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Whose Ball Are You Hitting? Which Team Are You On?

Vinny Boles

January 2015

28 SEPTEMBER 2014: Well, it happened again, earlier today, for the 10th time in the last 15: The European team defeated the USA in golf's Ryder Cup competition. For the uninitiated, the Ryder Cup is a biennial competition, alternating between locations in the USA and Europe, where 12 of each group's finest golfers gather to hoist the Ryder Cup in victory after three days of intense scrutiny and competition.

No sooner had the USA come up on the short end of the score (Europe's 16 ½ points to our 11 ½ points--ties earn ½ point for each team) than the recriminations began to hit the web: USA Coach Tom Watson erred in player selection and slating of his team as to who played when (or didn't play), he didn't have the personality to connect with his team of younger players (aka the age gap), Europe's Rose and Stenson shot 10 straight birdies, Europe's Graeme McDowell stormed back from four holes behind to defeat USA's Jordan Spieth—these are just the first drafts of the postmortem that will continue until 2016, when the golfing world again gathers at Minnesota's Hazeltine National Golf Course to renew the rivalry.

While listening to the broadcast, I came across a data point that while it may be one of many, I don't think is insignificant because I believe it holds a leadership lesson for teams far removed from the golfing enterprise.

Over the competition's three days, there are three formats over 28 matches. In fourball, each golfer (two from each side) plays his own ball for 18 holes. In singles, all 12 golfers go head to head with a golfer from the other side (mano a mano). And finally, in foursomes, teams of two golfers per side play against the other team by alternating their shots. For example, USA player #1 hits the drive off the tee, USA player #2 plays that ball wherever it lies for the next shot, and then USA player #1 hits the next shot. This pattern continues until the hole is completed and then goes on for 18 holes.

My observation and subsequent lesson comes from the foursome competition. In eight foursome matches, the USA gained only one point to Europe's seven. Europe's players played their ball, regardless of who hit it. The USA players seemed uncomfortable playing a ball they didn't own ("I didn't put it there"...or, "I wouldn't have put it there").

How often do you have to pick up for a teammate who may (or may not) have put the ball (aka the project, the memo, the action, the decision) exactly or even close to exactly where you would have liked it? How do you react? That weekend the European reaction 87.5% of the time (seven out of eight matches) was to play their partner's ball where and how they found it and get the victory.

Do you do that? Or do you wish you had another ball? Another partner? Another team? For the 2014 Ryder Cup, Europe's foursomes played their ball for their team. We didn't appear to get that message.

The good news is that unlike the Professional Golfer's Association (PGA) you don't have to wait two years for a trip to Hazeltine in Minnesota to act on the lesson.

True Growth Takeaway: Am I meeting my teammates where they are at and rolling up my sleeves to help, or am I wringing my hands that they are my teammates? 

True Growth Journaling Questions: What three actions would make me a better teammate?
Describe one positive thing that happened to you in the last 24 hours.

About the author: Vinny Boles is the President of Vincent E. Boles Inc., a Leadership and Logistics consulting practice in Huntsville, Alabama, founded in 2010 after completion of over 33 years of service to the Nation. He held leadership positions at every rank through Major General in the US Army to include five consecutive years of service as a Commanding General after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

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