Golf, Clubs & Leadership

This morning, while I was exercising, recently retired Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis was interviewed on TV promoting his new book on leadership, Call Sign Chaos, Learning to Lead.  What an interesting guy and straight shooter!  Whatever one’s politics, it’s abundantly clear that General Mattis understands leadership, has great leadership skills and knows how and when to implement them.  I’m intrigued to read the book.

One (among many) things he said really struck me as it relates to the leadership at many private clubs, both member-owned and investor-owned.  He said that the most important element of leadership is trust.  My father used to tell me that anyone is only as good as their word.  It was good advice.  Having been a member of a club that suffered from a lack of trust in leadership, limited (if any) transparency and ultimately failed and closed, I’ve observed first hand what poor leadership can do to clubs, both as a member and as a consultant.

One of General Mattis’ (and co-author Bing West) first lessons is also the first step defined in the appraisal process that we follow each time we are retained to provide an opinion of value for a club:

  • Define the problem

Unfortunately, one thing I often see at clubs is solutions developed for problems that don’t exist, let alone aren’t defined.  This is not unique to a few clubs.  Even when a problem does exist, at many clubs spend limited effort actually defining the problem and lots of time (often too late) implementing a solution.  Much like our government in Washington, the democracy under which most clubs work can be dysfunctional, often to the point of failure.

The politics of club boards are sometimes dominated by the most popular/richest/best golfers at any given club or maybe simply the only members who will take the job.  Often, this depends on the state of the club and its financial health.  Regardless of which groups board members come from, they all donate substantial amounts of time and effort to the club and typically develop a strong affinity for the club that can create an over-sized level of importance of the club in their lives.  Accordingly, some board members become quite passionate about the club and many boards begin to “micro-manage” to the point where the club’s professionals (GM, Golf Pro and Superintendent) are precluded from making decisions and are often directed to implement policies of some leaders that may not be in the best interests of the club, despite all the best intentions of enthusiastic board members who seek to make their club one they can show off with pride.

Other characteristics General Mattis discussed that I see at many clubs are the boards’ stifling of creativity, either from staff or members’ suggestions.  Strong leaders encourage creativity and independent thinking.  The same “I’m right and you’re wrong” mentality that exists in our political discourse permeates many clubs to the point of decline.  Ideas that don’t originate from club leadership can be shoved “under the rug”, often with no good reason.

Few, if any club leaders are professionals in the golf or club industries.  There are consultants providing a wide variety of advisory services ranging from facilities planning and design, golf course architecture and operations to market and economic analysis and membership development.  While many are quality professionals, unfortunately some of these firms accept assignments beyond their expertise and it’s not uncommon to see design people making recommendations for facilities enhancements free of any in-depth market or financial analysis to support those projects.  I completely agree with the concept that clubs need to continue to improve over time.  Dated and worn facilities that become neglected are a recipe for failure.  However, plans for capital improvements not only have to differentiate between capital improvements and deferred maintenance but also have to look beyond the physical boundaries of the club to the competing market, peer clubs and the financial impact on cost, revenues and membership.

Club leadership is a thankless job.  Few of us are willing to take on the responsibility and time commitment that goes with it.  A level of appreciation should be afforded those that are willing.  Conversely, club leadership is not club ownership.  It’s voluntary and those who join boards chose to do so and carry with them a responsibility to do their homework and do what’s best for the long term interest of the club, even if it may not be their personal preference.  As General Mattis says, leadership includes cooperation, collaboration and compromise.  These three elements, practiced regularly will promote a positive environment, help the club be successful and add to its value, both to membership and the market value of the asset.