Servant Leadership & The Ryder Cup

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Matthew Futterman recently wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal entitled “Advice for New Ryder Cup Captains.” The Ryder Cup is a biannual team golf event between professional players from the U.S. and Europe. This unique tournament has an 87 year old tradition. This past September Europe soundly defeated the U.S. for the 8th time in the past 10 contests. The Americans have been incredibly distraught as to why the Europeans have been so successful.

Futterman’s article was very insightful in laying out the simple approach of the European captain, Paul McGinley, in getting his team ready to play in 2014. As I read McGinley’s plan I realized he had simply employed servant leadership principles in ensuring that his team was as relaxed and mentally prepared as possible.

Robert Greenleaf defined servant leadership in 1970 thusly, “The servant leader is a servant first . . . it begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.” The approach by the servant leader is “to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.” 

Golf is certainly a game of skill, but even more so a game between the ears. Even the very best have been known to crash and burn on the last day due to stress and expectations. Golf requires no distractions with all of your mental energy going toward the very next shot. That is why playing relaxed and focus is so crucial to victory.

McGinley wanted to insure that his players on the European side were as relaxed as possible. As I read the article, four practical aspects of servant leadership stood out.

1. Familiarity. McGinley created comfortable pairings for the big event by seeing to it that every Ryder Cup pair played multiple rounds together on the regular European Tour throughout the year. The European players did not even realize what McGinley was up to until they showed up at Gleneagles golf course for the Cup. As each pair stood on the first tee they realized they had already been in this setting many times before.

2. Focus on Form. McGinley did not want his players thinking about the Ryder Cup before it was time. Therefore he actually had as little contact with them as possible through the year in leading up to the tournament. When he did, he told them to focus on form, not results. He got them playing their best golf all year, not just once in September.

3. Freedom From Pressure. McGinley wanted to ensure that his number one player, Rory McIlroy, did not bear the burden of expectations from the team or European fans. So he never placed him as the first match in any rotation throughout the tournament. McIlroy performed wonderfully and secured three points for his side over the course of the match.

4. Familiarity 2.0. One of McGinley’s biggest challenges was to unite a group of golfers from several different cultural backgrounds, even though they all hailed from Europe. One example was not scheduling a uniform team meal time. Instead there was a rolling buffet that ran from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. That way Norther Europeans could eat early as they desired, Central Europeans could eat a little later as their custom, and Southern Europeans could eat at their normal late evening hour. McGinley kept cultural routines familiar so that his players could focus on the golf alone.

McGinley understood that success would come only if his players owned the results. And that would only come about if he served them by creating the best environment possible. Not only could the American side take a few cues from McGinley, but so could any leader who sees the desired result and serves his or her people in such a way to get there.

(photo credit)

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