How Leaders Can Improve their Self-Awareness on the Golf Course

In ancient times, supplicants travelled to the steps of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi to behold the maxim “know thyself.” Today we can learn all about it on the fairway.


The Olympics is over. After 112 years absence, golf was back as an Olympic sport. Some question whether it´s a sport at all — Mark Twain once said, “golf is a good walk spoiled” and Winston Churchill was equally disparaging about the game. That said, playing golf can help a leader build self-awareness.

Self-awareness is the ability to understand and express yourself fully and all great leaders have it. As the late Warren Bennis remarked in On Becoming a Leader, leaders “know who they are, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and how to fully deploy their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses. They also know what they want, why they want it, and… how to achieve their goals.” But you don´t have to go to the Library of Congress to learn about self-awareness, you can pick it up on the fairway. Here´s what golf can teach us about self-awareness and leadership.

1. Choice
Daniel Goleman, the bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence, uses the analogy of golf clubs when describing emotional intelligence and leadership. Using a putter to tee-off or a pitching wedge on the green will raise a few eyebrows because each club has a specific function; likewise, selecting the right attitude and approach to suit a situation or person is a critical part of being a self-aware leader.

2. Failure.
Oops… the ball´s gone into the bunker again and you´re hacking away at the sand and cussing. Sound familiar? All leaders make mistakes but as Mary Pickford eloquently remarks, “’failure is not the falling down, but the staying down.” Self-aware leaders have an inextinguishable optimism to overcome adversity and learn from mistakes.

3. Ability.
“Handicap” refers to a numerical representation of a golfer’s playing ability and serious golfers know their handicap and work to improve it; likewise, effective leaders know their strengths and limitations.

4. Confidence.
Golf is a Game of Confidence is the title of a popular book by Bob Rotella and Bob Cullen. Memorable leaders have a self-assuredness that comes about from knowing their inner abilities and qualities as well as understanding things that trigger negative reactions. This type of confidence cannot be feigned, it comes from that deep place of… yes… self-awareness.

5. Self-control.
You wouldn´t think golfers had much self-control if you Googled golfing tantrums and watched some of the big names in pro golfing cuss, snap their putters and toss their clubs into the lake; but emotional self-management is key to being a good golfer. Effective leaders learn to regulate their emotions through self-awareness. In the words of Aristotle, “Anyone can become angry, that is easy. But to be angry with the right person to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way — this is not easy.”

6. Vision.
Many top golfers such as Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods visualise shots in their mind before swinging the club. Having a strong vision, setting achievable goals and visualising success are internal techniques that effective leaders employ. Robert Fritz writing in The Path of Least Resistance says a vision can help you “organise your actions, focus your values, and clearly see what is relevant in current reality.” He likens it to a log on the top of a pile that drives the flame upwards.

7. Decisiveness.
You have to be decisive in golf. You are taught to keep your eye on the ball and swing with conviction. An ambivalent swing is bound to land you in the rough. Leaders also need to be decisive: to keep their eye on the ball, visualise success and act with a sense of purpose.

8. Downtime.
You can´t play golf at night (despite some companies offering a night golf experience with LED golf balls) and most games end in the clubhouse bar (or nineteenth hole) where rest and refreshment are part of the course. Effective leaders know the importance to their wellbeing and the tone they set across the organisation of switching off and resting.

Knowing what makes you tick is critical to being an effective leader; as Joe Jaworski, author of Synchronicity, puts it, “Before you can lead others… you have to discover yourself.” Leaders who lack basic self-awareness often find the business of leading an uphill struggle because they are out of touch with both themselves and the people around them. The good news is leaders can improve their self-awareness over time with some easy-to-learn techniques such as self-reflection, mindfulness, and soliciting feedback; just like playing golf, though, it takes a little practice.

by Ric Kelly PhD.