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Seve: Leadership lessons from the Spanish Golf Icon

Caroline, my wife and biggest supporter/harshest critic, reckons it sounds like a joke: “Did you hear the one about the South African who walked into a room in Kenya and told them the story about how a Spanish golfer went to play golf in America?” Yes, it does sound peculiar. Why would I tell a story about a golfer that has been deceased for over a decade, and hasn’t been largely relevant as a news story since the late 90s? And why on earth would I tell it to a room full of Kenyans from mostly Indian heritage, who by and large don’t play golf and might only have a passing acquaintance with said golfer. I told Caroline: “I’m doing it anyway. I believe that the story is as relevant today as it was then. If not more so.” You see, the golfer was Severiano Ballesteros. He was a tempestuous, passionate, irritable matador of the game, and in his reign as a leading figure on the world stage, he irrevocably changed golf’s global landscape. Watching a recent documentary on the man, I was struck by how his story ties into my current round of Entrepreneurial Leadership training, and specifically to the issue of Accountability, Mentorship, Higher Purpose, Values and Big Hairy Audacious Goals. Let me take you on this ride.

Seve Leadership Lesson #1: Mentorship. The Spaniard, part of a poor but tight golfing family, plied his trade hitting golf balls as a kid on the beach in Cantabria, Northern Spain. He grew up in an era dominated by Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, American Legends of the game. But he was drawn to Gary Player, the outsider from South Africa. Player stood alone as a man who could go to the US, beat the best, and amass a collection of 9 major titles over three decades. In 1978, Player had his last great hurrah. He won the US Masters for the third time, coming from behind on the last 9 holes with a magnificent 30 strokers. His playing partner that day was a young Seve Ballesteros, and they were kindred spirits from different generations. They were fighters. Outsiders. And men who would come to the US and take on the best of the world on their own turf. That day, Seve said: “Gary. Today you show me how to win the Masters.” Two years later, Seve would win the US Masters in grand style, the first European to do so in the history of the game. And their friendship would endure a lifetime. Find a role model. Copy their attributes. Learn all you can from them, then forge your own path. And, when the time is right, pay it forward.

Seve Leadership Lesson #2: You are the average of the five people you surround yourself with. After Seve’s 1980 Masters Win, the floodgates opened. He would win it again in 1983, and over the next two decades, 50% of titles would be won by Europeans. Lyle, Langer, Faldo, Woosnam, Olazabal. Legends in their own right, inspired by Seve’s example, they would dominate the game. It was unprecedented. Next on the agenda was the Ryder Cup, the bi-annual contest between Europe and the US, where it had been a one-way street for decades. The Europeans were outclassed and hadn’t won in over 40 years. Then came Seve, and the 1980s edition of European excellence. From nowhere, they lifted each other to a new level of the game, and were unbeaten over three tournaments from 1985-1989. Seve was the kingpin – but the other great champions around him lifted him, and his game, to even greater heights.

Seve Leadership Lesson #3: You can accomplish almost anything in life as long as you don’t mind who gets the credit. It’s a funny thing, this one. Because Seve loved the attention. He was very much at home in the spotlight, on the big stage. He soaked up and loved the adulation of the masses. And yet, when his game left him in the mid 90’s, and he could no longer compete, he was still chosen for the team. In 1995, as Captains Pick, and in 1997, as non-playing Captain. The reason? Well, Seve was the consummate team man. He wanted to win above all other things. The goal was to beat the Americans, not for him to look good. His commitment to the cause and to the other players was palpable. Even when he played badly, or couldn’t play at all – he channeled his energy, commitment and passion into supporting and inspiring the others around him. They won both tournaments. Wouldn’t life be grand, if our leaders were always more concerned with the welfare of their teammates, and the cause, instead of their own reputation? Seve showed us the way.

Seve Leadership Lesson #4: Culture is what you do when no-one is looking. Contrast Seve’s Ryder Cup Record with that of Tiger Woods, the other outsider who changed the game. Seve’s playing record in Ryder Cups reads Won 3, halved 1, lost 4. That’s 50%. Tiger’s reads: Won 1, lost 7. And he was the best player in the world- by a country mile- for most of those. But it’s a team game. You only have to look at Jose Maria Olazabal, Seve’s playing partner in Ryder Cups, to understand the impact on the culture and values of the European team. Seve passed away from a brain tumor in 2011. In 2012, under Olazabal’s captaincy, the team dedicated themselves to playing for the memory of their erstwhile teammate. A team steeped in the culture that he endangered and the values he held sacrosanct, emerged triumphant, against all odds. The Miracle at Medinah will go down in the record books as the greatest comeback victory of all time. A culture had been established in the team that transcended the Spanish master, and his fighting spirit was now part of the DNA of the Europeans.

Seve Leadership Lesson #5: Be obsessive about values. Culture – and values – will change, corrupt, and die. If not constantly reinforced. Values need to be talked about, they need to be visible, they need to alive in an organization. Long after Seve had stopped being a significant force in the game, his culture and values persisted. The leadership of the dominant Ryder Cup teams of the 2000s would keep on tapping the memory and influence of Seve to inspire the team. After he passed, Jose Maria put his image on the kit, the golf bags, and made sure that his legacy was a constant reminder throughout the week. The apex of 2012 was in the changeroom on Saturday evening, where they were facing the most daunting challenge of their lives. This was the moment Jose Maria inspired the team to go out and leave nothing on the table. Quoting Braveheart and channeling Seve, he said: “All men die. But not all men truly live. I want you to go out there tomorrow, and live as if it’s your last day.” The rest is history. PG

 

Book a call if you want me to come deliver the inspiring story of Seve to your team in a keynote entitled: Seve: Champion. Leader. Legend.


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