Caddy for Life – Lessons of Leadership

One of my favorite sports authors is John Feinstein who has penned several books delving into the psychology of sports teams or individuals. “A Good Walk Spoiled,” Forever’s Team,” and “Season on the Brink” are just three excellent reads of his. Another one is called “Caddy for Life – The Bruce Edwards Story” and focuses on the wonderful relationship between a caddy and his employer. Edwards died from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), but while he lived he was the successful caddy to two of the greatest golfers of all time – Tom Watson and Greg Norman.  I highly recommend this read as it speaks of how the two sides of the golfer/ caddy relationship can define success or failure.

For those of you who follow golf, Greg Norman may have been one of the most talented golfers ever to play the game. Yet, that did not always translate into success on the highest stage, which is the major tournaments. He did win two British Opens, yet he is more known for his “almost” major wins, than anything else. Mind you, he did win a countless tournaments over the years, yet when the pressure was the greatest, sometimes his internal demons would be too insurmountable. I would add Norman has also gone onto much success in wines and apparel parlaying his nickname and brand “The Great White Shark” due to his go for broke style, blond locks and Australian heritage.

Tom Watson also was one of the more talented golfers, yet he did have the success on the most pressure-filled stages winning 5 British Opens, 2 Masters and 1 US Open. In fact, he almost won another British Open late in his 50’s a little over two years ago, which says an awful lot. Many have said he was one of the most prolific and consistent ball strikers, but what made him win was his magic with the putter. Yet, he also had a demon and that is one of alcoholism, which has an impact on your ability to putt. This is important to the story. When he stopped making putts and achieving less success, he encouraged Edwards to go caddy for Norman so he could make more money. Professional caddies get a percentage of the player’s winnings.

Yet, my purpose for raising this issue is more about the leaders rather than the caddy. Edwards was very good at his job and knew how to encourage and club (give the correct yardage and suggest a club) the golfer. Golf is one of the most transparent of sports professions. Your results are obvious to all, so it is very hard to hide from failure or not let others see your success. The fragility of the ego is crucial and Edwards was quite good at the psychology of the caddy role. However, that can only go so far.

Watson was the ultimate golfer to work with. Per Edwards, Watson would ask for his input, talk it over and digest the advice. There are so many variables – where should the ball land, what trajectory should it have, what is the distance, what are the wind conditions, what kind of lie is the ball in and what other obstacles present themselves. Also, how is the golfer hitting the ball that day? Those five inches between the ears are the most vital distance on the course. Yet, Watson said once he had the input from Edwards, it was his decision to hit the shot. So, at that point it was his success or failure. This is of vital importance as will be noted later. He solicited and got the advice he needed, but then he made his decision and lived with the consequences. It should be noted that Watson’s demeanor was even-tempered, which facilitated this thought process.

Norman, for all his talents, was wound a little tighter than Watson. He would do the same things as Watson soliciting and getting input from Edwards. Yet, when a poor shot was hit or he felt Edwards had talked him into a club selection, he would lay some blame on the caddy. When Norman was on there were few better. Yet, he could unravel when things went awry. There are numerous famous stories about how close he came to the greatest of golfing glory. Many of those stories were how snake-bit he was when his opponents chipped in from off the green to beat him. Yet, he put himself in those positions by not sealing the deal earlier. His most famous collapse was when he lost a six shot lead on the final day of the Masters, one of the most painful days of watching golf I have ever witnessed.

Norman is the most human and gracious of people. I think that is one of the reasons people hold him in esteem. Yet, as an employer, he did not routinely demonstrate it is very important to solicit and get input, but once you have that input, it is your decision. It is not ironic, that Watson’s demeanor was more suitable for winning on the most pressure filled stages. Golf at that level has a lot of subtlety and complexity. If we translate this to other business or governmental leadership decisions, it shows that leaders need to get all the input they can from reputable sources. They need to find those Bruce Edwards who will offer their advice.

Why is this important? If people feel they will be blamed for offering advice, human nature tells us what will happen – they will stop giving their opinion. Thinking back on a merger discussion where I was a more junior person in a room with twenty leaders of this one company who was debating on whether to increase their offer price on Round Two of the bidding, the CEO was asking for advice, yet no one would go out on a limb and say we should buy this company and offer what it takes. The CEO was begging for this, but the history showed that people had been fired for mistakes at this company. So, no one staked a position.

One of the more telling things I have ever read about our President was said by Warren Buffett who employs many leaders at the firms he buys. He said President Obama is the best editor of information he has ever seen. He solicits and gleans everyone’s opinion in meetings and then makes the decision. I believe Governor Romney does that in his business dealings and likely did that in his work as governor. Yet, I get the impression he did not get that from his campaign advisors. I think they were offering information based on unsound data and advice on what they perceived the real world thought of the GOP platform. I think he was getting biased input from people within the Republican Bubble (as Bill Maher has coined) and he firmly believed he was going to win and was truly amazed when he did not.

Eventually, Norman and Edwards parted ways. Edwards found his way back to Watson on the Senior Tour where they both had success. I say both as Edwards represents what a leader wants and needs – a competent advisor who has a keen way of analyzing data and offering his opinion. He worked best with an employer who totally respected that talent and gave his advice due credence. Yet, the leader made the call. To illustrate one final point, when people say anyone could have made the final decision to get Osama Bin Laden, the answer is no. Obama gleaned all of the input from his generals and advisors, remembered history and overruled their recommended tactics to get him. He said we need to show the American people we got Bin Laden and he sent two helicopters rather than one.

Great leaders need input. Great leaders need people who feel empowered to give input. Great leaders recognize that they need advisors who know what they are talking about and are armed with information. Great leaders make it easier for this to happen. They make it easier for the Bruce Edwards of the world to offer their input without repercussions. I have witnessed countless times when leaders have not done these things and ended up with poor decisions. They do not need “yes-men” or “yes-women.” They need to find the Bruce Edwards of both genders and ask what they think. We will all be better for it.