Every year I play in an amateur golf tournament called Pine to Palm in Detroit Lakes, Minn. For a duffer like me it's a fun time, and my son-in-law, Gerry, plays with me. Neither Gerry nor I would be classified as potential world-beaters because we both shoot in the high 80s or low 90s or worse, but we both love the game. That's because we feel that golf is a personal challenge that requires skill, character and integrity.
Anyone's success on the golf course is dependent on his or her skill, but it's also a test of character and temperament, because this is a tough game. I know that whenever I shoot a better-than-average game I'm elated because I have been able to control myself and not hurry my shots or become so distracted by anything else as to forget the fundamentals of the game.
Golf is a lot like other sports in that if you haven't played it, it's hard to explain why those of us who do spend so much time chasing a little white ball around the course. Not the least part of the attraction is that golf courses are built in some beautiful spots. The game also brings people together. It's not uncommon to see husbands and wives enjoying time together out on the course. Of course, businesspeople have been getting to know each other while missing two-foot putts forever. As a result, golf is one of the fastest-growing participatory sports in the country, and more courses are being built all the time.
Golf is a game of honor and has been seen as such from its beginnings in Scotland some 600 years ago. There have been many times when a leading golf professional has literally given up the opportunity to win thousands of dollars by voluntarily reporting an incorrect scorecard to tournament officials. Cheating and lying about one's golf score has long been considered a scoundrel's refuge, and anytime I have played with people who fudge on their scores I am disgusted.
That's why I was appalled recently in reading an article in USA Today about how many top executives admit to cheating at golf. In a survey commissioned by Starwood Hotels and Resorts, 82% of 401 high-ranking corporate executives admitted to cheating on the links. Much of the article dealt with the possible connection between this type of deceit and the kind of corruption that is played out in the business pages every day right now.
Now I'm sure there are those who would think it's silly to make that kind of connection. Golf's just a game, after all. But I would say they probably haven't played much golf.
Listen to what Jeff Harp, a former banker in Fort Worth, Texas, has to say. He has declined loans to chief executive officers whom he claims to have witnessed cheating at golf. His premise goes like this: Companies borrow for two reasons-either they have an opportunity or they have trouble. As a lender trying to gauge the trustworthiness of a client, he is shocked to see one cheating at golf. Can you blame him?
An organizational psychologist, Ken Siegel has been interviewing executives for some 25 years and says that most CEOs do not consider themselves liars. As a matter of fact, Siegel says most execs believe their greatest strength is working with people when their subordinates say that it's their greatest weakness. He goes on to say, "(CEOs) lose their ability to distinguish what is honest and what is not. Lies are getting bigger and bigger. We're seeing this played out everywhere now from Tyco to Enron."
Another point of view relating to golf and how CEOs play the game comes from Young Kim-Epstein, a golfer and CEO of Manhattan Wealth Advisors in Los Angeles. She plays golf with men frequently and claims that they have no sense of humor when playing. They throw temper tantrums, bend their clubs and cheat. "If I play better than them, I become really unpopular," she says.
Another executive who was interviewed for the article says his radar goes up when other golfers blame poor shots on the sun or someone coughing. He suggests that execs who behave like this have to be watched.
None other than legendary investor Warren Buffett drew a connection between golf and business before all of the recent business scandals hit. In his 1998 annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway investors, Buffett wrote that nonrecurring write-offs were like reporting four golfing rounds of 80 and one round of 140 rather than actual rounds of 91, 94, 89, 94 and 92. Then in a 2001 letter Buffett used the golf analogy again: "In golf, my score is frequently below par on a pro forma basis. I have firm plans to restructure my putting stroke and therefore only count swings I take before reaching the green."
I can't tell you for sure that there is a correlation between CEOs' cheating at golf and cheating in business. But I can tell you that cheating or lying in either venue is unacceptable. After all, a chief executive is supposed to be the moral compass for his or her organization, and when the person at the top is seen cheating, it brings into question the integrity of the whole company.
Maybe some of our CEOs feel they are above the fray and can do what they choose. True leaders, however, are always concerned about how their actions affect those around them and the organizations they lead.
Personally, I simply don't want to be around those who cheat, period, whether it's playing a sport or doing business. You just can't trust them.