6 leadership tips from sporting captain Paul McGinley

The 2014 European Ryder Cup captain shares his leadership tips.


McGinley led a team of 12 European players against the American team, captained by Tom Watson, to success in 2014. The world-respected professional golfer famously sank the winning putt on his first Ryder Cup appearance in 2002, and, after his 2004 and 2006 successes, became the first European golfer to win the tournament in each of his three appearances.

His credentials mean he’s been in the media for the best part of two decades. He’s been both star and second-in-command, navigating the complexities that come with leading a team of sporting professionals. Here, he shares his top tips for leading a talented, diverse team – and the occasional ego – under the pressure of sports media scrutiny.

1. Be yourself

People can smell a fake, says McGinley. “If you’re not living in reality, people see it and they sense it. So first of all, you’ve got to be real.”

It’s advice that leaders have heard again and again: nail who you are before you lead other people. But McGinley is the master of modest. He says he was a “good” golfer, but not the world’s number one – not, say, a Rory McIlroy. Significantly, though, he knows why. “When I was younger, I lacked focus.” If he could go back to age 19 he wouldn’t just hit balls for a few hours, he says: he’d have a plan.

Being self-aware allowed him to shore up his weaknesses – to the extent that he not only became a focused leader, he was scrupulous. His players praised him as “meticulous” for his leadership skills during the Ryder Cup when his opposition Tom Watson – who yes, might have been a bigger name in golf – allegedly left his team wanting.

Where ‘be yourself’ fits

Realising that leadership is about the leader is an important place to start. The idea that people are just born leaders isn’t true. It’s important that people examine, sometimes brutally, as McGinley has, their strengths and weaknesses. Being self-aware is the first step to the most important trait of all: inspiring people to believe in you.

2. Stand back

In McGinley’s story, ‘stand back’ is the most important. During the Ryder Cup he was known to lead quietly. Rather than try and catch glimpses of games that were taking place simultaneously, he empowered his four course vice-captains to monitor each tie. They would then provide precise feedback, giving McGinley a complete account of what had happened in every game.

“Why would the players need me to validate their playing? They had 60,000 cheering fans for that,” he says.

Remember, rewind six years and he was a player himself: when he captained the European Team, he led players who were once his peers.

“I wasn't trying to be a macho leader. I wasn't trying to create an image. Because the players would have seen through it and I’d have lost credibility. I told them: ‘When you go off to that first tee, you’re centre stage, not me. My job’s talking to you and the vice-captains about strategy.’”

Where ‘stand back’ fits

Not every leader has the same style. But style has got to work in context and it’s got to match the people you lead. Given the individual sporting stars he captained and the winning mentality among them all, stepping back was a good call. As a captain, sucking up all the air doesn’t go down well with a group of high achievers who each have their own personal brand.

Companies increasingly pick leaders who stand out. But it’s important that leaders fit the group and also make a unique contribution.

3. Step in 

While it’s important to stand back, McGinley makes clear the need to step in.

In 2014, Europe defeated the USA team by 16½ points to 11½, for their third consecutive win. On the second day (Saturday) of the three-day tournament, McGinley’s team had a four-point lead. They needed to stay ahead.

“It's easy to for complacency to creep in,” he says. “So when I went to the press conference on the Saturday night, I was on the front foot, and I was positioning our team. I was serious and strong: I wanted everyone to know it was far from over.”

Behind the scenes, he warned his team not to take their foot off the pedal and reminded them how easy a four-point lead was to wipe out. “That was me hitting a shot on the first tee,” he says: leading from the front.

Where ‘step in’ fits 

While a highly proficient team will no doubt prefer an empowering leader, there are times they’ll look to their leader for strength. It’s important all leaders have the courage and conviction to clarify people’s roles, recalibrate team efforts and simply get things done. As a figurehead, you need to find your own voice but you also need to understand when to sing forte.

4. Show empathy

People play golf alone, and they play for themselves: some say it’s a selfish sport. Yet McGinley admits he wasn’t very good at playing so single-mindedly, he’s a natural team player, which is why he leads with empathy.

“I knew what it was like to sit there, waiting to play. When I played three Ryder Cups, I was always, in terms of ability, ranked 6-12 in the team. I wasn’t number one, but I was an important team member. So I had empathy with the players sitting a session out.” Relating to the ‘stars’ was more of a challenge. “How was I going to get the most out of someone like Rory McIlroy? I learnt not to put too much pressure on him,” he says.

McGinley had help from Sir Alex Ferguson, celebrated manager of football superstars such as David Beckham and Ronaldo. Sir Alex told McGinley’s Ryder Cup team a story of Canadian geese, which annually migrate thousands of miles in a V-shape. “When one gets tired, the next one takes up the position,” explains McGinley. “I found common ground with every player, and used the geese metaphor to remind the whole team about being empathetic.”

Where ‘show empathy’ fits

While empathy isn’t everything, a good dose of it certainly helps bring people aboard. We’re in the information era where people are doing ‘knowledge work’ – in such an environment, emotional intelligence is a true weapon. Top-down command and control is an outdated system, so leaders who are able to relate to others and find common ground have a much higher success rate. If empathy doesn’t come naturally to you, consider working harder at seeing the world through the eyes of the person you’re leading.

5. Plan with flexibility 

In this film, McGinley tells aspiring leaders to “have a plan”. He qualifies it with a footnote, here. “You’ve got to be creative with it.” He says you need a plan A, B and C and also the aptitude to scrap it altogether.

“You've got to feel empowered to flex your plan. If it’s too rigid, you're in trouble, because we all know that life, business and sport never runs in a straight line.

You need to have a contingency built in, to change direction – not always radically, but enough for success.”

How do you plan for the unknown? “I think reflection and good feedback from the team you've built around you, supports your ability to change tack,” he says.

Where ‘plan miscellaneous’ fits

McGinley displays the tightrope balancing act of a leader: with meticulousness weighted on one side and strategic elasticity on the other. On the one hand, there’s nothing effective about an autocratic leader who doesn’t learn from past results and who is deaf to new ideas. On the other, it's not enough to reflect and to have a contingency plan; it’s also about having the courage to say: “I need to rethink this.”

6. Build your team

If you build the right team, says McGinley, you’ll be supported to be yourself, stand back, step in, show empathy and execute your plan.

For the first time at a Ryder Cup, McGinley appointed five vice-captains. He believes it was a key contributor to winning. “I saw three lines of attack,” he explains. “The first line was the players and caddies. The second was the five vice-captains. Then it was me.”

It was a strategic decision that freed him up to watch each game on a large screen and plot the next coordinates of the game plan. It also meant the players sitting out of any given session had a dedicated vice-captain by their side, as did the players on the turf. He knew who was where, how they played and vitally, how they felt. He also relied on the players’ closest confidantes: the caddies. “If the caddies said there was a problem, I knew there was a problem.”

Where ‘build your team’ fits

With power comes a tendency to value people around you less. Strong leaders wisely go back to the start and work out their own strengths and weaknesses; then they add expertise to their team and listen to those people. By appointing a fifth vice-captain, McGinley demonstrates how much he valued each of their skills – four provided executive summaries of the players’ sessions and the fifth motivated the resting players. McGinley directed them all.

When roles are defined and everyone knows the value of their contribution – from the fifth vice-captain to the ear-to-the-turf caddies – you create, and lead, a team built for success.


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