the reality is many of ‘the people’ are there. You ought to as well.
The dynamic of perpetuating its deal-making reputation: So engrained in cultural lore is the golf course as conduit to big business, corporate golfers feel the aura to close a deal while playing, even when the table is clean at tee off. The hyper-interest to claim membership in the I-made-a-deal-on-the-golf course club may result in lowered defenses (compared to sitting across a conference table) that you can leverage. Making-a deal-on-the-golf course can be made bigger than the deal itself!
The dynamic of its time-intensity. The average round of golf takes about five hours to complete – five hours of being on the line to execute shots and make conversation. This allows you to showcase your stamina as it pertains to leadership.
The dynamic of its (dynamic) unpredictability. Golf requires dealing with unpredictable and changing conditions, e.g., weather, wind, bugs, which allows you to display your adaptive capacity important because leadership means dealing with contingencies, some anticipated others unexpected.
The dynamic of its social-skill dynamic. For the duration of a round, players typically ride two to a cart to make their way around the course. If not before the round, you are sure to know your cart-mate well by the end of the round! (And the other (typically) pair in your foursome). This allows you to display your charm, wit, conversation skills, sense of timing – all critical to leadership. Golf carts are not for the intimacy-phobic!
Objective measure of performance (and objective measure to show your improved performance) and the dynamic of being accountable to your score. A golf score is the total number of shots it takes you to complete a round, the lower the better. This objective performance measure can be further assessed to determine your handicap, a universally recognized measure of ability. Handicapping allows golfers of different skill to compete against each other (see below) respective of their ability. Because a handicap is a recognized objective performance measure it carries panache, perhaps more so than saying “I am a good softball player,” and it is a measure that can be improved. Leadership requires being accountable to the bottom line, hopefully improving it. Golf scoring offers the mechanism to display you possess the initiative to take action to improve a bottom line.
Second, golfers count and report their own scores for each hole, which can call character attributes to task. Do you count the stroke no one saw you take? Do you penalize yourself strokes for having to replace your lost ball even when no one could see you drop a new one?
Leaders are constantly faced with decisions that challenge the bounds of integrity. Golf offers the venue to display your ethical demeanor.
The dynamic of a level playing field regardless of skill. I will never outdrive my brother but I can beat him at a round because course set-up and a handicapped scoring system creates a level playing field, meaning someone of lesser skill can beat someone of higher skill (if the lesser-skilled player plays to his/her typical best). First, each hole offers tee points of varied distance to the green. The ‘forward’ tees are played by those who hit the ball comparably shorter than those who play from the ‘rear’ tees. Regardless of the starting point, strokes are counted the same but with handicapped scoring my 6 on a hole might beat my brothers 4 because my handicap is higher, thus if I overachieve (score better than usual) my net score for a round will beat my brother’s.
Leadership requires consistently performing to your optimum capacity – not taking a ‘day off.’ Golf offers the opportunity to display your tenacity for scoring and competing as well as you can.
The dynamic of rule interpretation. The golf rulebook (as presented by its governing body, the United States Golf Association) is notorious for its detailed 210 pages. By comparison, the Major League Baseball Rule Book is 123 pages and the National Football League Rule Book is 113 pages. While it may not be fair to compare sports rules given inherent characterization differences, golf’s rule complexity is regarded as one of its attributes. Beginning golfers need to learn the rules as well as how to swing their clubs, because infractions lead to stroke penalties that affect the final score of a round—and not knowing the rule isn’t an acceptable excuse.
Leadership requires a clear understanding of the regulations that govern a business or its practice else risk crippling monetary fines, penalties, or criminal charges. It also requires understanding how to apply the letter or spirit of a law, (but never to the extent of compromising ethics or integrity). For example, in golf there tends to be a time and place to allow a fellow player a ‘mulligan’ or do-over shot and/or a ‘gimme’ putt. If the letter-of-the -rules are followed you are not allowed do-over shots and must putt your ball until it falls into the cup, but corporate leaders may find it useful to grant do-overs and gimmees to their playing partners. This also allows you to display your sentiment for policy execution – are you consistent across the board or do you make adjustment based upon the circumstances. Not to judge either approach, but to point out how golf allows the display of this side of your leadership capacity.
The dynamic of creativity and risk-taking factoring into decision-making. Even with the same starting and finishing point to each hole, no two people play a course the same given decision-making differences, and the propensity for creativity and risk-taking. Each shot requires assessing risk/reward to select the club and determine the ball’s landing spot. For example, a pond on a hole forces you to decide if you are going to try to hit over it in one shot or take two shorter shots. The fewer shots the better but clubs that carry the ball the farthest are also the least reliable for accuracy. ‘Going for it’ could mean a shot that clears the pond and settles near the green, or one causing a penalty because it lands out-of-bounds, two very different results.
Leadership requires weighing options then determining the course of action thought to best serve the greater good. Golf displays dynamics of your decision-making tendencies particularly pertaining risk/reward. No doubt decisions tend to be context based but golf is opportune for illustrating your methodical tendencies.
The dynamic of experiencing adventure, adaptability and camaraderie. Golf can be an adventure. Good shots followed by lousy shots, shots that go where we want and others that end up in someone’s yard, seeing various forms of wildlife while looking for lost balls in the woods – all are part and parcel to playing a round, and all make for great stories that can live on with growing lore. Even though players may have vastly different experiences, there is inherent camaraderie in the common ground of a course.
Leadership requires some appreciation or embrace of the sense of adventure. Even the best laid plans can be unexpectedly trumped requiring an abrupt change of course. Golf displays your sense of adventure and ability to make adjustments according to the conditions. In the end, it makes for a great story.
The dynamic of mitigating the performance-related emotions shown by others. Gamblers learn early on that even the hottest streaks innovatively end with the house winning. Golf is a similar equalizer—a hole-in-one on one hole can easily be followed by a several poor shots in a row on the next one. The course always has the advantage and the vast majority of times, wins! At the same time it’s fun to play, it can also be infuriating, frustrating, confounding, and simply, unpredictable. Over the course of a round, golfers experience a full spectrum of contradictory emotions – elation followed by disgust followed by relief followed by frustration, and that’s just one hole.
This can be invaluable experience for leaders since leadership requires understanding the art of managing the emotions of others. Although the arenas are different, performance emotions are the same for employees doing business as playing sports. Exhilaration when landing a new account, frustration from hitting a creativity block, nervousness before presenting a new concept to a client – leaders play an important role in mitigating the spectrum of emotions employees experience to sustain their effort and motivation toward the task at hand. Developing the capacity to read, then appropriately respond to emotions comes from practical experience. Said differently, this is a skill that can’t be learned from a book, rather emerges from immersion. Golf provides the opportunity to develop (and display) this aspect of leadership.
In summary, I suspect this is more than some of you have ever thought about golf (or cared to), as well, you may be put off or consider the ‘go get it’ plea too simplistic, or just irritating. However, it can’t be denied that the pageant that is golf can be an opportune stage to directly and indirectly showcase C-suite leadership. For 5 hours at a time, you are on the line to perform, manage your emotions and respond to the ones displayed by others with the skill of an elite diplomat. Mostly it allows you to display your fire-in-the-belly commitment to a task at hand. While golf may forever invoke contention, we can’t discount any vehicle that pathways today’s and tomorrow’s generation of women leaders to the C-suite.