What we can learn from the great Jack Nicklaus

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By Jas Singh

There are some great parallels between the worlds of business and sports.

Both are highly competitive. Both can be highly rewarding – usually for the very few. And both can be extremely high pressure.

In the last 12 months I’ve been working with a small section of my clients to look at whether hiring people with a successful sports background may be effective. It’s early days, but the results so far have been outstanding. We’ve placed candidates into roles within financial services, technology and retail companies to name a few and already some of these workers have gained promotion to much more senior positions.

The business world can learn a lot from sports. Especially from truly outstanding performers.

And in the world of individual sports, perhaps there is no one that stands out than the greatest golfer of all time.

The Golden Bear.

Jack Nicklaus.

His record is incredible and unmatched. 18 major championships. 73 PGA Tour victories (3rd of all time which is amazing considering there were far fewer events back then and he was very selective in the tournaments that he did play). 73 top 10 major finishes. And all over a 39 year career competing genuinely at the highest level.

Here are some of things the business world can learn from the legend that is Jack Nicklaus.

Consistency is the key to success

Perhaps the most incredible statistic for Nicklaus career overall is not the number of major wins he had – but the number of second places. He finished second a massive 19 times – one more than the number of majors he actually won! The next highest major winner Tiger Woods (14 majors) only has six second place finishes.

Add this to also nine third place finishes, and put simply Jack Nicklaus just put himself in position time after time.

He was almost eerily consistent.

Those who watched him often noted how his short game was not that strong. He definitely wasn’t the best putter on tour.

But he performed when it mattered. He was consistently long and straight of the tee. He was nearly always in the top three for greens-in-regulation on the tour year on year. Even his very first major win (against Arnold Palmer in the 1962 US Open) contained only one three-putt over 90 holes. As a 22 year old rookie.

Consistency is key to winning.

Mental strength is key

Despite being a ferocious hitter, when questioned Nicklaus’ fellow players all gave the same answer when asked what made him the best.

His almost unbreakable mental strength.

You can see it in the TV footage from past competitions. Win, lose or even draw the man was as cool as ice. Like he could go another 72 holes. He even has this persona in interviews today.

He was one of the first sportsmen to ever use the concept of mental imagery – now a fast growing and multi-million dollar industry. He once famously quoted: “”I never hit a shot even in practice without having a sharp in-focus picture of it in my head. It’s like a color movie”.

Even his fierce competitor Gary Player has said that Nicklaus had “the greatest mind the game has ever know”.

Respect your competitors

Nicklaus was a gentleman and the people’s champion. Rare for someone who is so dominant.

Part of his charm and likeability was that he was hugely respectful of his co-players. Although a fierce competitor he won with dignity and lost with grace. The list of such incidents include many – such as famously embracing Tom Watson even though he had lost in dramatic fashion in the UK Open.

But perhaps most famous of all was the Ryder Cup in 1969. In highly dramatic fashion he generously conceded Tony Jacklin’s critical and tricky putt to level the game and share the Ryder Cup. Would that happen today? Probably not.

Nicklaus set the example that although everyone wants to win you can still respect and even befriend the competition.

You don’t have to retire early

At 46 years old Jack Nicklaus won the Masters – a fairytale that was almost difficult to believe. Written off heavily by the media that very week, he played perhaps the most famous and incredible last nine holes of golf ever seen.

Yet even beyond that he never left the sport that he truly loved. He consistently competed at the highest level and worked hard to change his game to the way new golf courses were developing. He learned to compete with youngsters often old enough to be his grandchildren who could hit the ball almost 30% further.

Even at the age of 58, he finished sixth in the 1998 Masters at Augusta – one of the most remarkable performances of his career.

Nicklaus is a believer that as long as you still love what you do and work hard there’s always something you can offer. Even today at 75, his energy and zest for life is infectious.

Give back

Perhaps the greatest thing about Jack Nicklaus is what he has done off the golf course. He has contributed extensively to good causes both within golf and charity.

In golf, he created and still manages the Memorial Tournament – a tournament with a big philanthropic focus through it’s relationship with Ohio’s charities. He has also been known to reach out to young golfers to offer them help and advice. In one famous example a young teenage golfer wrote to Nicklaus who had been told that he would become a better player if he switched to right handed. Nicklaus immediate wrote back to tell him to stick to doing what came naturally and helped coach him through his early years. The player, Mike Weir, eventually became Masters Champion and keeps the letter from Nicklaus framed at home until today.

Outside golf, Nicklaus has contributed much to charity. Currently him and his wife are chair of the Nicklaus Children’s Healthcare Foundation in Florida which provides services and programs to over 4000 hospitalized children. It even has it’s own golf tournament each year organized by Nicklaus which has raised over $3 million in the last three years.

In recent years Nicklaus has used the sport he loves to give back to others.

Conclusion

Inspirational people teach lessons that can be valuable to anyone.

Hiring managers and business leaders alike can undoubtedly learn from Jack Nicklaus. No one is ever “past it” purely because of age. Mental strength is invaluable. You don’t have to stay away and trash-talk the competition.

Do you respect your competition?

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