FORE! How Golf is Like Leadership

img_1495I’ve recently taken up golf. Apart from the short-lived, lackluster stint on my 9th grade golf team that I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve never really played, even though my dad is a lifelong golfer and I grew up to the sounds of golf on TV (I still don’t get the appeal of watching golf on TV– it’s so quiet) and old issues of Golf magazine lying around the house. It didn’t occur to me to play golf myself until I joined my new school district, which participates in an annual fundraising golf tournament that sounded like A LOT of fun, and which I missed last year since I was both a) brand new to the district and b) not a golfer. My goal was to take lessons and develop a basic skill set by the time of the tournament, held annually in early August. In order to meet this deadline, I enrolled in lessons at my local golf course, went to the driving range several times, played a round with my husband, and picked up some cute golf clothes (obviously an essential part of the experience)! I indeed participated in the tournament, joining a foursome with a colleague (Ali and I were the #teamtobeat) and her golf pro-like mother and sister. Let’s just say I need to put in a few more hours at the driving range. But that’s not the point of this post.

The point is that golf is a lot like leadership. As with any new activity, I’ve been mulling over the essential elements of golf and starting to realize how it presents many parallels with leadership, both educational and otherwise.

img_2148Coach Cory, the golf pro at my local course and instructor of my adult golf lessons, reminds us to think about “G.A.S.” when we’re working through our pre-shot routine. As an intellectual exercise, I’ve come up with what I think are some serviceable metaphors for leadership.

“G” is for “Grip”
The first step of setting up a shot is establishing your grip. If you start with a poor grip, nothing else that you do in your shot will make a difference. In school leadership, “grip” is establishing those fundamentals. You’ve got to make sure that you have the education, certification, and appropriate experience for the work you plan to do.

“A” is for “Aim”
The next step is aim. Once your grip is established, you’ve got to set your club face in the right direction and then, without losing your grip, align your body to the club. We can think about “aim” by determining in what direction we are going. This might be decided by the district, the school improvement team, and by your own goals for the school or department. Even if we have a strong foundation (“grip”), we’ll be ineffective without the right vision to guide us.

“S” is for “Setup”
The final step of a pre-shot routine is setup. This means positioning your body for a strong, successful swing. In our school leadership metaphor, “setup” is how you’ve established your building or department structures. Now that you’ve established your foundation (“grip”) and know your vision (“aim”), have you fostered a culture of trust, collaboration, and risk-taking among your staff? Are teachers willing to step up and work on committees, open their classrooms to others, and come to you with issues and questions? Do you encourage and support your staff in their professional growth? You can have the greatest potential for success by having a top-notch education, a wealth of experience, and an inspiring vision, but if you don’t set up your school or department structures to capitalize on those strengths, you are guaranteed to waste time spinning your wheels.

What follows are a few others golf/leadership metaphors:

When you’re taking the first shot at a hole, you tee up your ball. This helps elevate the ball so you have a better chance at a long, strong drive. As you progress through the fairway toward the green, you no longer have the option for a tee. In leadership, sometimes things are set up nicely for you, but usually you’ve got to work with what you’ve got and negotiate yourself out of the weeds, around the hazards, and back onto the fairway.

img_2008Short Game
People say that the short game, especially putting, is where golf is won or lost. You can have the longest, straightest drive, but if you don’t pay attention to your short game, you’ll never get it right. Coach Cory also says that no one goes to the putting green to practice– people just want to go to the driving range and whack the hell out of the ball with their driver. In schools, as I describe above, you can be a superstar leader with the greatest credentials and experience, but if you don’t pay attention to people, and invest time in your culture, you’ll never have true success. This takes time and patience, however– getting to know your staff, spending time with students in and out of the classroom, establishing a healthy and safe culture– it all takes time, and not everyone has the patience to master their “short game.”  The leaders in my career who have been the best (see my post “The Mentors”) have had a killer short game.

Nothing strikes fear into the heart of a golfer like a hole with strategically placed hazards. Water hazards, sand traps, trees– these can throw a wrench into what could have been an easy hole. Sometimes just the presence of a hazard can get into a golfer’s head and throw them off. Now, I don’t know if this is what an actual golfer would say, but it seems to me that the best way to confront a hazard is to stick to your basics, focus on the green, and swing nice and easy. As a school leader, hazards are many and are often unpredictable. An unruly staff member, confrontational parent, community crisis, new state mandate, all of these can be experienced in the course of a school year. In order be best prepared to handle these hazards, we must be aware that they might happen and then when they do, we stick to the basics, focus on our vision, and confront the issue in a calm and controlled manner.

In golf, you may have a few “one in a million” shots, but usually you’ve just got to progress down the fairway, putting in the work with consistent but shorter shots, sometimes hitting a wild slice off to the side, but then correcting your aim, keeping your head down, and getting back on track with the next swing. The school leadership metaphor here is basically the same. You will experience the occasional shining moment in the sun, but a lifetime of success only comes from a constant correcting, re-aligning yourself to vision, and putting in consistent effort.

Golf is more fun with friends. So is school leadership. Find your people, enjoy them, lean on them, and learn from one another.

If you’re lucky, you’ll have the opportunity to work with a great caddy. This metaphor might be a bit of a stretch, as I don’t ever anticipate getting to the level where I’ll actually have someone carry my clubs, but if you do, use them! Listen to their advice, treat them well, and allow them to help you carry your bag. As an administrator, you will be surrounded by people who can help you. These people might have official roles as “assistant principal/superintendent/etc.”, or they might be someone in your building on whom can rely and in whom you place trust. Let them help you, ask their advice, and support them in their own professional growth.

Everyone knows that walking is healthier and better exercise, but carts are so much fun and allow your game to progress faster. In professional leadership life, you will have many opportunities to take shortcuts and go the easy route. It’s generally a better idea to do the work, take a “slow and steady” approach, make sure to cross your t’s and dot your i’s, but sometimes it’s okay to have fun and take the fast track!

Tournaments, Foursomes, and Solo Play
Many structures exist in which you enjoy a round of golf. You can play in a serious tournament for cash, in a no-stakes scramble for charity, with friends for fun, or even alone. Same with leadership. Sometimes you’ll be interacting with others at a large conference, or with members of an Admin Team, as a building, with a small group of staff, or by yourself. It’s important to mix it up and learn how to get the most out of everything you do so that you can are constantly experiencing professional growth.

Golf Pro
Even the best golfers know that they can learn from even better, more experienced players. My dad, even though he’s played golf for fifty years, still watches “how to” golf videos and embraces a beginner’s mindset when it comes to learning new techniques. As leaders, it’s easy to think we’ve got it all figured out and that since we’ve risen to a certain organizational level, we don’t have anything to learn. On the contrary, leaders need coaches and mentors. There is always someone who knows more than us, and who can look at us objectively and point out our blind spots in a compassionate, yet specific way. These people should be sought out– no matter our job title.

Well, that’s about all the golf metaphors I can wring out at the moment. Have more? Leave a comment below!

In conclusion, I’ve loved learning about the game of golf and challenging myself with an activity that’s so different than anything else I do. Being outside, usually with friends, engaging in moderately physical activity, sometimes with a cold beverage, is a pretty great way to spend an afternoon. Like school leadership, you do what you can to prepare yourself by establishing a solid foundation of skills, practice when you can, keep the end in mind, enjoy the hard drives but don’t forget about the short game, appreciate the people who can help you and treat them well, and above all, have fun and enjoy the Game!

What if Chicken Little Started Knitting? by Nick Gehl

image1I am thrilled to introduce my first guest blogger! Nick Gehl is the Department Chair of Fine Arts at Evanston Township High School. Nick and I worked together many years ago and I am happy to say that we made the transition from “work friends” to “real friends” due to our shared enthusiasm for talking about worklife, leadership, and good BBQ.  I appreciate Nick because he is a thoughtful, analytical, creative thinker who is constantly challenging himself and others to learn, do, and be better.

Thank you, Nick!


My friend Chris is a teacher…and a runner…and married with children…and a cross country coach…and he works with an organization that supports at-risk youth…and he likes to knit, sometimes.  Chris clearly has a very full schedule and several facets that make up his life. Now each of these things don’t all happen at once and the commitments vary, however, he is actively involved in each to some capacity on at least a monthly basis.  When Chris and I go for long runs we typically go through each of these aspects of his life (because you can only talk about Netflix shows for so long) and he shares the various ups and downs. But I have noticed there is always at least one area that is currently successful and bringing him joy.  He has never expressed dissatisfaction with everything at once. Chris is someone I would hire to work in my department.

After working at four different schools, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a number of different people.  One of my observations has been how people handle themselves at work; Their values and expectations, how they respond to situations, challenges, change, conflict, etc.  And over time and with enough interactions, I could categorize the people into those I enjoy (or enjoyed) working with and those I don’t. To be more specific, I enjoy working with people who can have an honest conversation about a subject without going off the deep-end.  Someone who can collaborate well and who doesn’t overreact and go all Chicken Little on me. You know the people, you can’t even present them with an idea because they’ve already thought of the five reasons it won’t work or their expected reaction alone makes you not want to even share the idea.  Sharing feedback with them is equally unsuccessful and their ability to reflect poor.

When I think about the people I don’t enjoy working with and what I know about how they balance their work and life, they typically aren’t Chris.  They don’t have multiple facets of their life and typically only have one or two: a teacher/administrator at the school and perhaps a member of their family (spouse, dad, etc.)  And I get it, making time for anything else can be challenging. Both roles are extremely important and take a lot of time, energy, and emotion. But when something happens at work that is challenging Chris, he is stabilized by several other aspects of his identity that are going well.  He might have had a bad day at work, but a great session with his at-risk students and a strong running workout. His work-life balance allows him to maintain perspective, which helps him respond more productively and positively with adversity.

When our Chicken Little is presented with a challenging situation, they often respond negatively because much of their identity and self-worth is being threatened and they have little else to balance themselves out.  Their reactions can also have ripple effects on the larger organization and staff. For example, decisions can be influenced by their difficult behavior and not what’s best for students. Or the staff lost respect for a leader because of their negative reaction and behavior.  

Everything about American culture and education would lead us to discredit this perspective on work-life balance.  We’ve been taught that ‘first to arrive and last to leave’ is the definition of hard work and commitment. Education has told new teachers not to say “no” until they’re tenured.  And administrators are continuously putting the needs of the school ahead of the needs of themselves. But this work culture is leading to burn out, undesirable jobs and high turnover rates, and toxic work environments that don’t support anyone, including students.  Here are a few things we can do to support our staff and a better culture in the building:

  1.  We can model and support work-life balance for our staff.  Encourage staff to take time for themselves and be cognizant of adding events to the school calendar, evening/weekend email expectations, and summer responsibilities.  Continuously model that you are not a school-robot and you don’t expect them to be either. Share your stories and success from other aspects of your life and ask about theirs.
  2.  Hiring staff with an effective work-life philosophy can be critical to creating a collaborative culture.  What if we asked interview questions like, “Can you give examples of how you are successful outside of teaching?” or “How do you balance the physical and emotional demands of education in your life?”  We might be more likely to hire people who still care about education and will be more successful in the long run.
  3. Helping young educators learn coping and time-management strategies and shaping their perspective will lead to a more sustainable and high-performing career over time.  The candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long. Be direct with your new staff about the importance of work-life balance. Tell them to leave the building, to not respond to your email on Sunday morning, and set clear goals for their first few years.

Hopefully with more attention on work-life balance, we can continue to provide our students with a solid education and improve the cultures of school buildings.  If work-life balance and educator sustainability interest you, I’d encourage you to read Peak Performance by Steve Magness and Brad Stulberg and listen to Adam Grant’s “WorkLife” podcast episode, “When Work Takes Over Your Life.”