Transformation is where you find it

By Mike Cook
Contributing Writer 

“Golf is not just an exercise; it’s an adventure, a romance… a Shakespearean play in which disaster and comedy are intertwined.” -Harold Segall, American humorist. 

How many times have you heard a story about an employee being laid off, or maybe their job was eliminated, and their file reflected nothing but satisfactory ratings—and they were crushed to find that all along they had been considered a marginal performer?

Or you have witnessed an employee underperforming or just plain not getting the job done and you passed up the opportunity for a corrective or coaching conversation and waited until the annual review to bring it up, or had that happen to you?

It seems like everyone I know has one of those stories either as the doer or the done-to. Mostly the experience leaves you feeling: Yuck!

This weekend I had a transformational experience with immediate feedback. It occurred on the golf course. Golf is undoubtedly one of the most demanding sports ever imagined. It can also serve as a metaphor for life.

Since I was a boy of 10, I have played and enjoyed the game of golf. I have always been attracted to the demands of the game and learned a lot about myself in the process, some of which I have also forgotten then abruptly been reminded of.

Golf will do that. It has a habit of continuing to provide the opportunity to learn a lesson over and over and will do so until you pass the test and then—it will test you again.

Good managers are like this to.

Six weeks ago, I decided to join the local golf club, something I had always wanted to do, but moving as I have around the country every several years I never felt sufficiently rooted in one place to want to make this type of commitment. Now I do, and I am beginning to learn lessons I did not know were still unlearned.

Saturday and Sunday there was a tournament at the club I have newly joined, and I thought it would be a great way to get to meet some of the members, so I decided to play. In this tournament we were engaged in “stroke play”, which as I was roughly reminded, is “golf as it was originally intended” with all the rules and boundaries in full force.

Everything counts. No “gimmes,” no mulligans, no do-overs or moving the ball to improve your lie. If you get it wrong you get a bad outcome right before your very eyes and the consequences are also immediate as your score is kept after each hole by a playing partner.

I played the game this way when I was in my 20s: tough, edgy and always with integrity. Over time, golf has become more social for me as sport, so much so that I have dropped much of the rigor required by the game and its rules, lulling myself into thinking I was a pretty fair, if casual player.

Based on my scores this weekend, I demonstrated convincingly that I am not a pretty fair golfer and for sure there is not much of anything “pretty” about my game. My goal of meeting some of the members was accomplished. I found that they were more than happy to inform me when I needed to add a penalty stroke or make sure to putt those “six inchers” instead of picking them up. Ouch!

I learned a lot about myself in a process that was by any measure humbling, yet only personal to the extent that I allowed it to be. In other words: appropriately compassionate.

The weekend was tough, yet there was something strangely enlivening and invigorating about being held to account immediately and without bias. The putt either went in the hole or it didn’t. The ball was either in bounds or out, lost or found. With this feedback freshly in mind, this is a week for corrective action.

Some time at the practice range is probably a good use of time.

Mostly, I learned that golf without the rigor of the rules is not really golf, it is not bad it just isn’t golf. Work without immediate objective feedback is not worthy of an employee’s life either.

Management developer Mike Cook lives in Anacortes, Wash. His columns appear on every other Tuesday. He also publishes a weekly blog at

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