The Captain Myth: Richard Gillis on the Ryder Cup and leadership misconceptions

Richard Gillis, author of The Captain Myth: The Ryder Cup and Sport's Great Leadership Delusion, argues that many draw the wrong lessons from the celebrated golf contest.

The Captain Myth: Richard Gillis on the Ryder Cup and leadership misconceptions

The Hazeltine National Golf Club will be the scene of one of the biggest occasions in golf this week as Europe’s best players defend the Ryder Cup on US soil. Many eyes will be on captains Darren Clarke and Davis Love III, with fans and observers expecting them to set the tone and the strategy that will take their side to the title.

But sports industry and golf journalist Richard Gillis - founder of Unofficial Partner and now a SportsPro columnist - will be taking a different view. In his new book, The Captain Myth: The Ryder Cup and Sport's Great Leadership Delusion, he argues that an increasingly heavy focus on these non-playing protagonists has skewed and sullied perceptions of how these contests have panned out, and fed misconceptions about leadership in sport, business and politics.

In a series of email exchanges, Gillis explains some of these ideas to SportsPro editor Eoin Connolly, and sheds some light on how his new tome came together.    

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Richard, I understand you have a book out. What is it and what’s it about?

You’ve heard.

The book is me wondering aloud why the Ryder Cup captain has become so famous. He is now a major figure on both sides of the Atlantic, despite great scepticism as to his role and whether he has much impact on the performance of his team or the result of the match.

It seems to me that this makes him the perfect case study to look at the whole issue of leadership in a sporting context, which has become something of a modern obsession. We live in the era of the superstar coach, where Premier League managers and NFL head coaches are more famous than their players. They’re the lens through which we judge success and failure. Those in charge when success happens are lauded as heroes, and the losers take the hit.

This goes far further than mere name calling, it shapes our perception of what has worked and what hasn’t. In essence we make what social scientists call a fundamental attribution error. We see the effect and go searching for a cause. The team wins, so the captain must be the cause of the success. The halo effect of winning casts everything in a positive light. His team won so the captain's strategy must have been the right one. His team ‘gelled as a unit’ and seemed happier than the opposition, suggesting that the winning captain displayed superior man management skills. Any other version of the story is rejected because it just doesn’t make sense.

In the Ryder Cup this process is taken to an extraordinary level. When we know the result of the match we then create two basic stories - two myths - to help explain what we’ve seen: The Good Captain and The Bad Captain. Each year, two new ones are created and added to the pile going back to 1927, forming what we commonly refer to as the history of the Ryder Cup.

We do this regardless of how close the match. The book begins on the 17th green at Medinah in 2012. Justin Rose holes a monster putt that his own stats suggest he would make less than 1% of the time. He holes it and goes on to win the match. The Europeans win and we went in search of answers. Before Rose’s putt went in, US captain Davis Love was being fitted for the Good Captain role and Jose Maria Olazabal was going to be the Bad Captain. The late switch in the match meant that very quickly the decisions of Love were deemed to be wrong and Olazabal was subsequently viewed as the superior leader.

It’s all nonsense of course, but it’s how we tell stories. There is virtually no evidence to link the decisions taken by the Good Captain to the success of his team. It’s enough that the story feels right.

You can argue that golf and the Ryder Cup are not important and that the only thing that gets hurt is the reputation of the losing captains. But there is something that troubles me about it because the same myth making is evident not just throughout sport but in business and politics, where we create the cult of the superstar leader, and where they can impact on people’s lives in a substantive way.

What the book isn’t is any type of ‘Guide to Leadership’. I hate being told by a winning leader how he (and it’s normally a he) did it. My intention from the start was to write a book that was an antidote to the leadership industry. There are no easy answers. It’s complicated and messy and anyone suggesting otherwise should never be trusted.


Justin Rose's putt on the final day at Medinah changed the course of the 2012 Ryder Cup

In that case I’ll have to scrap my plans for Easy Answers: A Winner’s Sporting Handbook. Had you set out to write a book about leadership or about the Ryder Cup?

I had interviewed several Ryder Cup captains in the past, so that was the initial impetus, because it was obvious that the way the job was perceived was at odds with the reality as described by the men who had actually done it. I had a great time talking to both winning and losing captains, who were all really keen to join in the process of deconstructing the job in a way that goes beyond the cliches of Good Captain and Bad Captain. My working theory is that losing captains are more useful than winning ones because they go through a period of self analysis that winning captains need to. If you win, you’re golden, whether what you did worked or not. 

The cliché that history is written by the winners has never been more true. The history of the Ryder Cup is basically a bunch of stories that are told over and over again, which are created to explain the result. So, for most of the 20th Century, America won the cup and so the story of Team USA was a byproduct of American exceptionalism. They had the best courses, more money, the best weather and their college system was a ‘golfing talent factory’, and so it was no surprise that they won.

Those in charge when success happens are lauded as heroes, and the losers take the hit.

Then, when Europe started winning in the 80s, those same advantages were switched around to explain American defeat. They are now too rich to care, money has made them complacent, the college system is now blamed for cultivating mediocrity, and the weather means they don’t have to innovate or develop other styles of play. Europeans are routinely portrayed as having a better team spirit, the story presented to explain this is that they fly around the tour together and go out for drinks in the evening. Whereas the Americans are loners who breakfast in their rooms. But go back to when Americans were winning and they seemed to be getting along just fine.

I called the book The Captain Myth because I’m very interested in the whole area of myth and storytelling, how they come about, how we use them for good and ill, and how they become embedded in to history. In all sport, and business, so much of what we commonly refer to as fact is actually a story we’ve created to explain success or failure. The only really factual elements of Ryder Cup history are the scores. The rest is a mix of conjecture and opinion.

Because I know a bit about how the sports business works, I’ve developed a bit of a radar for stuff that is fake and exists to sell a version of the story to the sports media and the reality. It’s like when you’re at a sports business conference, where there’s two things going on simultaneously: there’s the formal stuff on the platform, all about the future of this and that, where the people on stage speak in a code and everything is quite buttoned up. Then there’s the real sports business gossip in the bars and pubs afterwards, which is real.

Probably like you, I’ve always had one eye on what goes on behind the scenes. A lot of the book is me wondering how people fall for these stories that are obviously nonsense, but have endured for years because it’s not really in anyone’s interest to question them.

 

Do you think that’s in a ‘print the legend’ kind of sense or is it something more insidious?

There’s definitely a bit of both. There are always people and organisations who actively try to twist a story in the direction that favours them. That’s always been the case and always will be. But I’m much more interested in how some stories endure while others fade away over time. The author Neil Gaiman says that some fairy tales, such as Cinderella for example, are like sharks in the way they evolve and adapt to stay relevant to every age, that there is something in these stories that encourages us to pass them on.

A good example of an enduring Ryder Cup myth is the famous concession at Royal Birkdale at the end of the 1969 match, when Jack Nicklaus gave Tony Jacklin a short putt on the last to halve the match. Nicklaus’ generosity has been elevated over the years to be symbolic of the Ryder Cup’s point of difference in the market, which is that millionaire players are playing for something more than money, because the players don’t get paid a fee (despite many of the Americans actively trying to change the rules or the fact that making the Ryder Cup team in Europe or America triggers sponsor bonuses and makes the players and the captain more saleable, but let’s not get bogged down in that one).

The reality of the concession is more complex and far more interesting, and there were other factors at play that have been forgotten down the years because they don’t fit the established narrative. Most notable was that the American team captain Sam Snead was very cross indeed about Jack giving Jacklin the putt, because Snead wanted to win rather than tie the cup and he accused Nicklaus of showboating at his expense. There’s a nice sport biz angle to this story actually, which is how the concession at Birkdale was part of a rebrand of Jack Nicklaus, who had just left Mark McCormack over what he perceived to be IMG’s favouring of Arnold Palmer. The concession is central to the Nicklaus brand, every bit as it is central to the Ryder Cup’s.

 

The captains are obviously announced some time before anyone has a real idea who’ll be in either team. Do you think that has an effect on how integral they’ve become to the Ryder Cup brand?

It’s a good point, but I think it goes beyond that actually. The captain is the one constant in the two-year media vacuum between events. It’s he that carries the brand of the Ryder Cup and its partners through that period.

At each major championship, the captains are very visible, often doing official press conferences and working as media pundits. To use the jargon they are the tentpoles that keep it all going between cups, which makes them such ideal candidates as brand ambassadors, particularly those seeking to build around the leadership and strategy metaphors, for financial services or consultancy category brands. An obvious example is Davis Love and Darren Clarke, this year’s captains, who are working with Standard Life Investments, which is the global partner of the Ryder Cup. It’s a relationship that makes complete sense.

The broader point I make in the book is the parallels between sport and business leaders. I look in to why business leaders became famous. Look around today and we see people like Richard Branson, Jack Welch, Mark Zuckerberg, Alan Sugar and of course, Donald Trump, are household names. This wasn’t always the case. Donald Trump was an early example of a business person building his own brand. The Art of the Deal - his ghostwritten book published in the late 1980s - helped make him as famous in the celebrity pages as the business section of the newspapers in the US. Today he’s mounted a presidential campaign based pretty much on the character he plays in The Apprentice. Scary stuff and an example of how powerful personal branding can be when allied to a business, or in the case of the Ryder Cup captain, a quasi-business background.


Jack Nicklaus' 1969 concession to Tony Jacklin became a key part of Ryder Cup lore

And Trump has put that personal brand front and centre in golf, as well as other sports, to decidedly mixed effect. So which is feeding into the other? Are we telling more leadership stories in sport because we see it more through a business and political prism? Or is sport’s rampant media profile changing the way we process those other stories?

Bit of both. There are parallels in terms of the role of the media across sport, business and politics. At some point, and it is tempting to blame the 1980s here, the way the media reported business and politics changed to become more like the way sport journalism works - companies and political parties became teams, votes, or the stock price and profits, were the way we keep score.

In the 80s, privatisation meant that shares were being marketed to the general public just as technology was making many businesses more complex to understand for both the layman and the so-called expert investors. That mix led directly to the rise of the superstar CEO, who is the cousin of the big name football managers and major league coaches. Rather than investigate the balance sheets of the companies they were buying shares in, shareholders began seeking simpler stories, and a new generation of media friendly business people began to emerge to tell them.

Those elements are in play in the sports world today. Greater complexity and a general levelling off in terms of the difference between teams, means that the role of the manager or in the Ryder Cup’s place, the captain, has become far more significant in terms of profile. He is a storytelling device.

 

Speaking of storytelling devices, what has the response been to the book from people within golf?

The early pick up from the media has been really encouraging. There’s an appetite for an alternative view on the topics I’m discussing, particularly in the generalist sport and business media. The Wall Street Journal did a big spread on the issues arising from the cult of leadership, prompted by the book. In general, I don’t think I’m saying anything that is particularly controversial, it’s just that we are so used to having the Great Man theory of history pushed our way - which attributes everything to personalities and ignores luck, that when anyone questions that it is seen as a bit ballsy.

 

Some within golf have been a bit sniffy, but interestingly the captains themselves have seen what the book is about and have embraced it. I did an interview with Rick Broadbent of The Times, who relayed an anecdote about when his colleague Matt Dickinson, the paper’s chief sports writer, interviewed Paul McGinley, who referenced the book. Bernard Gallacher, who was European captain in the early 90s, wrote a lovely five star Amazon review. They’re the people who know more about this than anyone and to get their buy in has been great because it says that I’ve done something that is relevant.

 

And whatever influence the captains may or may not have, who's your pick for the Ryder Cup this year?

The event needs America to win. If that happens, there'll be a Darren Clarke Bad Captain backlash that will be very ugly, and in the US, the PGA of America's Ryder Cup Task Force will be deemed as the 'blueprint' for the future. Neither will be correct. But history is written by the winners.

The Captain Myth: The Ryder Cup and Sport's Great Leadership Delusion is out now, published by Bloomsbury in the UK and USA.

The 41st Ryder Cup will be played from 30th September to 2nd October.