21. Fighting the Fescue

Imagine that you are Rory McIlroy, a national treasure. A hero to your hometown, your home country. Crowds cheer your name before you make your first swing of the day. You acknowledge your fans and set in to perform your assigned tasks. The last time you played this course you were masterful. Better than masterful, you set the course record. Your chest is swollen to three times its size with the pride in your abilities. You are on the first tee of Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland and you just hooked your opening tee shot out of bounds then slashed the next one into hip high gorse dashing your chances of winning The Open Championship and crushing the hopes of a nation who waited half a century for this moment. It sounds like a Greek tragedy you learned in high school.

Welcome to Swimming in the Flood; a podcast where develop the resilient leader’s mindset by navigating difficult currents in business. My name is Trent Theroux.

Hubris is the Greek sin of pride and one of the most tragic flaws of a hero or heroine. In the Odyssey, Odysseus’ hubris and arrogance towards the gods causes him to encounter trouble after trouble in a 10-year journey home of the battle of Troy. Narcissus is so prideful of his beauty that he sits staring at his reflection until he starves to death. Achilles is so prideful in his immortality, yet an arrow to the heel kills him.

How does hubris affect resilient leaders? There are numerous examples of hubris amongst CEOs. A University of Missouri study showed that, “Overconfident CEOs, feel that they have superior decision-making abilities and are more capable than their peers. Unfortunately, they tend to make decisions about mergers or acquisitions that can be viewed as risky. For example, CEOs who are over-confident tend to target companies that do not focus on their core line of business. Generally speaking, according to the study, mergers that diversify companies don’t work.”

The study also found that CEOs who are over confident often use cash to purchase or merge with other businesses. They do this because they believe their stock is undervalued. The CEOs are not paying attention to how the market views their stock, they believe that their personal judgement is more valuable. These CEOs are betting millions, nay billions of dollars on these judgements. Some of that may be your 401k or pension money their gambling with. These CEOs are in their current position because they’d proven their worth over the years. Has something changed in them? Are their successes of the past clouding their vision of the future?

Quick show of hands how many of you committed your own sin of hubris? An act of pride based on your newly acquired resilient leader’s skills? Made a decision because you made the same decision a thousand times before? My magic mirror shows me that more and more of you Greek sinners are starting to raise your hands.

Hubris is an ironic sin. Most of us don’t know when we are guilty of it. Most of us don’t know that we are staring at our reflection until we starve to death.

I am now going to give you my unscientific, non-peer reviewed, resilient leader theory on hubris. Are you ready? Got your pencils out? Here it is: Trust your caddy. You heard it. Trust your caddy. This theory has been recently endorsed by one Northern Ireland golfer with a big swing and impish good looks.

The theory is simple. Here’s how it works. Last week I was competing in a golf tournament in Scotland on a wind ravished course named Gullane #2. I was in the middle of the pack but recently started making a move up the leaderboard. I made three pars in a row when I stepped up to the tee a faced a wind strong enough to make my gums flap. An axiom of golf is when it’s breezy swing easy. Unfortunately, this was one of the longest holes on the course and the wind would only make it two times longer. I needed to pound out a solid drive to give me a chance at keeping my par streak alive. As you can expect, I swung too hard and hooked it into the fescue on the right. I’m not talking the cute little wispy fescue. I’m talking the chest high stuff. The kind of fescue you’d find Sandy Duncan making Wheat Thins commercials from.

My caddie, Caleb, and I searched for the ball. The competitors in my group and their caddies helped to no avail. We couldn’t find the ball. The rules of our tournament varied from normal golf rules. If a ball was lost in the fescue we were allowed to drop where we thought it was lost with only a one stroke penalty. I dropped my ball into the fescue and asked Caleb for the yardage. He replied, 225 to the flag.

Caleb handed me my A-wedge, which is a club I would hit typically 100-110 yards, less than half the distance to the flag. I was already hitting my third shot. I needed to put this on the green or very close to have a chance to make par. I commanded my 3-wood. “Mate, you don’t want to do that.” That was the sage advice from Caleb. You don’t want to do that. I did the math in my head. If I used the A-wedge, I would be – at best – a hundred and a quarter to the flag and at best lose one shot to par, maybe two at best. No, I needed to get to the green now. It was the start of the back nine on the final day. I needed to go for the green.

Caleb dutifully handed me the 3-wood and stepped back. For those of you who don’t play golf or have never hit out of this type of heather imagine playing golf with glasses that are not the correct prescription – got it – okay now rub some Vaseline over the lenses. That’s what it looks like trying to hit a ball in thick fescue. You don’t know how high the ball is sitting off the ground. Is it flat to the ground or is it three inches off. Plus, the fescue has a nasty habit of trying to grab your club as it moves through, like thousands of Lilliputians strapping down Gulliver.

I took a clean rip at the ball and made contact with only the fescue. The ball moved – straight down – as I swung under the ball. I screamed – I screamed words that golfers shouldn’t scream and I glared at Caleb. His look was melancholy. The only feature I noticed was his right arm holding out my A-wedge. He was holding it the entire time I set up with the 3-wood knowing that I would need to use it. I took my A-wedge and punched the ball back into the fairway. Made a triple bogey and effectively ended my chances of winning the tournament.

Why didn’t I listen to Caleb when he instructed me to use the wedge? Was I a better golfer than Caleb (the answer I found out was no). Did I know the course better? No, Did I know what happens to almost everyone who tries to swing a wood out of thick fescue? NO! There was one person who did, my caddie.

So, why didn’t I listen to my caddy? Hubris. Hubris. I had more belief in myself than belief in the expert’s opinion. I will tell you that this is common in leaders. There is a reason people rise to the top – they have a belief, a true conviction that they know what to do in each situation. And, many times they are right. In fact, most times they are right. But, there are those situations when we, as resilient leaders, need to accept that we are not the smartest person in the room. Not even average in many cases.

We need to accept that there are people with more wisdom and experience that can help us navigate. We need to listen to our caddies.

A close friend of mine has a more direct way of saying this. Sgt. Harry Callahan, I know him as Dirty Harry and he thinks this way about my hubris.

A man’s got to know his limitations – Amen Dirty Harry – a man’s got to know his limitations before he gets his head blown clean off. Caleb, hand me the wedge.

Folks, thank you for listening to Swimming in the Flood. Resilient leaders face challenging currents and it is tough navigating, but with one tack or another we can get there together. You can find more podcasts and videos on my website at www.trenttheroux.com. If you enjoyed today’s show, please tell a friend, share the link on your social network…subscribe. I spent some time last week training college professors in resilient leadership. It was just a few ideas on how to better manage their workloads. If your organization could use some outside assistance, Just write to me at info@trenttheroux.com. Send me a quick message if you have an idea that needs to be looked at through a resilient leader lens. Thanks again for listening. I look forward to getting together next week.