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What a Low Handicap Says About Your Leadership

Can business leaders afford to practice golf (or any other hobby) seriously?

Key points

  • A past study found that CEO golfing was associated with lower operating performance.
  • Yet there are numerous research arguments in favor of investing time in passionate leisure interests.
  • The benefits of passionate leisure interests for leaders include optimal functioning, social capital, and relatability.

When I started my Ph.D. in leadership I chose hobbies as a research topic. “Get a hobby!” had been popular advice to leaders from time immemorial, but no research had examined it. I found that — under the right conditions — hobbies can be particularly valuable for leaders when practiced as “serious leisure”: passionately and skilfully, often with considerable investment of time.

Then a research article appeared that seemed to pose a conundrum. Its authors found that “CEOs who golf the most are associated with firms that have lower operating performance.” This verdict echoed across the media under titles such as “Proof! CEOs hurt companies by golfing too much.” I started seeing the “avid golfer” mention disappear from CEOs’ public profiles. A major corporation’s website had presented its CEO as a dedicated lifetime golfer. Now it replaced that mention with some dispassionate wording on sailing. Among the top leaders I interviewed for my research, those who were not golfers were quick to point that fact out, unprompted. It had clearly become unfashionable for business executives to declare a passion for the links. The business media hurried to crown cycling or triathlons as “the new golf.”

Should business leaders then stay away from the putting green and work on their VO2 Max instead? The golfing CEO study saw golf as only a proxy for “leisure consumption” more generally. How does the leisure consumption of golfers compare, for example, with that of triathletes? In the study, the golfing CEOs found guilty of wasting shareholder value were those in the top quartile of time invested. They played a median of 34 rounds of golf per year, equivalent to about 200 hours annually. By comparison, from my interviews with triathletes, training for a triathlon requires roughly 10-15 hours per week for three months, and most amateur triathletes compete in two triathlons per year. That amounts to 200-300 hours per year. Following the logic of the golfing CEO study, top leaders who are triathletes should therefore be guiltier than those who golf the most. Not to mention Ironman CEOs like Cigna’s David Cordani, Entergy’s Leo Denault or PNC Financial’s William Demchak who, by the same logic, should have long ago driven their companies into the ground. Most other passionate leisure pursuits are also likely to require significant investment of time, be it moonlighting as a DJ (like David Solomon, CEO of Goldman Sachs) or equestrian excellence (like Murray Kessler, CEO of Perrigo).

Yet, there are numerous research arguments in favor of investing time in passionate leisure interests. Here are my top three:

3 reasons why a passionate hobby can make you perform better as a leader

1. Optimal functioning. I interviewed top leaders who are serious leisurites, some of them golfers. Their intense nonwork pursuit prevented burnout, over-identification with their CEO identity, tunnel vision, and a slew of other mental health risks that come with the top job. It meant more clarity, creativity and energy at work. CEOs whose hobby is flying airplanes are associated with better corporate innovation. This dovetails with neuroscience research, coincidentally about…golf. Golf practice induces neuroplasticity in middle-aged adults. Those who gained the most brainpower were those who practiced golf the most intensely. In other words, it is not the casual killing of time while indulging in a hobby, but the intense pursuit of skill or knowledge specific to that hobby, that brings the benefits associated with optimal leader functioning.

2. Social capital. Any shared passion makes it easier to create deeper and longer lasting human connections. Golf has long been known for that, but all serious leisure interests have their own world, where identifying an aficionado guarantees instant relatability. This deeper connection can even work across two very different kinds of serious leisure. You may be a dedicated photographer and the person in front of you, a martial arts practitioner, and you will still recognize the same secretly proud striving for achievement (while humbly admitting you are nowhere near professionals’ levels), the same sense of “flow” in your passionate pursuit, and the same feeling of being yourself when you engage in it.

3. Relatability. Employees find it easier to relate to a leader who loves drumming, like Nick Akins of AEP, or who shows up at work with bruises from the morning’s martial arts practice, like Dan Schulman of PayPal. They expect their managers to model work-life balance. Two-thirds of employees worldwide would not trust a leader who works long hours and weekends. Granted, golf may be a harder sell than other hobbies as a passion that increases one’s relatability, given its privileged, male and conservative image. However, golf is currently experiencing a wave of revival and transformation, and millennials are leading this change. Women account for the largest share of the recent surge in golf participation. Maybe, after all, the new golf is…golf.

How do we reconcile the above benefits of serious leisure with the too-much-golfing-equals-shirking study?

A closer look at the study shows that the top quartile of golfers contains a disproportionately large share of truly excessive golfers, who play between 66 and 146 rounds per year. It is not difficult to imagine that some of those CEOs may have given up on their job, and therefore the performance of their companies suffers. This subgroup very likely heavily impacts the operating results of the whole top quartile in the study. Correcting for this effect, leaders who play 34 rounds of golf per year may not be showing worse operating performance after all. Further, the study shows that there is no statistically significant difference in firm performance between those led by above-median, and those led by below-median golfers, nor between firms led by golfers and firms led by non-golfers.

In other words, the two seemingly opposing views do align: It is not golfing that can hurt leaders’ performance, but too much of it. Serious leisure studies agree: obsessive passion for serious leisure is unlikely to bring psychological or cognitive benefits. Too much of everything, including too much work, is liable to hurt your leadership performance.

If you are a leader and you love the feeling on the first tee, do not give it up. As long as you truly care about your work, the world should trust you to find the right balance. Do your critics still subscribe to Dilbert’s disparaging view of executive golf? Suggest that they try golfing sometime. A year after the above Dilbert cartoon was published, its author, Scott Adams, actually took up golfing himself, and another year later his autobiography included an earnest essay on why all business people, men and women, should do likewise.

And so it is with much passionate leisure: its leadership benefits may seem illusory — until you actually get into it yourself.