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Learning on the Tee: Golf, Business, and the Pursuit of Leadership

I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt: my experience as a golfer has made me a more empathetic and capable leader at work.

I took my first step onto the course when I was twelve years old and living in Michigan. My childhood friend invited me to join him and his father at their course. His father was a scratch golfer that took the significant time teach me the fundamentals of the game during that round and several more over the years.  It was a truly lifelong gift that he gave me that sunny afternoon on the course.  It would come to shape both my life and the philosophies that guide it. For my part, I knew the moment that my hands felt the sensation of impact and my eyes saw the white ball explode off the clubface that I was hooked to the game for a life. That night, moments from that exhilarating first round played in a Technicolor loop in my head; all I could do was dream about my next loop.

Decades later, I can't say that my enthusiasm for the game has ebbed all that much — although my appreciation for golf's nuances has grown tenfold. I pencil in outings to local (and not-so-local) courses into my schedule as often as I can, but my lives on and off the green aren't strictly compartmentalized. Interestingly, I've found that the lessons I've picked up on the course tend to slip into my briefcase and follow me into my office. I've spent the majority of my career working in healthcare management and leadership, and I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt: my experience as a golfer has made me a more empathetic and capable leader at work. 

Here are a few of the lessons I've learned at the tee. 

There is Always Room for Improvement

Unlike some other sports, life on the course doesn't come with a ticking clock. Golf is a game that can be enjoyed throughout a person's life and offers countless opportunities for growth. The difference between great golfers and ordinary players is determined by their drive, mental outlook and what they do when they see those chances come their way. 

Think of it this way: an already-competent player might work for years to develop their skills and become better — or they might decide that they are good enough as is and don't need to keep learning. You can probably guess which option great golfers choose. 

Leadership is the same. On the most foundational level, leaders need to be competent in whichever skill set their industry requires — but the real test of their mettle comes when they have the opportunity to work a little harder and hone their skills beyond the bare minimum. The best leaders live their professional lives in a learning mode: like great golfers, they are fully engaged in every swing and workplace project, and their approach to the game is defined by the desire to elevate their skills and become better than they currently are.

The People Around You Will Shape Your Approach

Golf is often presented as an individual-centered sport, and in many ways, it is. However, I've always found that the joy of the game isn't limited to a single swing or step; instead, it comes in embracing unexpected challenges, exploring new courses, and enjoying time with fellow players and friends. The game goes beyond sheer performance to encompass an entire social experience — players inspire and support each other in their search for the perfect play on a relaxing afternoon. 

Think of the social component in this way: if my friend's father hadn't taken the time to include me in his trip to the local course, I might not have ever found the passion I have for golf today. I am grateful for his gesture and the enthusiasm he inspired in me that day; I firmly believe that I would be less engaged in my personal and professional life if I weren't an avid golfer.  

Inspiration functions similarly in the workplace. While each employee needs the opportunity to line up a shot individually, the quality of the time they spend with their fellow golfers is critical to their overall experience. Leaders are responsible for setting the tone of the office culture, and the best ones empower their employees to share their views and engage with the work at hand. In turn, those fully-engaged workers will challenge the leader to be a more effective critical thinker, help him better understand multiple perspectives, and further develop his skills as an empathetic manager. In business, as in golf, the most significant successes are embedded in supportive social contexts. 

Dedication is the Key to Success

My family and I currently live in the Kansas City area. A couple of my favorite local courses are Shadow Glen Golf Club and Milburn Country Club, but I also like to make the three-hour trip to one of my top favorite courses in the world: Prairie Dunes. 

I am a dedicated golfer. I am addicted to the sport, I love playing it, and I am obsessed with improving my skills (and equipment). I make it a priority because it holds importance in my life. For me, driving three hours to a golf course is well worth the time investment because I know that I'll have the chance to hone my ability and enjoy a few hours on the course. I firmly believe that a lot of the improvements I've made over the years are due to the time I set aside to practice and play. 

For leaders, dedication is equally crucial. Leading by example and doing more than the bare minimum can make a tremendous difference to those under a manager's oversight

There are many different types of leaders. Some are more charismatic and hands-on, while others prefer to empower their employees from the background. Without exception, though, engaged leaders are both visible and present for their employee base. Putting in a few extra hours to finish a challenging project or a few minutes helping an employee can inspire employees to reach for similar engagement heights; according to one Bain & Company study, employees who are inspired are, on average, a full 125% more productive than staff members who are merely satisfied. Ultimately, the effort you put in and the dedication you inspire will matter more than the quirks of your leadership style. 

You Need to Love What You Do

I like to say that my family and I observe all of the major holidays: the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA Championship.

If you can share your love and enthusiasm for your work and hobbies with your colleagues, friends, and family members, you will find far more joy in whatever task you take on. In golf, in leadership, in life — that care and sharing is the key to finding happiness in whatever you do.

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