I have to admit that I didn’t really care who Tiger Woods was until lately. Sure, I was aware he was an iconic sports celebrity, but for me, golf’s television appeal is right up there with watching action films on knitting.
So I was as surprised as anyone when I read recently about Tiger’s self-imposed reinvention. Yes, I’m a little behind the times on this stuff—but at least enough time has passed to put his bold move in perspective. When he won the PGA Championship in 2007 he was at the top of his game, largely due to a swing that analysts said was near-perfect. Right about then he decided to reinvent that same golf swing. Flash forward to today: his instinct served him well: he is a record-breaking machine, the face of modern golf, and one of the world’s highest paid athletes.
No, I haven’t turned my blog into a sports column. What inspired me about Tiger’s voluntary transformation was that he chose to do it when most of us would be resting on our laurels and thinking of creative ways to spend all our winnings. I suddenly realized how Tiger was not an overblown celebrity, but actually a master of learning in action. Tiger’s attitude at that moment in his career set a new standard for every one of us high-achieving types. I translate it to this axiom: lasting success demands the relentless ability to learn.
What does it take to be at your peak and still choose to learn, grow, and challenge old habits? It’s uncommon, to be sure, but that’s one of the very natures of leadership. Frankly, it’s much easier to go with the unexamined flow of life, to simply accept and exploit your existing talents and coast as far as they’ll take you.
Sometimes that “coasting” is just what the doctor ordered—we can’t always be reinventing or we would never get to enjoy the fruits of our inventions. Plus it’s simply egotistical to think that all progress rests on our own efforts—sometimes we must ease up to let others do their part toward collaborative progress. But the leader gene won’t allow us to coast for long.
Athletes do repetitive drills to prepare for competition. Musicians rehearse before a concert. Surgeons (thankfully) engage in dry-runs prior to the actual heart operation. In all of these enterprises, learning is designed into the job of achieving ever-higher levels of strength, precision, and performance.
Oddly enough, the role of leadership is typically jam-packed with soaring expectations yet empty of learning strategies to help get there. All too often as leaders we demote learning on our priority lists—it will happen “when I have time.” For me, that’s the equivalent of a death sentence to sustainable high performance.
Think about it: as leaders did we really think we could stop learning our trades, our crafts, the art and science of what we do? Did we really think the world was going to stand still, the competition was going to step aside, and we could coast to some imaginary finish line?
I for one am willing to step up and say it’s high time to reinvent my own skills. I’m curious: are you ready to say the same? If so, here’s a start: What strengths could you be using with greater impact? How might you uncover the blindspots in your leadership style? What new habits or skills do you need to learn to move toward your grander goals? It takes courage (read: guts, nerve, chutzpah) to ask these kinds of questions like Tiger did: at the top of your game, rather than waiting till you go stale.
Our world and our organizations need leaders to be consummate learners today more than ever. Of course, it’s not only about making a positive difference “out there;” learning brings about positive change in our own day-to-day lives.
While I still think golf on TV is like watching paint dry, I do appreciate the lesson of Tiger’s transformation. Here’s hoping you find similar opportunities for learning and transformation in your own life as a leader.
Photo by Keith Allison