Five Lessons We Should All Glean from the Ryder Cup Kerfuffle

“The secret to change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” ~ Socrates

A drama has unfolded in the PGA of America, rivaling the post-campaign finger pointing we enjoyed after John McCain’s presidential run. Following the United States team’s humbling defeat – the third in a row at the biennial event – the US team press conference took an interesting turn, and became the seminal moment of the Ryder Cup for the PGA of America.

During the team Q&A, a member of the press asked a specific question about the difference between the US victory in 2008, and the three losses since.

Q. Anyone that was on the team at Valhalla, can you put your finger on what worked in 2008 and what hasn’t worked since?

Two players were qualified to answer, having been on both the 2008 and 2014 teams. Phil Mickelson fielded the question:

Much has been made of Phil’s comments, Tom’s response, and what should be the future of the Ryder Cup leadership. The upside of the Ryder Cup kerfuffle is that there are some life lessons we can all learn from it.

1) Sometimes, the perfect time and place to say something crucial is cleverly disguised as the worst time and place to say it.

There are times in life, when difficult things need to be said – in the available moment. It was underreported that Mickelson was answering a very direct question. By most, his comments were seen as extemporaneous thoughts, made in bad faith, and interpreted as a chance to publicly pillory Tom Watson (patently ignoring that Phil referenced the other two losses, as well). While few disagreed with Phil’s assessment, most agreed it was not the right time, and that he should have had the discussion privately. As though that would have done any good. Phil Mickelson took the opportunity to lead in a way that he intended not to indict past teams and captains, but to affect positive change for future ones.

2) There is something to be said for focusing on what works more than on what doesn’t.

On the night the PGA announced Watson’s “Captain’s Picks,” a theme emerged – Watson was seeking redemption for the epic meltdown at Medinah in 2012 (Of note, the Euros call it the Miracle at Medinah). Much was made of Watson’s comments to Ted Bishop, current President of the PGA of America, that he was tired of seeing the US lose. This began a push – even on social media, with the hash tag #RedeemTeam – to specifically “make up” for Medinah. For some, even Watson’s pick of Webb Simpson, over Billy Horschel or Chris Kirk, seemed like an attempt to do what he could to recreate that team, and make this year’s competition about redemption, rather than accomplishment in this moment.

While much can be learned from studying mistakes from the past, I contend that you don’t build models for success on simply overcoming deficiencies. You build models for success by maximizing your strengths. Ted Bishop and Tom Watson were so focused on how not to lose, like the US team had at Medinah, I’m not sure there was ever a clear vision of how to win at Gleneagles. This was illustrated no more poignantly than in the US press conference, when Watson responded to Mickelson’s comments, and said he had not so much as consulted Cracking the Code, the blueprint of the last victorious US Ryder Cup team, co-authored by the 2008 team captain Paul Azinger. Ironically, the European Team Captain, Paul McGinley, is quoted as saying he read it as soon as it was published, in preparation for his role.

3) Leaders create environments.

The most critical function the leader of a team serves is to create an environment that ensures freedom and maximum performance. After three grueling losses, the next Ryder Cup Captain will be tasked with giving the team two things: Permission to focus on winning, and the security of a plan to overcome adversity. An environment to deal with adversity was perhaps the greatest missing component for the 2014 team. It shut them down. Strong leaders use adversity to fuel the fire to win.

When you field a “temporary team” of some of the world’s finest players, they need to be led, not managed. You have to capitalize on what makes them excel, identify their strengths, and unleash those qualities in the construct of a team.

Tom Watson, and his vice captains, meticulously managed every detail of how the team would be structured, and fielded for competition. In short, he micromanaged, and it’s pretty clear that it was stifling. What Paul Azinger did, in the 2008 victory at Valhalla, was leadership, not management.

4) In all things, be humble in victory, and gracious in defeat.

As days passed following the defeat, details emerged that the team atmosphere was fraught with tension, negativity, and a lack of much meaningful communication between Watson and the team. Watson, to his credit, has issued a statement accepting full responsibility for what went wrong – both on and off the course.

Tom Watson was revered by many, including Ted Bishop, the architect of the 2014 grand plan. Bishop’s critical error was in placing far too much reverence on what he expected to be the making of Watson’s legacy, and his own. But, in the immediate aftermath, when things hadn’t gone well, what mattered most to him became apparent on Twitter. His first tweet – post defeat – was not of congratulations to the European Team, nor of gratitude to the US Team.

Victory has a thousand fathers and defeat is an orphan. @pgaofamerica @GCMorningDrive @MattAdamsFoL

— Ted Bishop (@tedbishop38pga) September 28, 2014

Stay classy, Ted.

5) Never confuse activity for progress

The PGA of America faces difficult choices, if they hope to return to dominance in the Ryder Cup. Those decisions need to made soon. Righting a ship takes more time and effort than setting one on the right course from the beginning. The PGA of America needs to make nothing in the process off limits, when it comes to analysis and change. Phil Mickelson capitalizing on this low moment was a gift to the PGA.

Their first choice will be who should lead the process of changing the US system, and it seems they have already decided on a course to “fix” the problem. Merely a week after the event ended, the PGA of America announced that an All-Star committee is being formed to solve the problems they have with the Ryder Cup. Make no mistake. This knee jerk move is Ted Bishop’s desperate attempt to salvage his legacy. He has a mere two full months left as President. Most organizational experts worth their salt would have given him little, if any, role in this process. And, what qualifications as organizational experts, do any of those named to the Who’s Who of Golf Task Force have to truly analyze the systemic issues that have led to crushing defeats?

This is activity, and they need for people to believe that it’s progress. This is about appearing, to press and sponsors (oh, there is a huge financial component at stake), that they are doing “something.” Truly defining the goal beyond “Dang it, we need to win one of these things real soon” couldn’t happen in a mere eight days. They needed a small group to do the analysis first – An organizational diagnostician, and a systems surgeon. But that’s not as splashy in the press as enlisting the All Stars of Golf to help. The PGA of America couldn’t resist the urge to do “something,” instead of the thing that is the first step toward actual progress.

They need to take a step back, and choose a leader with vision, whose only fear is what will happen if the sacred cows are left roaming free to graze the fairways.