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What Golf Can Teach Us About Mindset & Leadership

Even the worlds best golfers have the occasional bad hit.

A seemingly secure advantage is surrendered and inexplicably the game plan begins to unravel. Talent, flair and discipline suddenly take a back seat and the champion becomes human again, misjudging the distance and landing in the bunker.

The question is "what happens next ?"

It is at this defining moment that the true athlete buckles down and proceeds to grind out the win. However, this isn't always the case. Occasionally we are witness to a meltdown, as a result of this break in concentration, this temporary loss of finesse.

What delineates these two potential outcomes? Mindset.

According to Carol Dweck, the Stanford psychologist who has spent several decades studying human behaviour ~specifically in relation to success and achievement ~ there are two distinct mindsets individuals may possess. A fixed mindset, in which the individual believes their basic qualities are fixed traits and a growth mindset, in which the individual believes their basic qualities can be developed through dedication and hard work. This isn't to say the golfer who had the meltdown hasn't worked hard to get where he/she is. However, once faced with adversity or failure, the break in concentration is likely due to a thought that has crept in, creating doubt in their own ability and/or their likelihood of winning. This thought could be anything from 'I never hit well out of the sand' to 'I always break under pressure', or potentially be a deep seated fear of failure. This thought is the product of a fixed mindset.

A growth mindset, on the other hand, embraces both challenge and adversity, recognising

them as opportunities for improvement. The thought pattern of an individual with a growth mindset in the same situation may look like this: 'Bugger, oh well, I can learn from this shot and apply what I know from previous experience' or 'this is where I come into my own, I thrive on these difficult hits'. Failure is not feared by those with a growth mindset, but merely as further opportunity to improve.

In golf, as in life, mindset fluctuates and varies from one activity to the next. The good news is that we have the ability to nurture and develop a growth mindset within ourselves and in others, the million dollar question is how?

How to Develop a Growth Mindset

1. Develop an awareness. Research has demonstrated that having an awareness and general understanding about the brain and its plasticity is the starting point for changing from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. We now know that the brain is like a muscle, when we use it, it gets stronger. The more effort we put into things, the stronger the connections between our brain cells/neurons become. Tiger Woods has experienced an overhaul on his swing 4 times in his career. He had to re-learn the mechanics (building new neural pathways) and step outside his comfort zone in order to progress; all in the pursuit of growth and continuous improvement. As leaders, we should encourage employees to try new things, challenge themselves and operate outside of their comfort zones. As organisations we should hire for potential and be confident that we can cultivate talent.

2. Be curious. When things go awry, rather than getting frustrated and holding onto the inner critic, we should ask ourselves why things went wrong and seek feedback. Developing ritual questions we ask ourselves in the face of failure is a good way to harness this curiosity. This is the very reason golfers analyse their swing through video over and over again and the reason they change coaches so often. They are in search of what aspect of their swing is going wrong when they mishit the ball and seek feedback on how to adjust accordingly.

When things go wrong, leadership expert Jim Collins found that leaders of successful organisations demonstrated curiosity and interest, attempting to understand what took place during the process and offer further support. As leaders, rather than focusing purely on success within the organisation, evidence suggests failure tolerant leaders routinely focus on increasing intellectual capital.

3. Be accountable. There are golfers on the tour who attribute blame to everything and everyone but themselves when things are less than perfect. Psychologists have even coined the phrase 'frustrated golfers syndrome'. Phil Mickelson is the classic example of this where blame is directed insidiously at course designers, other players and other variables as far fetched as 'curses'. Your motivation and your ability lie within your domain, you are responsible for both. Accepting this and taking responsibility for the process of continuous improvement is critical to developing a growth mindset. Sports writer Bill Rand says that Tiger Woods speaks constantly about his commitment to the process of his swing and candidly talks about his short comings.

As leaders, providing team members with autonomy, mastery and purpose (as Daniel Pink suggests) creates an environment of accountability.

4. Have a plan & put the effort in. In order to sustain any type of change/improvement, you need a plan. This is where rituals become essential and deliberate practice of the desired behaviour is inherent, ongoing and constantly refined. When golfers review the course layout, they make a plan and they practice the plan. They visualise the course, visualise their swing, their contact with the ball, their flawless execution. They then practice for each possible scenario of what might go wrong.

In an ideal world, leaders should not only present the strategy, but also put the honest effort in to get everyone on board. The plan should be constantly tweaked to adjust for shifting market dynamics. So often leaders get caught up in the end goal, thereby neglecting the journey, forgetting about the people and what really matters.

Change isn't easy, the good news is that it's possible. Understanding that whilst it's possible to develop a growth mindset, it will present challenges. It requires effort and the intangible quality Angela Duckworth calls GRIT. Be curious, be accountable and your passion and perseverance will pay dividends.


1 Dweck, Carol. Mindset: Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. Little Brown Book Group, 2012.

2 Collins, Jim. Good to Great. Harpers Collins Publishers, 2005.

3 Pink, Daniel. Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. Canongate Books, 2011.

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