On Par with Leadership

Play the ball as it lies . . . and you will be remembered as an effective leader.

Stefan Kostas

Hardwick Fellow

University of Tennessee College of Law

“Golf is the closest game to the game we call life. You get bad breaks from good shots; you get good breaks from bad shots – but you have to play the ball as it lies.” [1]

Recently, I came across this quote by the late Bobby Jones ­­­– former golfer and lawyer. Because I just started playing golf, this quote resonated with me. I know all too well the frustrations of bad breaks and rounds, yet I always keep coming back after the priceless feeling of one good break that lands smack dab in the middle of the fairway. As the rules of golf require, however, you must play the ball as it lies no matter whether it is sitting in the bunker or three feet from the pin. In comparison to life, Jones contends that us as individuals often have no control over our circumstances or predicting the future challenges we may face. Rather, we are subject to the “game” of life and, just as we must play our ball from its given location, we must take on every situation just as it is. 

The notion of playing the ball as it lies also relates in meaningful ways to leadership and, in particular, leadership styles. Daniel Goleman, a Harvard psychology professor, did an expansive study on four thousand leaders worldwide to discover whether specific styles existed for effective leadership and what patterns emerged. As a result, Goleman concluded that “effective leaders do not rely on only one leadership style; they use most of them in a given week—seamlessly and in different measure—depending on the [situation].” Further, Goleman’s research identified and summarized the following six styles of leadership:

Coercive leaders demand immediate compliance.

Authoritative leaders mobilize people toward a vision. 

Affiliative leaders create emotional bonds and harmony. 

Democratic leaders build consensus through participation.

Pacesetting leaders expect excellence and self-direction.

Coaching leaders develop people for the future. [2]

Each style allows the leader to shepherd their team in different ways yet maintains a consistent expectation of achieving the same end result. Goleman’s study, thus, gives insight into the versatility that a lawyer-leader can employ in the evolving practice of law. 

In the legal field, many challenges arise for effective leadership. Deborah Rhode points to increases in competition, complexity, scale, and pace as some of the most significant disruptors for lawyers in leadership positions. For example, Rhode suggests that high competition can lead to low-trust environments in law firms, and, alternatively, competition in the public and nonprofit sectors for support and resources can pose debilitating difficulties. Further, “over the last half century, the size of the fifty largest law firms has increased more than ten times and the staff of the most prominent public-interest legal organizations has more than doubled.” [3] These expansions in the legal industry have the capacity to significantly complicate the role of lawyer-leaders. Among other things, the responsibility of complying with heightened and dynamic regulation, operating in increasingly sophisticated markets, and addressing the needs of larger, more diverse organizations can cause leaders to experience stress, burnout, substance abuse, and other mental health difficulties. 

Like players using different clubs for varying distances between the ball and the pin, leaders must employ different leadership styles for each circumstance that arises. Goleman suggests that an effective leader does not solely use one style to achieve results and elevate others. Instead, an effective leader picks one leadership style from the list of six—one that is catered to the specific situation. As leadership experience increases, a leader can draw from past successes and failures to best align a leadership style with a specific leadership undertaking.

With multiple leadership styles in one’s arsenal, a leader can take productive steps towards success—regardless of the circumstances. This adaptability may provide leaders with a plan of action when there is no apparent or ready solution to an organizational dilemma. In return, this diverse arsenal can serve as a resource for lawyers to reduce the stressors and burnout that may arise with their leadership position. Which, over time, gives lawyer-leaders the ability to gain confidence in how they react to future roadblocks and results in sound decision-making. 

No golfer likes to find their ball in a difficult spot off the fairway or green. To lead an organization forward, leaders must not grow frustrated with the water hazards and bunkers that life throws their way. Instead, they must remember that, through the highs and lows of life, adaptability can help them overcome obstacles. Different leadership styles exist to help leaders clear barriers to progress and keep the group and its members moving on course—in other words, to keep the ball moving toward the pin. In this way, the leader can meet each individual on the team where they are in their own journey and elevate them to their full potential. 

Play the ball as it lies . . . and you will be remembered as an effective leader. 

[1] The Incredible Story of Bobby Jones, Bobby Jones Links, https://www.bobbyjoneslinks.com/immortal-bobby-jones.

[2] Daniel Goleman, Leadership That Gets Results, Harv. Bus. Rev. March­–April 2000, at 78. 

[3] Deborah L. Rhode, Lawyers as Leaders 10 (2013). 

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