Leadership can be a thankless job


Somebody hand Derek Sprague a Kevlar vest.

The next president of the PGA of America should be properly equipped for the changing nature of leadership.

Actually, check that, he should be prepared for the changing nature of followership.

You want to lead in the game today? You better be a black belt in spiritual Aikido, or some higher form of self-defense. We’re seeing leadership more aggressively challenged than ever before. With social media giving more voices to criticism and discontent, with players and fans more emboldened to speak their minds than ever before, leadership has never been more difficult, or more vital.

Welcome to the foxhole that is sports governance, Mr. Sprague, keep your head down for incoming criticism and cover your ears. The noise can be deafening.   

And, oh yeah, Mr. Sprague, remember that golf holds itself to a higher standard as “the gentleman’s game.” You have to be better than Roger Goodell. As the leader of a sports organization, you have to be more agile than an NFL commissioner. You have to be prepared for issues that would not register in other sports becoming a crisis in your sport.  

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We saw how dramatically the rules are changing just last month, when Phil Mickelson turned a post-Ryder Cup news conference into a post-mortem, shattering all the old rules of decorum by publicly challenging the leadership style of his American captain, Tom Watson. The notion that discontent is better delivered on a public stage than within locker-room walls is becoming par for the course in and out of golf.

With Twitter, Facebook, with public commentary at the bottom of web-based stories, every action and every word you utter, Mr. Sprague, will be sliced open and examined in autopsy-like fashion, a process that turns so many ideas into corpses.

Ten years ago, your predecessor would still have his job. There was no Twitter, and Facebook was only a few months old. Dinner companions and close colleagues would likely have been the only ones to hear his disparagement of Ian Poulter as a "squealing little girl." If the ex-PGA president was lucky, a friend would have pointed out the troubling way his depiction of Poulter undermines the work of his membership on the front lines.

If you look around the game today, Mr. Sprague, you will see some highly skilled leaders in golf, but the threat of crisis is a constant companion, poised to break out when some weakness or flaw is revealed.

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem is a marvel, a master of the measured word and a genius at navigating safe passages through mine fields, but he isn’t exempt from scrutiny. Vijay Singh’s lawsuit, his challenge of the PGA Tour’s drug-testing policy, looms as a threat to blow up into a P.R. crisis at any moment. If it does, the commissioner may need that Kevlar vest.

R&A executive director Peter Dawson has skillfully juggled political hot potatoes for 15 years, but he narrowly avoids a blistering assessment of his reign when he retires next year, thanks to the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews’ recent vote to end its exclusionary all-male membership policy.

USGA executive director Mike Davis is an articulate, master strategist on and off the course, but a private internal political struggle for control of the governing body, and a public stance in the banning of anchored strokes have tested his leadership agility.

LPGA commissioner Mike Whan is showing a golden touch, rebuilding and strengthening his tour while garnering the trust of players and sponsors alike, but defense of his women always comes with backlash from certain old-guard sensibilities.

Just under a year into the job, PGA CEO Pete Bevacqua didn't have to wait long for the sternest test of his career.  

In today’s golf circles, a green jacket may be even better protection than a Kevlar one.

More than any other leader, Augusta National chairman Billy Payne is able to take stances with less fear of reprisal than any other leader. The walls of the club seem impenetrable to outside pressure, much less social media pressure. The outside demands on the club to admit women as members didn’t force Payne’s hand, though his fingerprints were clearly all over the ultimate decision to admit women. The club just waited until it was good and ready.

With scrutiny and challenges building on golf’s leadership in uncomfortable ways, there has to be temptation for leaders to say less publicly, to button up the Kevlar vest and keep their heads down. There’s a strategy in politics that says the fewer strong stands a candidate for office can make, the better off he or she will be. Fewer voters are alienated that way. But that isn’t leadership.

The more scrutiny grows, the more unchecked criticism becomes and the noisier challenges grow, the more the game needs smart, strong voices to cut through it all. You may have to be smarter than ever to lead today, and you certainly have to be braver.

It probably isn’t as much fun to be in a leadership position in the game now, but it’s never been more important.