Tiger Woods and Conversational Leadership



Irish poet and marine zoologist David Whyte is my favorite writer about work.  He glistens like the leaves of the aspen tree that sparkle in a wind, fed by roots that can be thousands of year old.  He gets deep.  On my radio show on Saturday he spoke with the magic of Irish-poet, defending drink and uplifting work.  Jennifer said when I came home from the studio, “I just wanted to play him back over and over to get everything.”

One of the ideas that has grabbed Whyte and that he’s unfolding for us is the idea of “conversational leadership.”  What a contrast with Tiger Woods in his tortured week.  Tiger the icon.  A conversation was clearly the last thing he wanted.  Who could blame him?  Who’d want to be that vulnerable?  But, even before this, what would you talk to Tiger about anyway?  His supernatural confidence?  Who could relate to that?  His billions?  Rolex and Accenture love him precisely because he’s flawless, peerless, above conversation.

Whyte says one of the best things a leader can do is to be in conversation.  Being in conversation allows people to be real, and allows the soul to live at work.  And the key to a genuine conversation, Whyte says, is vulnerability.  How does a boss generate that human and genuine an environment I asked, and he was all over it.  He says it happens best when a leader says, “I don’t know.”  Interesting to think that maybe those are the  three most important words a leader can speak: I don’t know.  Those words level the ground for our kids, co-workers, or those who report to us.  They create room for dialogue and learning.  They create space for others to lead.  “I don’t know,” makes knowing important, but truth even more important.

Perhaps our fascination with the Tiger-perfect masks our deep hidden desire to be so great.  But if it’s everyday greatness you want to show and enable in others, treat yourself or a fellow leader to The Three Marriages or The Heart Aroused by David Whyte or have a listen to this 12-minute interview from the first segment of my show this week.  As you

Lead with your best self,


Click here to listen to the audio of this post.

25 responses to “Tiger Woods and Conversational Leadership

  1. Dan,

    Some things are best said in (almost) iambic pentameter…


    When a perfect man, on a perfect day,
    Discovered his life had a tiny flaw,
    He greeted the flaw in his perfect way,
    Inviting his friends to see what he saw.
    He capered about in a perfect dance,
    And sang a glad song in his perfect voice.
    He sang: “At last, I have a perfect chance,
    To make a perfectly wonderful choice!”
    He placed the small flaw on his mantelpiece,
    In perfect balance with his grand decor.
    “And, at last I shall know the perfect peace —
    With joy I have never known before!”
    For, although he could talk, cry, sing and shout,
    He’d had nothing at all to talk about…

    Mick McKellar
    December 2009

    1. Mick,
      I read your “midnight poet” 1:00 am work when I arose this morning. I was going to say: “You should post that on Reading for Leading.” Was happy to see that you already had.
      With a good illustrator, I think you have a Dr. Seuss story in-the-making, here – a superb adult story that only needs one of those Seuss characters with spikey hair and not quite the right number of toes.

      1. Dan,

        I enjoyed David Whyte’s comments during your interview. It reminded me of something else William Wordsworth said: “Faith is a passionate intuition.” Perhaps, because he is a poet, I believe David Whyte may well understand passionate intuition — which also happens to be the poet’s spring board. A poet himself, Wordsworth wrote about poetry: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: It takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”

        It is the emotional foundation and the power erupting from tranquil waters that gives poetry its energy and its majesty. Poetry touches that “dark invisible workmanship” within us.

        Wordsworth also said something very applicable to today’s world of work: “In modern business it is not the crook who is to be feared most, it is the honest man who doesn’t know what he is doing.” If that honest businessman has the courage to say, “I don’t know,” then perhaps, we have less to fear from him, and we can get back to concentrating on the crooks…


    2. Mick,

      Flawed paints a picture that this man can do no wrong, however, I see a continuation to the ending, and I would like to know what it is. I am sure it has an interesting ending. (Thumbs up)

      Thomas K. Burke

      1. When I wrote the poem Flawed, a reader remarked that the story seemed incomplete and wondered how it ended. I thought about it, and pondered on the complex interaction between those we view as “perfect” and the ardent fans that help create that myth of perfection. Is there a price to be paid forprofiting from that perfection myth?

        Although we have been told that those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it, again and again, we build castles for those we consider perfect, and then we evict them when they prove to be just as human as the rest of us. There is, of course, a price to be paid, an often steep and unpleasant price for riding high on the expectations of fans and those who worship at the image of perfection. The higher one climbs the further one has to fall.

        It’s more than Marley’s chains, for he did not understand until after he was buried by old Scrooge. The meteoric rise and sometimes cataclysmic crash and burn of so many celebrities, should teach us something about perfection: It is a marvelous motivator and a grand goal, but anyone who thinks he has achieved it is a fool; an anyone who trades on his perfection is merely polishing his fool’s gold.


        Flawed, too

        When a perfect man, on a perfect day,
        Discovered his life had a tiny flaw,
        He greeted the flaw in his perfect way,
        Inviting his friends to see what he saw.
        He capered about in a perfect dance,
        And sang a glad song in his perfect voice.
        He sang: “At last, I have a perfect chance,
        To make a perfectly wonderful choice!”
        He placed the small flaw on his mantelpiece,
        In perfect balance with his grand decor.
        “And, at last I shall know the perfect peace —
        With joy I have never known before!”
        For, although he could talk, cry, sing and shout,
        He’d had nothing at all to talk about…

        His attitude changed when his friends came by,
        And they saw his tiny flaw on display.
        Some screamed in outrage, and others did cry:
        “Oh, how can you disappoint us this way?”
        “You were our idol, our role-model king;
        We held you up for our daughters and sons,
        And now you display this imperfect thing —
        A thing from which any perfect man runs!”
        Some media pundits made it a joke,
        And others called it a conspiracy.
        Some assumed he must be perfectly broke,
        And badly needed the publicity.
        He looked sad at how his flaw was received,
        But secretly, was perfectly relieved.

        When that perfect man, on that perfect day,
        Put his flaw on display for all to see,
        He knew there were legends he would betray,
        And myths he’d destroy almost perfectly.
        Though the myths were not his, he’d let them grow,
        And profited from perfection for sale;
        But now he had let his ardent fans know,
        Of the tiny flaw in his perfect tale.
        Rich, lonely, and tired, he had given in
        To impulse, and shared the truth of his lie;
        For he had discovered to his chagrin,
        That perfection’s price, was simply too high
        To run away from, though he traveled far…
        For the gravy train has a baggage car.

        Mick McKellar
        December 2009

  2. Dan –

    What a great message to start the week. I missed the program, but I will download the podcast to listen. As with all things in leadership, the advice stands as well in raising our family, upholding our marriage, connecting to our community as well as leading our organizations. Thank you for all you do.


  3. kudos – finally…I’ve been saying for years the best way to show my ‘team’ of any sort how to do things right is to admit that I don’t always know all the answers, but I will do whatever it takes to work with them to figure it out so we can both learn together. This is foreign in so many workplaces that people look at me like an alien when the words come out – it’s okay, I just keep going and trying to find the openness and honesty and show how I do it so they and I can continue to grow and learn.

    Happy Holidays!

    1. Carol,
      I’m glad that you’re making this practice of openness less unusual or “foreign.” It’s great that you explain what you’re doing, as that is key to making the practice – of transparent humility – better understood.

  4. Dan,

    Maybe in Tiger woods mind he thought he was perfect, (and maybe not), when we label someone, it is due becauese of our own transgressions. The issue about his infidelity does not make him imperfect. God is the judge, not the news media.

    Thomas K. Burke

  5. Dan,

    I have to be honest I am a bit disappointed. Today is the anniversary of a very sad day in history and we are discussing what seems to be (sorry to say) a common flaw in society today. I have heard no “water cooler” talk on the subject so I propose that the issue was only brought up on the news because of a slow news week which was preceeded by a lot of press on a book release by Palin. I guess I am grateful that there were no major disasters or more important issues that needed to be discussed in this world…layoffs and the economy becoming tired news, I suppose.

    But my main concern was your question as to “what would you talk to Tiger about anyway?” As leaders we should be able to talk to all folks with comfort. It is not that I don’t respect Tiger’s fame or skills, but he had a mother and father who loved him and many travels before he won tornaments. I am fairly sure he does not magically appear in his pants each morning but…as they say…puts them on one leg at a time.

    I have been lucky in my life to have leaders in my family. My father and grandfathers were Army officers. I never saw them treat a private differently than a superior officer…except the guy showing up to take me on a date. I still work hard at taking time to spend to meet people and enjoy conversation. These are precious opportunity as they may not be here tomorrow for another chance.


    1. Kathy,
      I am afraid I made my point poorly, for I welcome and agree with what you have said, though you seem to see it as a criticism and not something I would appreciate. I guess my point was not that Tiger doesn’t or shouldn’t talk to people. I assume he does, and I agree that he should. (I also recognize he could literally spend his entire life signing autographs and engaging people. I don’t expect that.)
      My point is that the GREAT people WE create – we, the media, we the worshippers (who often quickly become the condemners) are as you say people, who put their pants on one leg at a time.
      But to a 3 year old parents DO know everything. To a 10 year old that coach CAN do anything. To a worker, that CEO has all the answers. So, I am saying there is an affirmative obligation on the part of “big” people to get real. Tiger has been one of the most unreal figures we have ever created. I mean Tiger-the-Idol. I’m not writing TO Tiger or to have Rolex try to get real. I’m writing to us, to be like your father and grandfather, and to push across the boundaries to engage people. And to push so far that we make ourselves one of them in the most fundamental of ways – admitting we don’t know.

      I appreciate your raising the point you have, and hope my response builds upon what you have written.


  6. Dan
    No one is perfect. We all have our holes in our buckets, including the media. The best thing a leader can do is not run, not hide, not lie and not exagerate others failings.
    Just tell the truth, get up and move on.

    The real deal is that those afraid of exposing their soft underflesh are out there assaulting others from behind the protection of media, podium, gossip half truths. They are not leaders, but cowards.

    Often I wonder what is the sin of those making accusations so it can be published too.

    We all fall!

    1. Mike,

      As my son Jack would say, “True dat.”

      I’ve been on the other end of that judgmentalism and it makes my skin crawl every time I see it – even when it’s pointed towards people who are supposedly my “enemies” (e.g., Republicans or athletes who challenge my beloved Detroit teams).

      Perhaps I should have done a better job of distinguishing between Tiger-the-Idol and Tiger-the-Man (whom I surely do not know). I’m all for a “let he who is without sin, throw the first stone.” Perhaps the new Information Age, which has made it less of an advantage for those who “buy their ink by the barrel” to have the last say every time. Maybe it’s a time where people can stand up and say, “that’s wrong to judge in that way.”

      1. Dan
        We in our society make people up to be who they are not, then they try to live up to it and suffer inside very much. All “idols” are one of those human beings whom are not perfect. We all try to do the best we can and others judge and paint nice pictures or ugly pictures of us and pat our backs or stab them. Leaders have a bit of humility and lead on even when knocked of the pretty picture easel. I have had leaders who were knocked off out of vengence and they still led from the floor position. That will truly demonstrate true leaders as idols or persons. Colin Powell is one of those taken advantage of, abused, dumped and he still is a leader of great integrity.

  7. Dan,
    I found RFL to be very interesting, except for the comparison to Tiger. I am an avid golfer so I’m familiar with his golfing excellence,but I’ve never considered him a leader in the sense that we all respect, and that you write about. People have trouble with Tiger because he never wants to be IN the conversation, he wants to golf & have his privacy at the same time. What he’s finding out is that he can’t, that he can’t block the response to his human frailties. Maybe he’ll figure out now that he can’t be above the conversation.

  8. hi dan
    i enjoy your weekly insights and often share them with others. i think you’re right about the boss “humanizing” him/herself by admitting “i don’t know” – how about next week’s edition focusing in on what comes after “i don’t know”? what does the boss say next? how does the problem get solved or the question answered?


  9. I had an off the record complaint that I mischaracterized Tiger and Accenture. The writer said Tiger actually converses quite a bit at events with Accenture, and that Accenture hardly portrays him as “flawless,” but in fact shows him “adapting to challenge,” recovering from accidents (as he’s recovered from his knee surgery, and I might add, the loss of his father).

    Fair enough. I have cherry-picked an easy and timely example. I don’t know Tiger, and he may be thoroughly conversant and down to earth. I know that BIG figures tend to have US freeze up; I remember meeting Aretha Franklin and stammering something that I immediately felt was totally inane, like “I love your music.” I know when confronted by bosses, my usually quick tongue went dead. So, the point is not so much about Tiger, but about perceived bigger-than-lifeness. We see people as perfect or perfectly powerful, and Tiger with Rolex, Nike attire, etc., LOOKS the part of perfect execution. I’m just saying that these trappings put people at a distance, and great leaders work to bring them in close, in a human way.

    Presumably, Accenture has clients who say “I don’t know,” and my experience of that company is that many of their “high-priced consultants” have the integrity and love for learning to say “I don’t know” when they don’t. That is the big picture I was trying to convey. Create authenticity and intimacy, even when all the pressure is to look perfect and in control. When you don’t know, say “I don’t know.”

    When I hit out of a trap, I usually wear as much sand as a wet kid at the beach! It’s obvious that I don’t know! With the Tigers of the world, they bear a bigger burden, when even their mistakes somehow get holed out for a birdie.

  10. David Whyte is brilliant. He captures the essence of soul-based living. I am particularly fond of Clear Mind Wild Heart. It describes a whole different approach to life… one most of us have been brainwashed out of.

    When you speak of leading with your best self, I think you refer to the Self he describes. When I speak of Speaking Strong, I refer to speaking from the Self he describes.

    1. Meryl,
      I’ll have to pick that up.
      I think that one of the concepts that will spread in the 21st century is a Jungian notion of the Self. I think of it as that part of us that is most uniquely us and is at the same time transcendent, participating in something eternal and true.
      So many people learned about Freud’s Ego, Id, and Superego. They should have been learning about Jung’s collective unconscious, and his ideas about a more dyanmic and less mechanistic psyche. I appreciate your bringing the Self into the matter. I had not thought much about it the Self in terms of leading with your best self, but you are right. I mean some part of you that’s not the least bit small, but willing to risk, to give first, admit first, forgive first, etc. Great to hear from you. I am hard at work but haven’t forgotten about your project. I’d love an update from your end.

  11. The Tiger story – now unavoidable – gets sadder by the second. I never thought I’d pray for Tiger, but today I do. I pray for the fallen tiger in all of us – least I know there’s one in me.

    There’s more than the hunt.

    — Dan

  12. Maybe I missed the point, too, Dan. I thought you were talking about the power of conversation to build relationships. How many real conversations do Americans have in our everyday lives? Bosses dictating what will happen, what needs to happen, and when, without consulting those affected by the decision? Spouses having utilitarian exchanges about who picked up the dry cleaning and what are we having for supper? Parents dictating to kids: “Clean up your room! Wash your hands! Go to bed!” Card-carrying protesters outside the Capitol? Limited-character one-way Tweets about what we’re doing at any given moment? These are not conversations!!!

    With more and more single-person (non-eco-friendly) households, more people talk to their pets than ever have a real conversation. Yet, oh, the power of real sharing of ideas and opinions and experiences to build relationships! And, oh, the power of relationships!

    In Christian scriptures, the first letter of John states that God is love. Perhaps that’s the power of relationships–relationships built on conversation.

    I’m fortunate to attend Socrates Cafe, where we have a conversation among amateur philosophers once a week. There are whole books written on how structured conversations can resolve problems. Dynamic Governance, used by members of the Green Building Council, is a way to have an inclusive conversation, not the “Might makes right” of majority rules that we see in Robert’s Rules of Order, and governmental units in our country. How many issues would be peacably resolved if we had real CONVERSATIONS instead of dueling monologues between the parties, with the media looking on and reporting every last bit of dirt and controversy they can find?

    A leader who says “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure; what do YOU think?” is inviting conversation that can yield a vision from the front lines, the down-and-dirty-in-the-streets view, where the rubber hits the road, and that view tends to be inaccessible to the monkey that’s highest up in the corporate tree if there’s no conversation. Conversation is a powerful tool (even if I missed your main point). Thanks for sharing, and this on-line conversation, even though it tends to be serial monologues except for your responses, Dan.

  13. Activeadvocate,
    Thanks for a great entry – as often with yours, more enlightening than what I began the whole thing with. I was at Google today, having a conversation with Mike Miller, the Ann Arbor director, in front of a room full of engaged business leaders. One of the things that Mike said was most important to preserving their culture and empowering all the Googlers was the use of office hours. He tries to have an hour a day, where he’s open to anyone who wants to drop in. Do they, I asked? In my experience sometimes well-meaning corporate structures like that tend to get old and ossify. Absolutely, he said. There are always people who will come by. I felt humbled by that – in too big a hurry to do “my” work, no doubt not helping others do “theirs” better. Of course, it’s all “ours.”
    Thanks again, ActiveA. I so appreciate your contributions.

    1. I’m honored, Dan. As for your conversation with Mike Miller, I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a highly-qualified jobseeker after her recent job interview. She noticed that a former employee had come in to show off her new baby, and particularly asked to see the supervisor. “This is the kind of place where I want to work,” the jobseeker observed astutely. It’s the kind of place where the supervisor has shown so much respect and appreciation for the workers over the years, that former workers actually want to keep in touch! It’s a surely a healthy workplace, to attract and retain top talent. I’m fortunate to work in one of those, too.

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