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Winning is Everything. Or is it?

I’m a golfer. My golfing roots run deep…my mother was born in St Andrews in Scotland, where it all started back around 1400. My grandfather was a club maker there, and my dad was a member of the St Andrews golf club for over 30 years. My home club in Scotland was Bathgate, a small town of about 15,000. The club, however, has had 3 Ryder Cup players, the most recent being the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles in 2014. As Tom Watson once observed…”In Scotland golf isn’t life or death. It’s more important than that”.

Last week my golf ethics were tested.

I was playing a 4-ball match at “Penobby” in Orono, Maine. My partner was Brett, a lawyer, and it was a very close match. We were never more than 1 hole up, or down, and came to the 17th hole all square. As the lowest handicap player, I was giving strokes to everyone on the tough 18th finishing hole, so there was pressure to win the 17th. After a good drive that finished in the light rough, I hit my approach shot to about 5 feet…one of the best shots I’d hit all day. With both my opponents struggling, I got a “thumbs up” from Brett and he came over with a big smile as it seemed certain we’d win the hole and probably the match.

However…a few steps later I found my ball. I’d played the wrong one. I found a ball exactly where I thought mine was, sitting down in the rough, and assumed it was mine. And I had played it.  In a few milliseconds my internal “chatter” included thoughts like…

  • ”If I pick up my ball and say nothing, nobody will know and we’ll probably win the match”
  • “I don’t want to let Brett down”
  • “People will think I’m really stupid”
  • And, “I’ve no idea what the rules are on this”.

I told Brett I’d played the wrong ball, and we let our opponents know. I half-heartedly played my own ball, keeping all options open until we could get a ruling from the pro.  Looking back at the incident, I kicked myself that I didn’t check that the ball I played was mine. I had excuses like. . .  the sun was going down, I wanted to finish before dark, the ball was just where I thought it would be etc..

Thinking it over, in the end the most important piece for me was that as soon as I knew, I behaved ethically by declaring the wrong ball was played.  And I acknowledge that I thought briefly of not doing that. We are judged (and judge ourselves) by what we do, not what we think.

In a business setting, similar dynamics play out. Many times over the years I’ve had an internal debate over issues like. . .

  • Telling a client information that I suspect they don’t really want to know, and knowing that being honest with the information I have may cost me the business
  • A client treating me with disrespect and struggling with how to assertively respond and give direct critical feedback without being fired
  • Or what to do when a client project comes in well under budget. . .

The “wrong ball” incident illustrates just how easily our honesty and integrity can be tested.  As C.S. Lewis said. . .  “Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.”

David Green

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