Retiring Tiger Woods from the Repertoire

Posted 12.07.2009

Tigerwoods2 Anyone who’s been to one of my presentations or group coaching programs over the past three years knows that I’ve been a big fan of Tiger Woods (readers of this blog know the same thing through posts like Think Like TigerWho’s Your Caddy?  and Tiger’s No Good, Horrible Very Bad Weekend). As a matter of fact, I’ve regularly illustrated two of the most popular leadership tools I’ve shared with my audiences and clients with examples inspired by Tiger. So, in addition to being one of many disappointed fans, the whole Tiger mess that started on Thanksgiving night is going to compel me to retire some really good stories from my repertoire.

As an example, one of the slides I’ve used a lot over the past few years is a picture of Tiger watching the flight of a monstrous drive with the question, “What Do You and Tiger Need to Have in Common?” as the headline. In asking my audience members for their top of mind response, I’d usually get some humorous answers like a “Swedish supermodel wife” or “corporate sponsors.”  We’d all have a good laugh at answers like that. After the events of the past couple of weeks, I don’t think I’d ever get the audience back if I asked that question. Honestly, can you imagine the answers I’d get if I asked it now?

The answer that I used to have in mind when I asked the question was a clear swing thought.  As most golfers know, a swing thought is the mental process you go through before you hit the golf ball.  It’s the visualization process that answers two questions:
1.    What’s the outcome I’m trying to create?
2.    How do I need to show up (or swing in the case of golf) to make that outcome likely?

My point has always been that those questions extend far beyond golf.  They’re good questions to get in the habit of asking oneself before starting anything that matters.  Good questions, but not ones that I’ll be explaining with Tiger Woods stories for awhile.

So, while acknowledging that the whole story for Tiger has yet to play out, I thought I’d share a few leadership lessons that I’ve thought about in relation to Tiger over  the past couple of weeks. (The premise here, much like my post a few months ago on the management of the Washington Redskins, is that you learn from examples of bad leadership as well as good. Just never thought I’d be writing one of those kinds of posts about Tiger.)

Swing Thoughts Actually Matter – If you break a swing thought down to answering the questions “What’s the outcome I’m trying to create?” and “How do I need to show up to make that outcome likely?”, it becomes pretty clear that Tiger hadn’t really thought things through in the macro sense. When you look at the time, effort and money he’s put into projecting himself as an outstanding athlete who does some pretty outstanding things off the course (e.g. education for kids), it’s really hard to square up with how he was showing up in his private life. It looks like there was a big disconnect between the answers to the outcome I’m trying to create and the how I need to show up questions for Tiger. Success in both the short and long runs depends on authentic alignment between those two questions.

Compartmentalization is a Questionable Strategy  – Golf geeks (or Tiger geeks like me) were fascinated to see Tiger lose a Sunday lead and the PGA championship to Y.E. Yang in August and puzzled as to why he never mounted a viable charge against Phil Mickelson to win the Tour Championship in late September. Sure, Tiger was the leading money winner on the Tour in 2009, but it’s not like him to lose when he’s in the lead or close to the lead in a big tournament.  In retrospect, I wonder a bit if his performance had anything to do with a very complicated personal life. Over the years I’ve seen a lot of leaders who think they can compartmentalize their work life from their personal life.  It’s not usually a successful long term strategy. You have one life. It has to be integrated across different domains to work.

Stage Management is Easier When There’s Nothing to Hide  – If there’s anything that the Tiger mess points out it’s that leaders are always on stage. It’s a lot easier to manage that dynamic when you don’t have a bunch of stuff to hide. One of the truths of the age of the multi-logue is you’re not going to be able to hide it indefinitely. The more visible you are, the more likely it is that the truth will come out.
Self-Improvement is a Life Long Process
– I mentioned earlier in this post that I had two Tiger Woods stories that I regularly used in my presentations. The second was a point about continuous improvement that was emphasized from this Tiger quote that came from a January 2008 article in Golf Digest.

"The greatest thing about tomorrow is, I will be better than I am today. And that's how I look at my life. I will be better as a golfer, I will be better as a person, I will be better as a father, I will be a better husband, I will be better as a friend. That's the beauty of tomorrow. There is no such thing as a setback. The lessons I learn today I will apply tomorrow, and I will be better."

That’s a pretty stunning quote in the current context, but it’s one that still makes sense for Tiger or anyone else that is serious about being better.

Redemption is Possible – Personal scandals involving leaders have been around since at least the time of King David and seem to be a dime a dozen these days.  Some of these folks are never heard from again and others go on to make important contributions. (Love him or hate him, Bill Clinton’s work through the Clinton Global Initiative is an example.)  Of course, when the scandal is a big one, it will always be a part of the leader’s life story no matter what he or she does later. Things can’t be the same as they were before,  but it’s worth the attempt at redemption. In his “comments on current events”  posted on his web site, Tiger wrote, “I will strive to be a better person and the husband and father that my family deserves.  For all of those who have supported me over the years, I offer my profound apology.”  If he meant what he said in his statement Tiger Woods could do a lot of good in the rest of his life. One thing that we all have in common with Tiger is that we’re human. We’re going to make mistakes. Some are small, some are big and some are whoppers. The questions are what do we learn from them and what do we next. I wish Tiger, and all of us who need redemption, well.