Club Leadership & Governance – What’s the Right Model?

Yesterday, I was thinking about the various models of club governance and leadership that exist and considering the challenges of each. Then, as if on cue my Google Alerts this morning contained an article from Golfweek by Jay Blasi promoting the Autocratic model of club governance. Commonly referred to as “benevolent dictators”, this model is employed at several prominent golf clubs, although not usually at country clubs. As Blasi suggests, the one man committee for everything provides for efficiencies not often found in the more typical club democracies. However, it’s not without challenges.

I’ve observed both success and failure at clubs with a variety of governance models. There are numerous variables.

The most common model is the board and committee run club. While democratic, it’s often inefficient and the wheels of progress turn slowly. Combined with the tendency for participation that either lasts too long or is to short to achieve stability this model requires not only constant attention and communication but also the willingness of those best qualified and willing to forego their personal agendas to serve. The size of boards and committees is also a factor. Those that are too small become defacto dictatorships while those that have too many members languish in a sea of rhetoric and an inability to achieve progress and respond in a timely manner to challenges.

One key element is transparency, as I wrote a few months back. While many members, often busy and successful folks who join a club to relax, seek to avoid the responsibilities of running the club, they want to be informed and updated. Regardless of the model this doesn’t always occur. The key to avoiding distress is happy members.

Happy members can depend largely on the culture of a club. At some clubs, the focus is on quality (conditions, facilities, food, etc.) with price being secondary. At other clubs, value (sometimes mistaken for price) is primary and members might be satisfied with a bit more restricted access as long as the cost is competitive. Often there’s conflict between the two and that’s when the long-term best interests of the club must prevail.

Each and every club has its strengths and weaknesses Not every course can be molded into a “Top 100” candidate. Not every club is located in an area willing to financially support the finest of everything. Conversely, those clubs that have historically competed at the top level and have lost a bit of swagger need to determine if they upgrade or reposition on a price-sensitive basis.

Whether autocratic, democratic or even if the club is investor-owned, each and every club needs to understand its present and future market and club leadership and governance needs to be able to respond to that club’s culture, facilities and market. In some cases – and depending on the individuals involved – either model can work. That said, by my observation the most effective club leaders (in any model) are those individuals who have the time to devote, the willingness (but not always the over-enthusiastic desire), and commitment to set aside their personal agendas.

As Blasi says in his article, the best characteristics of a golf club benevolent dictator are:

  • Puts the best interest of the course (or club) above all else.
  • Has strong understanding of the course and club history.
  • Has strong understanding of golf design, traveling to see other top courses.
  • Invests time in learning about the technical aspects of courses such as agronomy, drainage and more.
  • Is a good communicator with listening, writing and speaking skills.
  • Is thick-skinned and can handle other members’ criticism.
  • Is willing to invest a great deal of time and energy with no compensation.

I would add to these the following that I consider to be even more important, whether for “dictators” or leaders/board members:

  • Personal Integrity and high moral character;
  • Credibility;
  • The willingness to let professionals (GM, supt., Club Pro, etc.) do their job and have the authority to make decisions;
  • Transparency

Clubs encounter trouble when there are conflicts of interest. When the club president’s insurance firm gets all the club’s business, membership decisions are based on personal agendas and rules are developed simply to exercise control and aren’t applied uniformly, members become disenfranchised. There’s no “one size fits all” and different clubs would benefit from different governance and leadership models. Develop the one that’s right for your club and select the right people. It’s not about the richest guy, the best golfer or simply the guy that’s been there the longest. Skill set and integrity rule the road. Those who covet the job(s) the most are likely NOT the right people for the job.