6 lessons on leadership from the Ryder Cup

If you follow golf you will know that the European team have just retained the Ryder Cup with a convincing win over their American counterparts. There was a fantastic show of leadership dos and don'ts – something all entrepreneurs, managers and founders should take away from the event.

Golf is usually a very individual sport but once every two years the best players from Europe and the US come together to compete against each other in a team format. It makes for an interesting case study as these players are used to playing against each other rather than as part of a team. As a result the approaches of the two “captains” (usually ex-golfers who are more like football managers really) come under close scrutiny.

The aftermath of the tournament has seen huge praise heaped on the European captain Paul McGinley whist the American captain, Tom Watson, an altogether more celebrated golfer in his day, has come in for some stinging criticism – even from his own players.

So what made McGinley such a good leader? I give my own view below in the form of three key behaviours that I think are highly relevant to anyone running an organisation where much depends on getting the best out of your team.

Really get to know your team. Knowing what makes each member of your team tick was critical for Captain McGinley. He made sure he knew how his players liked to prepare to play. He knew which ones could handle multiple rounds of golf in succession and which ones preferred rest time to be at their best. He got to know what made each of them tick and thought about how he could accommodate their preferences within the team environment. He kept this engagement going throughout the tournament so he could adjust to any changes in circumstance.

Because of this attention each player felt valued. and they also felt like they owed it to the captain to make a positive contribution given his efforts. This seems obvious but most organisational leaders feel too busy or too over-whelmed by the constant nagging of their to-do list to spend time really engaging and listening to staff. This certainly rings true for public services when one considers the case of the Mid-Staffordshire Hospital Trust and the emphasis on staff engagement that has followed (including the recent Chris Ham report). Staff are a hugely important source of information for leaders who are struggling to make important decisions.

Empower and trust your team. This was critical. One of the key variables for both Ryder cup captains was how the rookies (those playing in the Ryder cup for the first time) responded to the pressure cooker environment. Captain McGinley identified this early and months before the tournament he paired his rookies up with more experienced members of the team who spent time with them in the leading up to the tournament and acted as their mentor. They then played as a pair in the tournament itself. This delegation not only helped the rookies but gave the senior players involved real purpose and a role in the team that was bigger than just their own performance. 

No leader or manager can possibly do it all themselves. Giving members of your team responsibility outside their normal remit not only eases the pressure on the leader but gives a real sense of purpose to those who are empowered.

Attention to detail creates the right environment. leaving no stone unturned in your efforts to create an environment where your team can (and indeed strive to) perform at their best. McGinley had thought of everything from the inspirational imagery and quotes which were on the wall in the team room to what sort of beds the players usually slept in - he had thought about it and had it covered. The British Cycling team are very open about how this approach leads to small “marginal gains”, which when added up make the difference between success and a disappointing time for all.

Too many leaders rely on their natural ability to “wing it” – leaving everything to the last minute and even allowing themselves a congratulatory pat on the back when they get something done in the nick of time. This is not a good approach (or example to set) if you are hoping to get the best out of your team. Really successful leaders plan meticulously. When things work out others might think its luck - but they know that their own attention to detail had already tilted the odds in their favour.

Needless to say, very few people (and certainly not me!) master all of this. But watching the great performance of the European team at the weekend has made me think about how we can try and embed these behaviours in our own organisation and in the organisations we support.