Reviewing golf lessons for business enterprises

At some point in the life of most golfers, it becomes apparent that the sport provides practical lessons to many other aspects of life, including the workplace. Indeed, many articles have been written about the comparisons that exist between the workings of golf and the workings of business. Most authors of these articles derive lessons from personal experiences on the course and in the boardroom. These lessons are often thought provoking and entertaining, but they generally make no attempt to correlate their conclusions with existing business research literature.

In this paper, we will provide the reader with four of the most common observations about what it takes to excel at the game as voiced by several of its finest players, both past and present. We will then relate these observations to the business enterprise by delving into the body of business-related research for the purpose of formulating and lending support to the golf-related business lessons we provide in this paper.


Cary Middlecoff, a top-ranking American professional golfer on the PGA Tour from 1947 to 1961, often lamented that there are a number of golfing types who, in his view, cost themselves strokes because the clubs and/or balls they use are not the ones best suited for their particular games. That view was shared by Mildred Didrikson Zaharias, one of the greatest woman golfers of all time, who expressed a belief that many beginners, and even some experienced players, defeat their efforts to play golf well by depending on unsuitable equipment.

From a practical standpoint, clubs and balls are the resources most necessary to successfully negotiating a golf course. In the workplace, there are a wide variety of resources available to the business professional. Nevertheless, ignoring the need to use them correctly can prove detrimental to organizational performance. And the need to deploy resources correctly applies to human resources.

In “Resources that drive performance,” a 2005 study by B. Fernandez, J. Mills, and M. Fleury, which was published by the International Journal of Productivity and Productivity Management, the authors explored the effects of a variety of indicators on internal process, customer satisfaction, sales, and expenses. The resources considered consisted of HR practices and competencies as well as environmental factors related to internal processes such as product availability. The authors determined that, while internal processes related to production had the greatest influence over organizational performance, employee satisfaction was significantly correlated with internal process, financial targets, and customer satisfaction. We know from many studies that the quality of the workplace environment has a profound effect on employee job satisfaction. Research indicates that investments in employee development and the opportunities for employees to actively utilize recently acquired knowledge, skills and abilities in the workplace is a substantial driver of satisfaction. Indeed, Fernandez, Mills and Fleury determined that employee competence alone presented no correlation with organizational performance. The authors correctly surmise that people can be competent, but if they are not managed appropriately and given an opportunity to fully contribute their time and talents towards meaningful work that advances the interests of the business, competence alone will not be converted into organizational performance.

In a 2009 study entitled “Information technology resources and business performance,” published in the Asia Pacific Management Review, T. Pham and E. Jordon explored the relationship between tech resources and business performance. The authors employed financial, operational, and stakeholder measures to determine overall organizational performance. Not surprisingly, these authors found that both IT human resources (a construct consisting of two factors: personnel skills related to business technology, managerial and interpersonal skills; and, company specific knowledge related to IT) and IT infrastructure significantly affect business performance. In fact, IT human resources had the greatest effect on business performance. The authors suggest that organizations with highly competent IT people may be able to promote and achieve a significant competitive advantage via performance differentiation. They advise managers to focus first on the quality of their IT people assets, then on the quality of their IT infrastructure.



Tommy Armour and Jack Nicklaus, who are considered by many to be the most influential players in the history of the game of golf, both pushed the importance of self-assessment. Armour observed that every golfer scores better when he learns his own capabilities. Nicklaus warned about pride, noting nobody should ever think they are too good to learn a lesson.

Clearly, such thoughts are readily appreciated by those of us who play golf, but what is the relevance to the business executive intent on maximizing organizational performance and profitability? Simple: Too many executives fail to understand that capabilities can always be improved, which is why it is important for everyone involved in the game of business to perpetually seek out help to improve performance.

In “Influence of leadership competency and organizational culture on responsiveness and performance of firms,” a 2009 study published in the International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management, S. Asree, M. Zain, and M. Razalli investigated service firms to understand whether or not leadership and organizational culture would affect responsiveness to customers and ultimately firm performance. In the study, leadership competency consisted of the following factors: self-management, strategic positioning, implementation, critical thinking, communication, interpersonal skills, industry knowledge, and developing and motivating others.

The authors’ findings indicate that leadership competency and organizational culture did indeed have positive associations with organizational responsiveness. Additionally, this responsiveness was shown to have a positive relationship on revenue generation. These findings imply that leadership competency and organizational culture are important factors in responsiveness to customers, and in turn, this responsiveness significantly improved revenue generation.

In a 2013 review of management literature related to organizational performance, K. Sparl, A. Znidarsic, H. Kasper, J. Muhlbacher and J. Kovac echo this point. They posit that current trends in management development tend to overemphasize individual learning while often ignoring the connection between individual behaviour and organizational performance. In fact, during the course of their work, they found a very limited number of articles that explored the relationship between management competencies and performance.

After pursuing their own study, they were unsuccessful in identifying the management competencies most critical to organizational success. However, they did determine that five classes of competencies (analytical and solution-oriented behaviours; self-organization; social interaction; leadership, motivation and personnel development; and, extraordinary personal traits) were all estimated as quite high influencers on performance. Of these, leadership, motivation and personnel development competency were found to be the most significant performance influencer in times of organizational crisis.

Finally, in “The quick wins Paradox,” a 2009 Harvard Business Review study involving employees who self-disclosed that they were new to management, M. Van Buren and T. Safferstone determined that many inexperienced managers attempt to prove themselves by going after quick wins. Unfortunately, these same managers often encountered problems that impeded their ability to benefit from their achievements. Those who were struggling tended to exhibit five specific behaviours which inhibited their success: they focused too much on details; they reacted negatively to criticism; they intimidated others; they jumped to conclusions, and they micromanaged direct reports. Conversely, managers who thrived in new situations were found to be success-oriented with excellent change management skills. These managers communicated a clear vision, developed positive relationships and developed their work teams.

The authors advise that, in the process of preparing new leaders, it is important not to overemphasize product knowledge and technical skills. Furthermore, it is vitally important to impart change management skills that will assist these managers to more successfully integrate into their teams and lead those teams more effectively.



A rather humorous quip found in the golfing archives involves a player who tried three straight times to hit over an inlet of water between him and the green. Each time the ball splashes into the drink. In utter frustration the golfer says, “Caddie, take my clubs. I’m going to jump into the water and drown myself.” The caddie replies, “I doubt that, sir. You couldn’t keep your head down long enough to drown.”

This joke draws its humor from the disastrous results that almost always come from poor swing execution. Indeed, according to the Golf Academy of America, the most common and perhaps most serious mistake among amateur golfers is their tendency to pull their eyes off of the ball during their swing. As the saying goes, “you have to see it to hit it.”

In our review of business research literature, it is readily apparent that such advice is completely applicable to the business enterprise. During any implementation, you must focus your attention and efforts on quality execution. This is particularly true during the pursuit of mergers and acquisitions, which can be a perilous endeavor for any business.

In “The effective management of mergers,” a 2003 paper published in the Leadership & Organization Development Journal, H. Nguyen and B. Kleiner suggest that mergers are most likely to fail during the integration phase of their execution. This failure is most often due to improper management and strategy, cultural differences, delays in communication and lack of vision.

The authors go on to discuss eight principles that have shown to substantially increase the likelihood of success during this phase of execution. These principles are as follows:

  1. Get out of the boardroom;
  2. Set direction for the business;
  3. Understand the emotional and political issues;
  4. Maximize involvement;
  5. Focus on communication;
  6. Provide clarity around roles and decision authority;
  7. Focus on customers; and,
  8. Be flexible.

These principles are critical to effective execution and it is the role of the senior executive to drive this effort.

Furthermore, in “Understanding mergers and acquisitions (M&As) from a program management perspective,” published in 2009 by the International Journal of Managing Projects in Business, K. Nogeste noted senior executives are expected to play significant roles in merger and acquisition efforts, but found that these roles are not often clearly defined, limiting the potential of senior executive contributions.

Nogeste suggests that senior executives of acquiring and merging organizations view their roles in terms of the following activities and focus their efforts accordingly:

  1. Lead the initiative from the point of closure forward;
  2. Articulate clear vision, values, goals and strategies for integration;
  3. Shape a strong performance culture;
  4. Advocate for the interests of external stakeholders;
  5. Make decisions involving capital expenditures;
  6. Take action when encountering an impasse; and,
  7. Be visible.



Bobby Jones considered golf a humbling pursuit, but still thought too many players were unaware of their weaknesses and failed to understand the consequences of reckless actions. Bruce Crampton, meanwhile, saw the game as a compromise between a person’s ego, experience and nerves.

Arrogance should also be kept in check in the workplace. After all, the complexities of business are also humbling to anyone with a clear head. And that is why there needs to be a real commitment to organizational improvement and continuous learning (for managers and staff).

In “CEO attitudes and motivations,” published by the Quality Management Journal in 2012, M. Larson, J. Latham, C. Appleby and C. Harshman found transformational leadership practiced by executives of organizations that have received a Baldrige Award (which is presented by the President of the United States to organizations judged to be outstanding in seven key areas of performance excellence). The authors found these CEOs to be team-oriented and less likely to view themselves as having sole responsibility for performance. They created open environments, where all levels of staff were free to challenge processes and formulate new approaches to running the organization.

These findings are consistent with those offered by P. Lacy, J. Arnott, and E. Lowitt in “The challenge of integrating sustainability into talent and organization strategies,” published by Corporate Governance in 2009. The authors conducted in-depth interviews with executives from five Fortune 1000 companies considered market leaders in the area of sustainability. They concluded that high-performing companies use five levers to achieve high value business results while pursuing sustainability strategies. The levers identified by the authors are: organization change, leadership development, employee learning, performance management, and employee engagement.

The authors conclude that organizations must invest in employees at all levels and encourage the acquisition of the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to successfully achieve their sustainability initiatives, generate fresh ideas and make a positive contribution to their organizations.

Not every golfer is committed to accepting advice on how to improve performance, even when it is offered by pros. But anyone who has ever played the game knows that it is fairly easy to understand something is wrong when you hit out-of-bounds or miss easy putts. When it comes to business, however, it is often much harder to recognize the need for advice, which is why it pays to always seek to improve your game. Like golfers who recognize the performance-enhancing benefits that stem from following the tips noted above, executives can improve their business game by simply recognizing the importance of remaining open to learning from others on and off the golf course.

About the Author

Floyd F. Quinn currently serves as a lecturer, researcher and consultant for Texas State University.

About the Author

Professor of marketing and Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs at Texas State University. She is the recipient of awards for excellence in both teaching and research and has served….
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