As you may know, this past Sunday, July 21st, Phil Mickelson became this year’s “Champion Golfer” by winning the 2013 Open Championship in Scotland. He was the only golfer who finished the tournament with a sub-par total on the Muirfield course, and Mickelson’s final-round score of 66 tied the lowest score in the tournament. Upon consideration, his will be viewed by golf historians as one of the greatest closing rounds ever played in a major golf championship.
Jason Gay writes perceptively in The Wall Street Journal on what we can take from Phil’s performance. Mickelson, regarded as one of the most aggressive players in the game, “did not become famous for being careful. He’s famous for running after risk. . . . [T]he precarious, why-the-hell-notness of the Mickelson game [demonstrates his] audacity of playing dangerously in a sport that often rewards restraint.”
Defining Mickelson as a risk-taker is not a something new; he has played that way for his entire 20 plus-year career. And there can be no question that his playing style has, on more than one occasion, cost him dearly. Phil has finished second in the U.S. Open a record six times, though some of those losses can be attributed to heroic deeds by a competitor–like the 15-foot putt that Payne Steward sank on the last hole of the 1999 Open. But Phil’s other near-misses might have been avoided by more conservative play. However, as in deconstructing the stages and phases, causes and effects of any other human event, we’ll probably never know.
Like Jason Gay, I prefer instead to celebrate his risk-taking, agreeing that what Phil has taught us is that we cannot “wait for good things to wander into the kitchen through the cat door.” History is replete with similar teachings. Surely Abraham Lincoln–possibly the most remarkable individual born within the bounds of our nation, was indeed a risk-taker. He spent the Civil War years steadfastly holding to the goal of preserving the Union—against myriad wrenching challenges to it.
Lesser individuals, you know the type–the Chicken-Littles whose entrenched risk aversion fuels a psyche perpetually in a state of intellectual and emotional morbidity–never rise to great moments. Rather than accepting the risks and hardships, the near-countless losses, month upon month, of many mothers’ sons on both sides that forged Lincoln’s high-stakes, steadfast aggression, the average leader would have capitulated, settling the matter in a way that would possibly have fractured the country, leaving the U.S. vulnerable once more to re-colonization by European powers. Preserving the Union was key to building the future that is our present today—and tomorrow.
When the opportunity arises to make a fraught but transformational decision, be it in our lives or in the life of an organization or a nation–a decision that hinges upon moments when all can be won or lost, we should hope the decision lies with a risk-taker. Not someone who leans towards recklessness, but someone who can steadfastly bear the scars that sometimes befall courageous leaders taking courageous action. The kinds of scars that paradoxically motivate him or her to try again to win.
Smaller minds, those pathologically averse to risk, when faced with a decision great in consequence, generally take one of two roads: they practice nonfeasance–pretending to decide on a way forward which, when examined by inquiring minds, is revealed to be nothing more than a reinforcement of the status quo; or they are guilty of malfeasance, addressing the problem through peripheral, small-scope decisions that they know do not address the heart of the problem. Their decisions are merely a window dressing styled smartly by a good PR department that touts them to the media. And thus the old, dented tin can gets one more half-hearted kick down the road—that being perhaps the greatest, most dangerous risk-taking of all.
You need look no farther than the state of politics in this country to see the inability of elected officials to address the deep, dry-rot issues of our day and our children’s.
This illusory form of governance is what may have prompted Thomas Sowell, to observe that, “[M]uch of the social history of the western world over the past three decades has been a history of replacing what has worked with what has sounded good.”
So when you are next faced with an important decision, remember that an action calculated to leave the problem in a state of repose is never the correct action. Have the courage to be a steadfast risk taker; right or wrong, risk-taking of just the right degree, not too much and not too little, shows a person bent on greatness. That ability and cast of mind and heart are what have made Phil Mickelson one of the greatest golfers ever!