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Posted by on Oct 4, 2010

In the Groove

If you are, or have tried to be a golfer (the joke is that the first 20 years are the hardest), then you already know a lot about performance.

The maddening aspect of golf, in all its unforgiveness, is the ball flight. It is perfect performance feedback, and because of the razor-sharp margins of error in the game, the ball often goes into the weeds instead of the hole.

So you would think given how many people get frustrated with their results, that whatever is needed to get from Hank the Hacker to Phil Mickelson would be steadily, methodically pursued.

Not so.

In fact, the research shows that golfers’ “handicap” – a measure of how good they are – has not changed substantially in many decades. Weekend golfers are standing still.

Before explaining why, let’s go to the driving range. That’s the place where wanna-be golfers can hit ball after ball. The big problem is that the way they’re hitting the ball is wrong. Swing after swing, they’re doing it wrong. One golfer once told another that his swing looked like a man changing out of a raincoat in a phone booth, while fighting off a snake.

It’s not usually that bad or obvious, but if you step back from the driving range and just watch the swings, it becomes immediately obvious that many golfers are either fighting snakes, warding off demons or otherwise executing very compromised swings. Some are humorous in their contortions (and I should talk). Swing after swing, the faults are repeated and then grooved. Bad practice becomes habit. But it’s known, repeatable and familiar.

For those of you who have tried to change a habit, you know how hard it is. For those of you who have tried to change a physical sequence – usually in a sport – you know how hard it is. You have to come out of a groove you’ve established. It literally requires rewiring of your brain, though doing something new, intentional and at least initially, awkward. You go backwards at first, and your performance suffers. You want to go back to old reliable, even if it got you in the weeds.

So let’s leave the driving range and talk leadership.

The fact is, the skills and competencies in leadership – things like listening, transparency, focus, communication skills – can be taught. The question is whether leaders want to go through the difficult, awkward process of learning them.

Unlike choosing to keep your elbow in on the backswing, or pronating the wrists through impact, the skills in leadership for most people involve even deeper internal change. They require upending fundamental assumptions about the self, others and the organization. For example, someone who has achieved some success largely through telling others what to do may find it hard to increase listening. Someone who is secretive may be threatened by the concept of disclosure or transparency. Someone who secretly wishes that everyone else were more like him or her may find it really hard to actually value differences.

Getting the concept is easy – you can read it in the in-flight magazine — but relating it to the self (current swing) is where it starts to get hard as fundamental beliefs, habits, worldviews and even values are called into question. But the hardest of all, if you buy the case for any particular change in you, is sustaining the day-to-day efforts to keep doing what you believe ultimately will work better. The familiar and comfortable are so tempting, particularly under stress, which our workplaces are dishing up with great intensity and frequency these days.

But each time to you execute the new swing, or engage in the changed behavior, you build a form of muscle memory as you begin the rewire your brain. At some point, the new program eclipses the old ways, and you groove a new, better swing or habit.

What groove are you in?

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