Leadership & the Ryder Cup
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  • 04 Oct 2018

Earlier this week I watched golf’s Ryder Cup – a massive biennial team event in an otherwise very individual sport – and enjoyed seeing Europe’s comprehensive victory over the U.S. team. I was in Hazeltine, Minneapolis two years ago and witnessed first-hand the U.S. victory (and the hysterical nationalism of the fans), so it was great to see Europe’s comeback victory.

It got me thinking about leadership and how that manifested in this major sporting event. From what I saw this weekend, three important leadership principles came to the fore:

Get the right people on the team
Ryder Cup teams consist of 12 players – 8 based on rankings and 4 Captain’s picks. These are generally top players who have slipped down the rankings, but the captain sees as having something to offer. They’re usually highly experienced and can add real leadership.
Team Europe included a couple of players with proud Ryder Cup histories who have been off the pace this year – Sergio Garcia and Ian Poulter. Team USA’s equivalents were Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson – the greatest of all time (in my opinion) and another who has been at the top for years and is a 5 time major winner.
Garcia and Poulter delivered – not only on the scoreboard, but they led their team with their passion and commitment to the cause and showed the way for the less experienced members.
And Tiger & Phil? They contributed no points at all and appeared almost aloof and disinterested. A very clear points victory to Europe’s captain, Thomas Bjorn, over the US captain, Jim Furyk.

There’s no ‘I’ in ‘Team’
Talking of Tiger, here’s a guy with 14 majors (the last one in 2008 – he would surely have broken Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18, were it not for some major personal problems and massive injuries), whose comeback to the top was complete with a stunning victory at the Tour Championship last week. His talent, focus and ability to handle the most extreme pressure is legendary – a true GOAT. But here’s the thing – his Ryder Cup record over the years is abysmal (he lost all 4 of his matches this time)! For someone who has done it all, many feel he should be able to lead his team to victory with his performances and his presence, yet he has consistently failed to deliver at this premier team event.

And I think that’s it – TEAM event. It was drilled into him from an early age by his father that he had to be single-minded and block out everything (and everyone!) else to be successful. And that, of course, doesn’t fit within the team ethos. Not only does Tiger seem to alienate (and even intimidate!) his teammates, his whole demeanour shows he doesn’t buy in to the team environment. Just a small but telling example – while the other 11 U.S. players wore the white team uniform pants in the singles matches on Sunday, Tiger chose to wear blue wet weather pants over his trousers. He wanted to stand out, to be his own man. It’s that attitude that has been a vital ingredient to his success in this (mostly) individual sport – but is exactly what makes him a liability in the team environment.

A champion team trumps a team of champions!
The U.S. had the strongest team in Ryder Cup history. On world rankings, major titles won, recent success – on pretty much every criteria you could use, they should have cantered to victory. But they were missing one vital ingredient – teaminess. In business, we talk about culture – leaders creating an environment where people want to give their best, work towards a common goal and enjoy their working environment and those they work with.

Thomas Bjorn and his vice captains did a superb job in this. It was clear that the European players genuinely liked each other, totally bought into the team ethos and wanted to do their best for their mates and their leader, for whom there was genuine respect and caring. Whereas the U.S. team appeared lacking in unity and certainly didn’t show the same commitment to the cause or each other. There have already been rumblings about some being unhappy with those they were paired to play with and other underlying tensions in the camp. In fact, one player has already come out and said one of his team-mates made it clear he didn’t want to play with him and that some players struggled to leave their egos at the door. This is a function of leadership – not just the captain and his deputies, but those senior players on the team who have a massive influence on team culture.

So there it is. Leadership takes many forms and applies to all areas of life – business, sports, social groups and families. All of those environments need people to step up and demonstrate leadership qualities to create a common purpose, unite people towards that purpose and provide the right environment that helps people give their best towards achieving theirs and the team’s purpose.

Pretty simple really – but often very difficult to achieve. Team Europe showed the magic that can be accomplished when it happens!