How Extraordinary Golf Leads to Extraordinary Leadership

I had to give a talk recently at the Society for Information Management Regional Leadership Forum.  Someone asked me what I did in my spare time.  After wondering what the heck was spare time, I babbled some stuff — reading, Sudoku, golf.  Then the guy interrupted me and asked incredulously – you like to play golf? Well, the answer was absolutely NOT.  However, considering some have said that g.o.l.f. stands for gentlemen only ladies forbidden, a lady CIO in this town and in this industry needs to get some pink balls and a pink golf glove and stand on the red tees on behalf of information technology. Garry Gaukler, Linda Cureton, Gary Cox, Mark Hagerty 2007 NASA HQ Golf Event

So I was intrigued by the topic Making Today’s Dream Tomorrow’s Reality: What Golf Can Teach us About High Performance, Learning, and Enjoyment at the Goddard Space Flight Center Exploring Leadership Colloquium.   The talk was given by Fred Shoemaker, golf professional, coach and author of the book Extraordinary Golf. 

He started the lesson with a small group the day before.  He challenged us on our notion of what our goals were in the golf coaching session.  The responses were not surprising: stop my slice; correct my form; hit more solid shots; etc. However, his coaching focused on two things: being “present” on the course and knowing your target. 

Staying in the Present

In looking at the things that golfers are working on to improve their golf game, Shoemaker notes that on average, this takes up about 5% of the time that players spend in a round.  The other 95% of the time is spent walking or riding around to your next shot.  He discovered that the people who are most likely to improve are the people who have mastered that 95% time between the shots.  This is what he calls being present on the course.  Not living in the past of your historic performance … nor the future of wondering if you will look good … but the present of being committed and enjoying the game.

What is your target?

The second learning moment was understanding what our target is.  As we address the ball, is the target the ball? The plane on the backswing? Or that hole under the flag in the distance? He video tapes golfers with their normal swing. Then he removes the ball and has us release the club towards the target.  This was transformative.  Suddenly, everyone developed swings like the golf pros.  In just a few seconds, it was like the Golf Channel.  What a difference the right target made!

Fear, trust, and courage

In order to learn and grow in anything, it requires the willingness to explore and take risks and experience some amount of discomfort and confusion.  We label this discomfort fear and then start to narrow ourselves through the limitations that fear imposes. 

But the good thing about fear is that without it, we wouldn’t need courage.  Courage helps manage the fear, but trust keeps fear from recurring.  Developing trust in yourself, and in this specific example in your golf swing, gives us the ability to execute with confidence.

Are you committed?

We all have our purpose in playing golf … just as we have our purpose in life.  We confuse performance or the goals with purpose.  We are there to enjoy the game, not to execute the perfect drive.  Are we committed to looking good with the perfect drive? Or are we committed to enjoying an amazing sport?

We do this in the workplace as individuals, managers, and leaders.  Are we committed to the purpose of the project?  Have we lost sight of the organization’s target because we are overly focusing on performance? Now certainly performance is critical, but we don’t want a successful operation and a dead patient!

So in the putting exercise that Shoemaker had us do I learned something about golf and about myself.  As I addressed the ball, dressed smartly with a pink shirt, pink glove and a pink visor, I wasn’t thinking about the pink shoes that I forgot and left in the trunk, but I was thinking about the fact that for the first time, I focused on the ball as my target and was actually enjoying the sweet sound of a well-struck ball and the feeling of a good swing.

Linda Cureton, CIO NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

11 thoughts on “How Extraordinary Golf Leads to Extraordinary Leadership”

  1. Being an avid golfer I believe many of your points hold true. I think it is so because of the skills you learn and acquire from golf and other sports translates to other areas of your life.

    , Publishers

  2. This article rings true on so many levels. I have always believed that you they way a person behaves on the golf course will, the majority of the time, closely mirror how they behave in everyday life.

  3. Well i agree with this . It hold true as golf teaches u many things which can be implemented in real life .

  4. Have you designed follow up for this great outing?

    Events such as this are tremendous introductions. How do you plan to make sure knowledge and skills are transferred and reinforced on a daily basis?

  5. Great questions. I will ask the organizers of the leadership series and post a response back.

  6. This is an excellent post Linda. When it comes to hitting your target, too often, people will focus on any BUT the target. They will get caught up in all the little steps and agonize over trying to get everything right and perfect when all along, had they focused and kept their eye and intentions on where they wanted to be, getting there would have been much quicker and more efficient.

    I don't play golf but I had a similar experience with tennis years ago. My coach told me to do what Mr. Shoemaker had you do: Focus on the target and let go. In this case, it was my tennis racket. My accuracy jumped.

    You addressed how people focus on performance instead of the target, this is so true. I see many people do this at the gym. The point of working out was to get fit and muscular. What tends to happen instead however, is that they become fixated on how much they can lift and will sometimes feel pressured to outperform their friends when that wasn't even their target outcome to begin with. Anyway, thanks for this insightful and post.

  7. Re: How to make sure that knowledge and skills are transferred and reinforced:

    This effort was the brain-child of someone, who in my opinion, is one of Goddard’s rising stars, project managager Gerry Daelemans.

    I posed your question to him and got a very thoughtful response. Not only did he have the courage to suggest this event and follow through (pardon the golf pun), but he responded that he is willing to do whatever he can do personally to make sure that skill transfer happens within his sphere of influence.

    Transformation starts with people like Gerry. Encouraging people like him, and nurturing his willingness to help the organization improve in creative and unique ways is how we begin.


  8. Ah, the joys of Golf (or Gowf as we Scots originally called it)! Its rather heartening to hear that even geniuses such as yourselves at NASA struggle with the 'good walk spoilt' – the game is certainly a great leveller. If you really want to test yourselves (and someones leadership potential) then you should take a trip over to Scotland and play one of our amazing links courses. When the wind and rain are in full force it can test the resolve of even the strongest individual!

    Interesting post, ill try and track down Shoemakers book………..

    Thanks, Andy

  9. It has been said that how one behaves on the golf course is a 'window' into one's personality. I have conducted a number of 'business meetings' on the golf course, and it is very obvious that golfers who curse and swear at every bad shot they make are much less desirable business partners compared to those who behave themselves in a composed and polite manner.
    In the end it is not how well you play, it is how you present yourself amongst your peers. This is particularly important in a competitive environment, including the golf course.
    Frank from

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