The Dentistry of Authentic Leadership: Overcoming the Toothache of a Lost Swing

“Well you lost your swing… We got to go find it…

Now it’s somewhere… in the harmony… of all that is… All that was… All that will be…”

The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000)

Rory McIlroy is a young professional golfer whose meteoric rise to world prominence has been the focus of both praise and censure. Most recently, while in the middle of his Friday round at the Honda Golf Classic, McElroy’s boyish mystique came under intense scrutiny after he abruptly withdrew from the celebrated competition. Press agent communiqués later tried to justify his resignation on the basis of a “painful toothache” . . . a problematic wisdom tooth scheduled to be extracted by Rory’s Belfast dentist sometime after the U.S. Open in June!

The top-ranked golfer in the world has since acknowledged that walking off the Honda Classic was a huge mistake. “It was a reactive decision,” he confessed, “that was not good for the tournament, the kids, and the fans who were watching.” According to McIlroy, “there are no quick fixes in golf. What I should have done was take my drop, chip it on, and play my hardest on the back nine.” All he now wants to do is get “his swing in the right position . . . and the results will follow!”

According to many commentators, the “root cause” of McIlroy’s agony is not an ailing molar but the psychological strain of a “lost swing!” His problem apparently started when the talented 23-year-old switched to Nike golf clubs after signing a historic $100 million golf endorsement at the beginning of the 2013 season. If true, McIlroy’s discomfort cannot be annealed by expert oral extractions but only through the dentistry of authentic leadership – the daily procedures that safeguard the wisdom of original core intensities and, thereby, return the exhibition of his authentic swing.

Why do leaders falter, make rash decisions, and recklessly crash their careers from positions of high achievement? Why do so many athletes, entertainers, business leaders, and politicians unexpectedly lose the rhythm of their authenticity when, by all appearances, they stand acclaimed in their respective disciplines? The following anecdote may provide some insight towards the formulation of a reasonable “réponse” to the query.

Once upon a time there was a sea captain, renowned for his ability to safeguard merchant ships across the world’s vast oceans. The dangers of storms, pirates, or moonless nights could not falter his ability to efficaciously navigate. Admired by crew and officers alike, the skipper’s secret of success became the focus of fame, fable, and fierce speculation.

Every morning the captain went through an exacting ritual. He would lock himself in his quarters, open a small safe and carefully unfold a small piece of tattered paper from a yellowed envelope. Like clockwork, the commander would open the safe, stare at the paper and only then begin his daily duties. Curious about his career-long obsession, the captain’s crew speculated about the paper’s content. “Was it a treasure map, a secret incantation, or a letter from a long lost love?”

One day the famous sea captain died. Having completed their expression of proper naval respect, the first mate swiftly led the entire crew into the captain’s quarters. He broke open the safe, extracted the envelope, and studied the contents of its furtive paper. The bearded, seasoned sailor turned pale after reading the following four capitalized words: “Port Left, Starboard Right.”

Like their maritime counterparts, wise terrestrial leaders protect the vitality of their vision by regularly focusing attention on the compass of their most important core values. In so doing, they preserve the authenticity of their convictions and maintain the stable and safe course of their respective mission. When guided by the “Port” and “Starboard” of appropriate standards, leaders of every type are protected from the varied enticements that can pilfer the powerful potential of their personal capacity and unique creative purpose.

Examples abound of talented, highly successful athletes, business and religious leaders who, at the peak of their careers, were unpredictably beset by the toothache of a pirated swing. Their diverse and perplexing reactions to the ensuing pain, is what ultimately raises the question of how they lost their way in the first place. Why is it that so many leaders, known for their talent and integrity, engage in self-destructive behaviors? Why do they risk great careers and unblemished reputations by swapping their original aspirations for the ever-vanishing ephemeral gains of profit and celebrity?

Current media hype notwithstanding, such disoriented leaders and their institutions are not all frauds. Most started their mission and careers as honest individuals who finally lost their authenticity by gradually yielding to the seduction of miss-directed aspirations. While very few intentionally sought the summit of excellence to cheat or do evil, many neglected the compass of their original core values and, unfortunately, succumbed to the lure of outward gratification.

McIlroy’s current calamity illustrates the value of preserving the authenticity of healthy core values. Such conservation, however, presupposes the probing dentistry of regular self-reflection – a flossing that seeks to dislodge anything that would sabotage the honest influence of their leadership. On the other hand, if power, prestige, celebrity perks, and profit are the primary objectives, leaders of all stripes risk experiencing the inexorable tooth-decay of self-distortion. While there is nothing inherently wrong with enjoying the varied rewards of temporal success, leaders must be careful to balance such yearnings with a deeper desire of serving the needs of others more than they oblige themselves!

Leaders, like athletes, often run the risk of denying the burdens associated with success. Tragically, the media is littered with the stories of public personalities victimized by paranoid insecurities. Obsessed with the specter of would-be contenders lurking in the shadows of their respective disciplines, even the stoutest of leaders can lose the balance of their core convictions!

Driven to maintain unrealistic standards of self-imposed perfection, few maintain the capacity to acknowledge personal and professional failings. Consequently, when confronted with imperfect performance they may seek the solace of vice. Others, like McIlroy, may be tempted to blame their shortcomings on the agony of phantom toothaches. Leaders can avoid these and other self-destructive distortions by devoting themselves to honest evaluation that cultivates the ability to accept limitations and deficiencies in light of the authenticity of their inner compass.

The First Tee is an international youth organization that introduces the game of golf and its inherent values to young people. Former President George H. W. Bush, served as the organization’s first chairman. Since its inception in 1997 the organization has engaged 7.6 million participants with over 12,000            active volunteers. The First Tee stresses the need for young golfers to develop the following nine (9) core values.

  1. Honesty: The quality or state of being truthful.
  2. Integrity: The strict adherence to a standard of value or conduct.
  3. Sportsmanship: The observance of the rules of play, winning or losing with grace.
  4. Respect: The ability to express esteem, to feel or show deferential regard.
  5. Confidence: The feeling of self-assurance, reliance or trust.
  6. Responsibility: Accountability for one’s actions.
  7. Perseverance: The ability to persist in an idea, purpose or task despite obstacles.
  8. Courtesy: The ability to show considerate behavior toward others.
  9. Judgment: The ability to make a decision or form an opinion after thoughtful consideration.

The aforementioned values are powerfully on display in The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000), a film directed by Robert Redford, starring Will Smith, Matt Damon, Jack Lemmon, and Charlize Theron. The movie is based on Steven Pressfield’s 1995 book of the same title about an elderly man who collapses on a golf course. While unconscious, the golfer recalls a tournament between two famous players, Water Hagen and Bobby Jones, and a lesser-known local man, named Runnulph Junuh. Once an excellent young athlete, Junuh now suffers the fairway duffs, shanks, and slices from World War I posttraumatic stress syndrome. According to a mysterious caddy named Bagger Vance, Junuh’s negative life experiences have caused him to tragically lose the integrity of his “authentic swing!”

The Legend of Bagger Vance employs the metaphor of golf to examine vital issues of life, love, and leadership. While the setting is, indeed, a golf course, Vance’s intimate conversations with Junuh provide the insights that are required for the troubled young golfer to find personal and professional healing. His redemption finally arrives in the honest and humble acquiescence of his physical and spiritual limitations.

In the film’s most inspirational concluding scene, Junuh is confronted with a most difficult personal dilemma. Faced with the possibility of losing the tournament, he can secretly discard his core values and cheat his way to victory. Instead, he boldly faces the truth of his arrogant self-absorption and thereby re-gains much more than a lost swing.  He recaptures his “authentic self.” As he does, Bagger Vance – the film’s metaphor for God-inspired enlightenment – disappears!

Leaders, like aspiring young golfers, require the strong caddy of firm convictions, and the steady compass of core values that point beyond the relentless drive for prestige, power, and profit at any cost. When regularly practiced, such a dentistry of leadership can maintain the “Port” and “Starboard” of every healthy leader’s root ideologies and thereby safeguard the shape and vigor of their authenticity!

Dr. Frank Marangos is CEO and Founder of OINOS Educational Consulting. He received a Doctors Degree in Adult Education (Ed.D.) from NOVA Southeastern University (Ft. Lauderdale, FL) and a Doctorate in Ministry and Childhood Education (D.Min.) from Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX). He is also a Certified Charitable Estate Planner (FCEP).

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