Outperformed and out of luck, José María Olazábal’s European Ryder Cup team looked to be facing certain defeat in Chicago in October. With one day to go, even the most optimistic European fans were hoping for no more than a respectable loss. Yet Europe’s remarkable comeback on the last day demonstrated how a spirit of collective purpose, “distributed leadership” and closely supportive relationships can deliver extraordinary performance.
The guiding hand of stewardship, often understated yet fiercely determined, is a central feature here – not heroic leadership in the traditional sense but rather a desire to encourage the emergence of “leaderful” characters. Sport is a big passion in my life and the events in Chicago resonated powerfully as an analogy for successful leadership in business and higher education.
Europe achieved one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the Ryder Cup, a success all the more remarkable since it was on US soil and in the final day singles matches – a format in which the Americans usually prevail. There is also a paradox in Europe’s victory. Traditionally, the US team has a strong sense of national identity whereas Europe’s is a collection of different countries and cultures, with a history of conflict and resentments. Yet Olazábal managed to create a tangible sense of community – a community of collective purpose.
Most importantly, Olazábal drew on the “spirit of Seve”. Seve Ballesteros, the cup-winning captain who died in 2011, epitomised the fighting spirit of European golf. Evoking his spirit generated an emotional response from the team. Mentored by Ballesteros and subsequently his partner in many Ryder Cup struggles, Olazábal was able to draw on a connection to Seve’s memory, to generate Europe’s collective sense of purpose: an appeal to “do it for Seve”. This was a purpose not only about the memory of a much-missed friend, but one that also engendered a connection with values that drew the team closely together. This togetherness was symbolised by encouraging the team to wear clothes typical of Seve’s style, making each player a collective symbol of the team community.
Enabling the purpose to be translated into a feasible reality required a guiding stewardship of practical steps. On that final day, Olazábal appreciated the importance of frontloading the order of his team for the singles matches. With early points on the board vital, he put all his in-form players out at the top of the order. Early success had a two-fold effect: it generated enhanced self-efficacy and collective belief; and it sent shockwaves through the US team as the Americans sensed the growing possibility and pressure of defeat.
Europe’s victory demonstrates the value of distributed leadership. Olazábal did a great job in creating a community and giving it an emotional charge, but success ultimately depended on the range of leaders who played their part. Ian Poulter winning a critical point on the Saturday evening to give Europe a glimmer of hope; Luke Donald’s first clawed-back point in that crucial first match; Justin Rose holing an outrageous putt on the 17th. Each act of leadership helped build towards collective success. Importantly, however, distributed leadership requires that guiding hand, a symbol of purpose and direction.
Often encapsulated by an individual such as Olazábal, symbolism can be reinforced through a narrative such as the story of Seve, or artefacts – the Seve-inspired wardrobe.
Sport can provide great stories; it can also offer powerful analogies that resonate with the complex process of business leadership. What can be seen from Olazábal’s stewardship is how leadership need not be a lonely road. Tough economic conditions, streams of operational problems and difficult forecasts cannot be dealt with by the traditional, individual “heroic” leader, or even by lots of individualistic, talented people. In my view effective leadership has far more to do with strong relationships and the community they create, a real sense of purpose and common goals that everyone can share
The great excitement and joy in Europe’s success in retaining the Ryder Cup was undoubtedly about more than individual talent. It also provided an opportunity to reflect on the effectiveness of leadership as distributed, as building on strong relationships bound together with a common purpose, and as impassioned stewardship guiding collective talents.
Professor Sue Cox OBE is the dean of Lancaster University Management School