An evergreen leadership lesson

bad-golferUnseasonably hot days in early June like today ALWAYS remind me of a GREAT leadership lesson an elder statesman taught me on a golf course. Yes, a golf course.

I was a freshly-minted junior account executive at Hill & Knowlton, easily the world’s biggest and best PR firm of its day.

I’d been invited to participate in the firm’s annual client tennis and golf tournament. While I was a fairly competent tennis player, I was abysmal at golf. Regardless, I was told the firm needed more golfers to sign-up, especially those of us under the age of 65 (Note: In those days, H&K was populated by legendary ex-journalists, politicians and statesmen. All were male and most were north of 60 years of age).

I did as I was told and, when I arrived at the Westchester Country Club for the day-long event, was horrified to see I’d been paired with Stan Sauerhaft, an H&K EVP, John Neary, the firm’s CFO, as well as a senior-ranking client at the American Iron & Steel Institute, one of H&K’s oldest and largest relationships). Cue panic attack.

It was awful. Hole after hole I’d hook or slice my ball or dig up huge amounts of turf. Meanwhile, my foursome partners nailed par after par.

That’s when Stan pulled me aside and said, “Why didn’t you tell me you don’t play golf?” I said I’d told my boss, but had been ordered to sign-up regardless. He nodded and said, “OK, let me fix this.”

Mr. Sauerhaft then proceeded to tell the others that I wasn’t feeling well and needed to return to the clubhouse immediately. He commanded the caddy to drive me back.

As I hopped in the cart, I looked over at him. He smiled and gave me a wink. “Feel better, Steve,” he said as I sped away.

And, when I got back to the clubhouse I entered the tennis tournament and finished a respectable seventh. It turned out to be a great day after all.

My boss demonstrated empathy, leadership and improvisation on that sweltering day long ago. He found a way to solve everyone’s problem without embarrassing me in the process.

Perhaps the coolest thing about the incident was that neither Sauerhaft, Neary or the client ever mentioned it again. So, no one ever knew about my golfing meltdown. My image and reputation remained intact (at least temporarily).

True leaders step up to protect and defend their team in all sorts of crises. This one happened to occur on a golf course. But, I’ve been in countless other workplace meetings over the years in which I’ve seen my superiors either pass the buck or place the blame squarely on a lieutenant’s shoulders. That not only engenders distrust among the troops. It encourages them to find a new employer post haste.

So how about you? Ever have a boss save your neck just in the nick of time? Or, how about the reverse? Has a boss thrown you under the bus in front of clients or peers? Inquiring golfers need to know.

2 thoughts on “An evergreen leadership lesson

  1. Would have been nearly impossible to do otherwise, Mike. As you know, there were very few women in executive positions in the PR in the early 1980s.