The Ryder Cup
José María Olazábal on team leadership
Europe's 2012 Captain discusses six key components of leadership and teambuilding.
- Global mindset
“It’s too easy a cliché,” says José María Olazábal. Europe’s 2012 Ryder Cup Captain is talking about the use of national stereotypes to illustrate the diverse nature of the European team, made up, as it is, of players from several different countries. The media has a tendency to categorize players by country of origin: the hotheaded Southern Europeans; the cold, analytical Swedes; the reserved Brits; and the efficient Germans. The accompanying assumption – that the American team is a homogenous group, devoid of diversity – is equally flawed, according to Europe’s 2012 Captain.
However, national identity does play a role. “The Americans have the flag,” says Olazábal. “The Americans are very proud of the country they live in. Their flag means a lot to them. They are very intense when they have to defend their country or their image. And, in that regard, the Ryder Cup makes them fight really hard for it. And they are very proud of that.”
The European team, he says, cannot access patriotism as a motivational tool to the same extent. “That’s one card that we don’t have. But, on the other hand, I think we compensate with the desire to be as good as them and by emphasizing the positive role diversity plays in the make-up of our team.”
Today’s top players, he says, are citizens of the world, balancing their cultural heritage with a global mindset. José María Olazábal is a proud Basque, a Spanish citizen and a European. Each of these is an asset, he says. “I’ve always said that golf in general has been a great teacher, because I’ve been able to see different countries, different people and different cultures. You get to know how the mindset works in different countries and with different types of people.”
This ability to balance the global and the local helps him rise to the challenge of managing a team of diverse talents. “I think it helps me to be better prepared for whatever comes. You have a much wider idea of how things work, and how to approach certain situations. It’s been a great help.”
- Building a team, instilling confidence
The breakfast table has played an underacknowledged role in recent Ryder Cup history. A common reading of the success of Europe since 1985 has been that it has fostered a stronger team ethic than its American counterparts, who have been portrayed as a looser group of individuals. Many of the European players talk of the strong bonds within the team room. “It’s true that, in the past, we have had a better team spirit,” says José María Olazábal.
During his early experience of professional golf in America, he noted the difference in communal eating habits on the European and PGA Tours. “In the morning, it was not unusual to see American players eat breakfast at separate tables,” he says.
Europe’s captain thinks that the more intimate surroundings of the European Tour contribute to the collaborative atmosphere that is created when its players join together to form a Ryder Cup team.
However, it appears that the Americans are learning. “You see more players in the US squad having breakfast together, having lunch together, talking to each other and practising together. In that regard, there is not much difference nowadays.”
The idea that Europe had to draw on better teamwork to succeed in the Ryder Cup suggests that its players lacked the individual talent and quality of the US golfers. If there was an inferiority complex, perhaps Europe’s greatest ever captain did much to dismantle it.
Tony Jacklin led Europe to Ryder Cup success in 1985. Two years later, he took his team to America to defend the cup. They traveled on Concorde and were kitted out in cashmere. As Olazábal recalls: “The aim was to tell us that we were just as good as them. Today, the difference between the teams is not there in the same way. They are on the same level.”
This step change is borne out by the confidence shown by the next crop of young European golfers – players such as 23-year-old Rory McIlroy, already the winner of two Major championships on US soil.
- Pressure, performance and inclusiveness
José María Olazábal recalls his first experience of Ryder Cup golf, at Muirfield Village in 1987, as a lesson in leadership. “I was shaking like a leaf as I walked from the practice green to the first tee on the opening morning. The noise was deafening and the crowd lined the walkway on both sides. Seve [Ballesteros, his playing partner that morning] walked next to me and said something I’ve always remembered: ‘Just play your own game and be yourself. I’ll take care of everything else’.”
Olazábal uses this moment to illustrate the way leadership works in the high- pressure environment of elite sport. “It told me there is nothing wrong with being scared. In pressurized environments, it is not only natural, it’s a good thing because it makes your senses sharper.”
At critical moments such as these, he says, the leader’s role is to tell his team – and those less-experienced players in particular – to expect to feel fear: “This is all part of being an elite performer, part of life. It’s the right thing to feel, because if we didn’t have that fear, we wouldn’t get the best out of ourselves.”
Our aim as leaders, he says, is to help the players bring their best performance when under the greatest pressure, “when we are facing huge crowds and a great opponent. At those times we know that with our B-game we are not going to be successful.”
Olazábal has played under five captains and been vice-captain to two more – Nick Faldo in 2008 and Colin Montgomerie in 2010. He says he has taken something from each of these men. In particular, his memory of Bernard Gallacher’s captaincy (from 1991 to 1995) was his closeness to the players. Gallacher broke down traditional hierarchical barriers to include them in decision-making. “He talked a lot to the players regarding pairings. Do you feel comfortable with this guy? How was your game? He had a calmness, and he let it be known that it didn’t matter if things were going wrong, because he trusted us.”
For highly skilled professionals, the captain’s role is less to do with motivation, he says, and more related to allowing the players to express themselves fully. One route to helping this happen is to allow them to “make their own decisions in a supportive environment.”
- The changing role of the leader
The Ryder Cup captaincy is one of the most nuanced and ambiguous leadership challenges in world sport. The captain’s authority does not come from previous performance in a comparable role. He has no contractual authority over the players, nor is his position boosted by the status high office. Many of the players are his direct peers. They are a group of highly skilled, highly motivated professionals at the very peak of their careers. Faced with this scenario, the traditional management levers of command and control have little relevance.
“The role has changed a great deal,” says José María Olazábal, referencing the early days of the Ryder Cup. “At the very beginning, leadership was pretty much whatever the captain said was done. There was no interaction with the players. “Nowadays, you must have a better idea of how to approach certain individuals in the team and it helps to have a better interaction between the players.”
Olazábal cites an example of this idea in action, during The 2010 Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor, in which he served as a vice captain: “I looked at Ian Poulter just before he walked out of the locker room to go and play his singles match against Matt Kuchar. It was clear that no words from me were necessary. I could see in his eyes everything I needed to know.”
Far better, he says, to foster a supportive atmosphere, particularly in the sanctuary of the players’ room. “I’m not going to be on top of them on the golf course, because every player knows their game better than I do. I cannot go there and tell a player, ‘Well, you have to hit a high cut shot to that flag’. Maybe he feels more comfortable with a solid, straighter shot, aiming just a little bit right of target.”
To this freedom he will add a layer of consultation. “I’m going to talk to them and see how they are feeling, so that they can feel comfortable. I have found out from my own experience that when I joined a team, it was a big help if I could express myself – be myself – so the other players knew what my ideas were.”
- Balancing art and science
For the most part, golf is a lesson in failure. “We lose far, far more than we win,” says José María Olazábal. This, he suggests, helps put things into perspective. “If you win twice a season, that is a great year.”
Similarly, the pursuit of the perfect round is a folly that can lead to “paralysis by analysis.” “Jack Nicklaus used to tell reporters that he considered he’d played a good round if he’d hit four or five good shots,” says Olazábal. “I agree with him.”
He recalls the six iron he hit to the 16th green at Augusta in 1999 as the best shot he played in his 26-year professional career. It was the shot that killed off the challenge of Davis Love III (his opposing Ryder Cup captain this year) and helped secure his second green jacket as Masters’ champion. “It was played under the most intense pressure. When I hit it, I followed it in the air and saw it was a great shot. It was an enormously satisfying moment.”
Can such great shot-making be learned or is it down to talent? Golf, says Olazábal, has its scientists and its romantics. One issue in golf that has a direct application to business is the need to balance the use of data and science with other essential ingredients for success, such as creativity – which, by definition, are not so easy to quantify.
“They are two different worlds, it’s true, but I would love to see them living together,” says Olazábal. “We are losing part of one, the romantic part, the skill and the need for imagination. As players go looking for perfection, we have all kinds of gadgets, all kinds of information. We can see our swings in video from four or five different angles; we can follow the path of the club, see how much the club is open or closed on the back swing and at impact.
“All that information is creating great players with great swings. But, because of that, at the same time we are seeing less creative golf. We see more mechanical golfers, very accurate players, hitting fairways and greens in regulation.
"You see players rarely missing a shot. In the past, because of the materials, a lack of preparation and, if you want, a lack of knowledge, we used to spread the ball more, we used to end up in different situations, in the trees, in the huge rough, in the car parks. We are losing that.”
In today’s world, there is a proliferation of data. Leaders must take care to ensure that individuality and creativity have the space to flourish – and that decision-making is not dictated solely by data.
How does Olazábal see the balance? “It’s true that I would love to see a combination of the two. When you look at Rory McIlroy’s swing or Adam Scott’s, or any of the young guys who are coming on the Tour now, the club is on the perfect path, they have huge speed through the ball, they are able to hit the ball 300-plus yards straight down the middle. That is fantastic, obviously. But we’re losing the more eccentric, more individual swings of people such as Jim Furyk, Lee Trevino or Raymond Floyd, whose strength lay in their imagination and flair. We will see less and less of those swings in the future. If we can get those two elements together, that will be fantastic.”
- Channeling emotion
The Ryder Cup is one of the most emotionally charged events in sport. And José María Olazábal’s 1999 singles match against Justin Leonard was perhaps the event’s most notorious emotional flashpoint. As the match reached its decisive stage, the European player was waiting his turn to putt at the 17th. But when his opponent holed from 20 feet, America's players and supporters sprinted onto the green in premature celebration – disturbing Olazábal, who was next to play his shot. Olazábal was unable to make his putt and the US duly claimed victory. However, rather than forget such emotional tumult, Olazábal says it is important for players to accept it and to channel it positively.
“I’m a sentimental guy. When I get on the golf course I give my best, regardless of how things go. The cons of that approach are pretty obvious: if you let those emotions get the better of you, especially when things are not going your way, you might lose your temper and your concentration. But it’s a learning process. I used to be a little bit like that in my early days, but as time goes by, you learn from your mistakes.”
Channeling this emotional side to his character, he says, will be one of his greatest leadership challenges. This means using that emotion in a positive way, to convey his true character, rather than trying to suppress it.
“When everything is done and over, the players will know that I’ve always spoken from my heart. The guys know that. I mean every word I say in the players’ room. When I talk to them in person, I hope to be able to pass those emotions on to the players and somehow get the best out of them during that week. I want to get them inspired, motivated to give their best and to try as hard as they can.”
In an effective team, channeling emotion is a two-way process. It is crucial for leaders to listen to their team and encourage dissent. This way, the leader gets a broader perspective on issues, and team members feel empowered and confident that their opinions are valued.
Olazábal will use his experience as a player to ensure that he’s a listening captain: “I learned you have to be yourself. You have to disagree with certain decisions, just be open and make it clear to the captain in this case.”
The message to his players is clear: “I’m not going to deny anyone in the team the right to be open with his thoughts. If you disagree with something, just say it straightaway so that we can readdress the whole situation and try to find the best solution. Everyone has to be his own man and he has to speak his voice.”
And he thinks that speaking up makes players feel part of the team. If your teammates know about your views and opinions, “when you get onto the first tee, it makes you feel good about being there, being part of the team – and makes you bring your best so you can help the team.”