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Insights by Agilicist

A Lesson from Golf to Transform Your Organisation

In my consultancy work I use sporting analogies a lot.

My hero growing up was Andre Agassi, and he once said that every tennis match is a life in miniature.

Sport mirrors our human experience – the drama of the game, the unpredictable outcomes, the highs and lows of emotion, the winning, the losing.

I spent last weekend following the Ryder Cup and as I watched the European team lift the golden chalice for the ninth time since I became a covert of this event in 1997, I realised that in the spectacle of the Ryder Cup, there are some powerful learnings we can apply to our organisations.

I’m sure most reading this will know what the Ryder Cup is, but I’ll briefly explain: it’s a men’s golf tournament between Europe and the United States and it is contested every two years over three days with the venue alternating between the US and Europe.

Golf isn’t usually a team sport, its player vs course. Even in the Ryder Cup, when the players are hitting their shot, they are doing so alone. The common definition of a team is a group of individuals coming together and working towards a common purpose, but simply collaborating towards a shared mission and a collective goal is no guarantee of success.

All Organisations have lofty, bold ambitions. At Agilicist we’ve seen many business leaders convey their mission statement to answer the question of “why” – “why do we do what we do”. They craft this message and make it as compelling as possible.

There are rounds of editing and focused group discussions to make it perfect. And then it gets sent out to employees via emails which remain unopened. It gets printed on posters that get ignored. It gets published on the intranet that nobody visits.

The why is important, but its not the most important thing.

The US Ryder Cup Captain Zach spoke prior to the event and when asked whether he was feeling the pressure of the US not winning in Europe for 30 years. He said:

“Those 30 years are the past. It's almost irrelevant. Every two years is a new opportunity, a new venue. This is a new chapter for these 12 guys."

Contrast this with what European player Justin Rose said in a press conference after the event:

"We are united by a culture, and we are united by a generation of players that have come before us,"

I think the fundamental reason why Europe’s record at the Ryder Cup over the past 40 odd years is vastly superior to the US despite being classed as perennial underdogs and often having lower ranked individuals is echoed in these two disparate statements.

It’s about culture.

And they’ve been building it for 40 years.

When was the last time you felt fully engaged? Inspired to bring out your best?

It probably wasn’t when the CEO recited the company mission statement.

Instead it’s probably when you felt your work was important to someone else.

It’s probably when you got a thank-you from a colleague.

It’s probably when you felt you were an essential part of something bigger than yourself.

The why is important, but its not nearly as inspiring as the ‘who’. Who are we serving in the work we do?

Despite being a continent with a myriad of different languages and cultures, the European team united under a single banner. They left their egos at the door, embraced humility and reached the highest stage of teamsmanship.

Skills and abilities are vital, but Europe proved that emotional camaraderie does actually make a difference.

The intangibles matter.

Look at this image:

Now tell me which of these two teams is going to play better?


The result proved it.

At the Ryder Cup, Europe weren’t playing for themselves, or even their continent, they weren’t just playing for their team mates. They were also playing for those who had gone before and the culture they had left behind.

Winning was simply the byproduct.

People in our organisations are inspired by that same sense of pro-social motivation – the desire to protect and promote the well-being of others.

True fulfilment lies in meaningful work and inspiring leadership that acknowledges our individual significance.

The greatest revelation, however, isn't a lofty explanation of 'why,' but rather in guiding each person to discover 'who' they are serving in the pursuit of their purpose.

At the Ryder Cup, European Captain Luke Donald followed the path of his legendary predecessors and did exactly that.

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