Leadership, Loops and Links – What Golf Taught Me About Leadership

February 13, 2020
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By Tessa Oldenbourg, Partner Executive Development AltoPartners / Jack Russell Consulting

Tessa Oldenbourg, executive coach, career counsellor, management diagnostician and two-time winner of the European Golf Senior Ladies Team Championship, talks about leadership and loops

Golf Team

One round of golf with someone can tell you pretty much everything you need to know about a person, especially if they have an off game, says Tessa Oldenbourg, partner at Munich-based Jack Russell Consulting and a member of AltoPartners’ global alliance of boutique executive search firms.

Golf is brutal. Unlike tennis, which depends a lot on your partner’s performance, in golf, you’re on your own. Squaring up to a difficult shot, or trying to plan a valiant recovery can be a very lonely place, filled with moments of self-doubt and frustration – much like the corner office.

Have a plan – don’t hit and hope

To play a successful round of golf, at any level, you first need a strategy. As in the board room, you need to consider all the external factors that will affect your performance, and then plan each shot accordingly: the course layout, the weather, the stakes, your mood, your own limitations, or track record.

Do you understand the risks? If you choke when confronted with a water hazard, do you have a strategy to deal with that? Or are you going to hit and hope for the best?

It also helps to be very clear about your objectives. Do you want to seal a deal, or win a game? Do you want to enjoy the first sign of spring or hit your longest drive? Are you enjoying a relaxing day out with a friend or proving a point?

You would be amazed how many golfers turn up and just expect to wing it, and then get frustrated or discouraged when it doesn’t go their way.

In my experience, there are two types of golfers, those who are driven to compete, and those who play socially - what I like to call the coffee golfers.

And that is absolutely fine. Neither approach is better than the other, provided you remember that - exactly as in life - what you put in, is what you get out. So, by all means play socially and for fun, but then don’t expect to play like a pro and then get angry when you don’t.

Hone your people skills

One round of golf may not be enough for me to gauge how successful you are in your job, but it will tell me about your people skills: how do you behave towards the slow four-ball ahead of you, or your partner who’s playing badly - or worse! - really well? Are you able to acknowledge a shot well played and be genuinely supportive? Or are you prone to gloating? Do you delight in Schadenfreude? Your behaviour on the course is a sure-fire indicator of how easy or difficult you are to work with, not to mention how entitled you are.

In my experience, the more senior the person, the less they feel the need to clean up after they hack a shot. And they don’t take kindly to being told to repair their divots either. It’s symptomatic of someone who is so used to having everyone do things for them that they either forget how to do it themselves or simply believe their own PR and think they are above housekeeping, and that the rules don’t apply to them.

Of course, you don’t have to be a VIP to behave like this. I’ve also noticed that those who tend to not clean up after themselves have difficulty in seeing the bigger picture. They fail to appreciate the collective responsibility that all players have to ensure a well-maintained course and their role in a much bigger endeavour. People who see the bigger picture are also usually much better at infusing purpose and meaning in their work and inspiring others to do the same.

I am also always interested in how a person responds to being paired with a stronger player. Do they see it as a threat or a learning opportunity? Personally, I love to play with people who are better than me because you learn so much.

Feedback – the secret ingredient

Golf is also a great leveller. Very few shots are perfect, and the rest you have to live with. If it teaches you nothing else, it will teach you humility. It’s also a great way to learn about your approach to pressure and your attitude to obstacles and adversity.

The wonderful thing about golf – and leadership - is that you can really grow if you’re open to feedback.

For coaching to be effective, however, whether it’s on the golf course or in the chair, you have to want it, and you have to commit to carving out time to up your game.”

Chemistry is good, but trust is better

When it comes to choosing a coach, chemistry is good, says Oldenbourg, but trust is better. A good coach creates a safe space because growth can be painful and difficult, and people are vulnerable. They need to know they can trust you and the process.

The best and most meaningful learnings take the form of ‘’ah-ha” moments – when you gain deep insight into your own behaviour and the impact it is having on others. It’s more profound and more effective than having a coach or a manager point it out to you.

The value of a coach, in the board room and the golf course – is the ability to provide insights and analysis from an outsider’s perspective in a safe environment.

Upping your game is easier than you think

The more receptive you are, the better the outcome. Even scratch golfers rely on well-timed coaching sessions or will seek an intervention to fix something specific. The same applies to leadership skills. Situations change, corporate cultures adapt and evolve, horizons shrink and expand, so having someone you trust that can keep you sharp and help you focus on solutions and clear log jams, is invaluable.

My mantra when I coach is always: how can I make this person’s life easier? How can I help them be more effective and handle obstacles in such a way that they do not feel defeated and inadequate? My best moment is when a client leaves a coaching session with renewed energy and a sparkle in their eye. Then I know they’ll ace whatever shot they’ve set their sights on.

Contact Tessa via email at t.oldenbourg@altopartners.de or LinkedIn

Tessa Oldenbourg
Partner Executive Development AltoPartners Munich