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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Positive Leadership: Bouncing Back

As many of us prepare to watch The Open Championship, one of the leading contenders will be the US Open Champion Rory McIlroy.  McIlroy conquered the rest of the field in historic fashion just a few weeks ago at Congressional Country Club outside Washington D.C. His 8 shot victory was the largest at the US Open since Tiger Woods back in 2000. He also became the youngest winner of that event at 22 years old since Bobby Jones in 1923. We believe there are some critical leadership lessons we can learn from Rory.

What makes this victory even more impressive was that when we had last seen Rory McIlroy in a major before the US Open, he self-destructed during the final round of The Masters in Augusta, GA back in April. He started the final Sunday with a 4 shot lead and had one arm in the winner’s green jacket. However, some 5 hours later he carded a final round 80 and finished in a tie for 15th place.

Following the Masters many people in the media wondered if McIlroy would ever get his confidence back to compete at golf’s most elite level. Most people thought it would certainly take longer than the 2 months between the Masters and the US Open. However, McIlroy used the Masters as a learning experience and was able to achieve even higher performance at the US Open.

“Going back to Augusta this year, I felt like that was a great opportunity to get my first major. It didn’t quite work out,” McIlroy said. “But to come back straightaway at the U.S. Open and win, that is nice. You can always call yourself a major champion, and hopefully after this, I can call myself a multiple major champion.”

So what does this mean for us as leaders? McIlroy’s meltdown, unfortunately for him, happened to take place in front of millions of people on worldwide television.  However, the need to learn from mistakes and setbacks is no different for a professional athlete than it is for a business leader who mangles a presentation at a board meeting or mishandles a client relationship.  Thankfully our mistakes don’t get broadcast worldwide!  But we’ve all been there, particularly earlier in our careers, and well, later too.  Rory is an inspiring example we can learn from.

The key leadership lesson that comes across observing his progress is that a leader has to be able to think strategically about the future and build on the past. 

The past, for many of us as senior leaders, is filled with success stories but also lessons learned. It has been said that the “people who don’t learn from history are bound to repeat it”. Leaders who don’t learn from their mistakes are certainly asking to make those same mistakes again.

The higher performing leaders are the ones who are able to apply the following simple process to both positive and negative events in their career development:

1. What went well about the event? For McIlroy, he was able to have the experience of leading a major championship for three rounds even though he was not able to close it out. Every successful leader can look back on achievements that you would definitely want to have again, and the key is not to forget those successes even when debriefing a negative event. If you can cement those factors that went well, you will know what to do again. 

2. What can we improve upon? At the Masters, McIlroy definitely would say that he could improve upon how he played the final round. ”Going back to Augusta, the first three days I played aggressively. I played smartly but I played aggressively to my targets” said McIlroy. “And then on Sunday, I started to play defensively, and that’s when things can go wrong.” As a leader you should always take the time after a setback or frustration to reflect individually, have a discussion with those people involved and also talk to an individual or group of people you trust about what you could have done differently. Taking the time to reflect upon negative experiences while they are fresh in your mind is a valuable experience to go through in order to crystallise the necessary improvements.  

3. What will you do differently next time? For McIlroy, he needed to convince himself to stay in the moment and maintain his strategy during the final round of a major if it was working for the first three rounds. As he learned the hard way, the mistake he made at the Masters was to shift his strategy so that he was playing not to lose, rather than playing to win. As leaders, you need to prepare for the next time you are going to be in a similar situation and know how you will improve upon your performance when given the opportunity. While this process is certainly not rocket science, it offers a very helpful way to go for leaders to learn and debrief experiences, either positive or negative. Sports coaches will often say that it is easier to learn from a win, but that the learning is always more deeply felt after a loss. Therefore when we make mistakes – as we all do, especially if we are filling a new leadership role or trying to be innovative – then we need to learn from these mishaps so that don’t happen again.

Golf and life in general offer an endless supply of leadership lessons that we can learn from and apply to our business careers. For Rory McIlroy, he was able to build on his successful achievements, including leading the Masters for 63 holes out of the total 72, rather than getting pulled down by his one bad round. When he was faced with a similar situation two months later at the US Open, he led for the entire championship and closed the tournament strongly. Now heading into this week’s Open Championship, he is hoping to continue that streak for another 72 holes and claim the Claret Jug.

Part of today’s personal leadership is about resiliency.  The ability to bounce back after setbacks is more needed today than perhaps any time in our lifetimes.