Ambitious humility. It’s like clean dirt, or an open secret, definitely maybe, alone together or military intelligence (as my father-in-law likes to say when talking about his career in the Army.) These two words: Ambition and Humility – they just don’t go together, they are oxymoronic. Or do they? Or could they? More specifically, what if they did go together in our lives and careers?

Based on my own observations and conversations with many PGA professionals, many of us struggle to be the effective leaders we believed we could be when we were the lowest assistant, the first assistant or whatever “back in the day.” We all pointed out how the “old pro” we worked for was not thoughtful enough, not appreciative enough of us, not _______ enough and that “when we got the chance,” we would do it so much better.

On the one hand, I would like to think that our prediction of “doing it better” is, in fact, true today. And maybe we do it better than the old pros we worked for, but… do we lead/manage better than we used to? Are we continuously improving? Or are we satisfied with our perception that we’re “good enough?”

Edgar Schein, professor emeritus at MIT Sloan School of Management, and author of the book Humble Inquiry recalls asking in a group of his MIT students what it meant to be promoted to the rank of manager. He writes, “They said without hesitation, ‘It means I can now tell others what to do.’” This kind of statement and similar are the roots of the know-it-all style of leadership and I dare say, it is a style that is prevalent in our golf business. Many of us have worked for (or still do work for) managers who led through some or all of the following:

  • Command and Control Tactics: only the positives, ignore the negatives, withhold and control information, spin bad news, staff are cutoff from leadership because they might say the wrong thing
  • Passive Aggressive feedback/threats: continuous flow of comments to subordinates reminding them of “how they need the boss,” how “they can’t handle it” and use of “____, or else” phrases because I’m in charge here
  • Shoot the Messenger: if you give me bad news, it’s now your fault or your mess to fix (even though it’s my mess, my fault)
  • You Win/I Lose: you won an award, or an event… big deal, look at my awards, you won that because of me or my support of you; I’m still your boss
  • Mushroom Growing: (my personal favorite to point out) “Go stand over there in that pile of crap, in the dark…don’t complain either about the smell or the crap you’re standing in. Don’t worry, every once in a while, I’ll shine the light (of information and praise) on you, so you can grow. Otherwise, just take it.”

Some of us, based on the hundreds of conversations I have, are guilty of at least one of the above. Just think how many times you’ve heard a professional say, “that is how we do it,” or “there’s no other way to do it.” Why?

For starters, maybe we see the world from a view of scarcity vs abundance. Don’t know what your view is? Consider this:

  • If someone else gets the credit, do you feel diminished in some way?
  • Do you feel that if someone wins, someone else (possibly you) are losing?
  • If someone innovates a better way (than my idea from 10 years ago) then I don’t get the credit for my idea, my innovation

I realize and make the assumption here, that as golf professionals, at our core, many of us believe “that life is fundamentally and always a competition” — between facilities, between golf professionals on the course, or at work in the same golf department or facility. (That is okay too, because it’s likely where we get our motivation to succeed, or our ambition.) I realize this is not a mindset (or a cultural view) that recognizes the virtues of humility alone or better yet, the exponential value of ambition + humility.

According to Simon Sinek, “We live in a world where ego gets attention but modesty gets results. Where arrogance makes headlines but humility makes a difference. Which means that all of us, as leaders or aspiring leaders, face questions of our own: Are we confident enough to stay humble? Are we strong enough to admit we don’t have all the answers?” I see this viewpoint modeled by several of the PNWs best professionals. They are ambitious, but they are also genuinely happy when other flourish, for example. These same people inspire me to be better at what I do, they even motivate me without realizing it. (I know who I’m thinking of, who are you thinking of?)

So, with that in mind, I suggest you consider that it is possible to have ambition and humility in your “leadership life.” Though they are seemingly at odds, they don’t have to be.

In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Bill Taylor wrote: “Indeed, humility in the service of ambition is the most effective and sustainable mindset for leaders who aspire to do big things in a world filled with huge unknowns. Years ago, a group of HR professionals at IBM embraced a term to capture this mindset. The most effective leaders, they argued, exuded a sense of ‘humbition,’ which they defined as ‘one part humility and one part ambition.’ We ‘notice that by far the lion’s share of world-changing luminaries are humble people,’ they wrote. ‘They focus on the work, not themselves. They seek success — they are ambitious — but they are humbled when it arrives…They feel lucky, not all-powerful.'”

Note: Read that paragraph again please. Do you feel lucky to be where you are? I do. As a Career Consultant, it has become crystal clear to me that timing, who we work for, work with, etc. have more to do with getting the best jobs in our business. Not necessarily because we’re the most talented, most skilled, etc. Of course, we need these tools and experience, but we need the timing to line up for us too.

Bill Taylor goes even further, and since I can’t come close to improving on his wording, I will just let them speak to you. He writes, “Humility can feel soft at a time when problems are hard; it can make leaders appear vulnerable when people are looking for answers and reassurances.” He continues, “Of course, that’s precisely its virtue: The most effective business leaders don’t pretend to have all the answers; the world is just too complicated for that. They understand that their job is to get the best ideas from the right people, whomever and wherever those people may be.”

Notice the difference in the tactics. The most effective business leaders (and I suggest the most effective golf professionals) don’t pretend to know everything. They realize that for the most complex issues, they are better off asking for, or leading a group “self-discovery” of sorts with their people to find the best solution. This is opposite to stating, “Here’s the problem, here’s my solution and asking what do you think?” Steve Jobs was known for his intentionality in not limiting his teams’ creativity and innovation on projects like the iPhone and others. When they asked for feedback, he wouldn’t even tell them the issue(s), as he didn’t want to limit their solution-finding capability with his own comments. Supposedly, he would usually say, “I know you can do better.” (And these teams did do better. Question: Are you letting your team do better or are you limiting their solution self-discovery by pointing out what is wrong too clearly, too quickly and/or too arrogantly?)

In closing, I would like to challenge us to consider how we can blend Humility and Ambition in how we approach our work for the rest of this year and the coming one. How can we better understand the three forms of humility to be better leaders, help our team accomplish more and help those we influence accomplish more?

What are the three forms you ask? According to Edgar Schein, the three different forms of humility are:

  • Humility with Honor: the humility that we feel around elders and dignitaries
  • Humility with Respect: the humility that we feel in the presence of those who awe us with their achievements
  • Here-and-Now Humility: the humility I feel when I realize “how I feel when I’m dependent on you”; my position as a leader is inferior to yours right now, because you know something, or you can do something that I/we need in order to complete this project or reach some goal. Schein explains, “I have to be humble because I am temporarily dependent on you. [But] I also have a choice. I can either not commit to tasks that make me dependent on others, or I can deny the dependency, avoid feeling humble, fail to get what I need, and, thereby, fail to accomplish the task or unwittingly sabotage it. Unfortunately, people often would rather fail than to admit their dependence on someone else.”

Wow, that last part of Schein’s quote hits home. And that is because I know I’ve made the wrong choice several times in my life. I have failed to get “what I wanted” or “what we wanted” because I denied my dependency on someone “underneath me in the org chart.” (Why? Because my ego was just too uncomfortable with it. I know. Lame, really lame.) As such, I ended up sabotaging the result that we should have gotten and enjoyed together.

As November is the “month of Thankfulness,” let’s all seek to be grateful, be thankful for the good timing that helped us get where we are. Being grateful is known to help us not be negative (by the way.) As gratefulness helps us realize we “didn’t get here on our own.” Let’s realize how dependent we truly are on each other and how our individual and group success hinges on our ability to blend ambition and humility.

This fall, or winter, if you’d like to get together with me to consider these questions (or lead a group “self-discovery” experience at your facility) let’s get together on how we can make it happen. As always, I am here to help you with your career and I hope you’ll give me the opportunity to partner with you on it soon.


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Monte Koch, PGA Certified Professional/Player Development | Career Consultant
PGA Career Services | PGA of America
Serving PGA professionals, employers in the Pacific NW & Rocky Mountain PGA Sections
Email: Cell: 206/335-5260