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What You Can Learn About Humility From Tiger Woods’ Latest Victory

“I couldn’t have done this without the help of everyone around me.”

Those were the words of Tiger Woods on Sunday evening as he stood, victorious, at Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Club. At the home of Bobby Jones, Tiger once again found a way to make golf magic happen, shooting a final round 71 to win the 2018 Tour Championship in a thrilling wire-to-wire fashion.

And as he stood there in the setting sun, surrounded by thousands of fans cheering him on, what looked familiar felt brand new. In fact, it was obvious how new things were when Woods, a winner for the first time since 2013, choked back tears as he spoke of the moment and what it meant to him.


From Tiger?

On the golf course?

To quote the late Vince Lombardi, “What the hell is going on out here?”

We all remember the dominant Tiger, the one that statisticians chronicled in a 2008 Berkeley study of what they called “The Tiger Woods Effect.” According to the numbers, in his early career prime, Woods’ presence was good for a negative one-stroke impact on his fellow golfers. Just by showing up, he gained a one-stroke edge over everyone else.

Golf fans loved him for it. In fact, it seemed like everyone loved him for it.

That edge came from his single-minded focus on not just winning tournaments but obliterating them. He spoke frequently of his desire to not just catch Jack Nicklaus and his 18 majors but go beyond. And for almost a decade, it seemed like he would do it. Tournament after tournament, Tiger crushed the ball and the competition.

But along the way to history, he left a lot in his wake. He wasn’t especially friendly with his fellow players. He wasn’t exactly warm and fuzzy with the media, either. And more than one camera caught him glaring at a gallery that had somehow displeased him during a round. Fans saw his temper, his competitive arrogance, and excused it because he was so damn good.

And we were entertained.

It brings to mind an interesting study recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. The study revealed that in environments where there is a large power gap between a leader and the rest of the workers, known as a high power dynamic, the expectation is that the leader not only will be powerful and dominant but that people were OK with those who flaunted their dominance.

In other words, when people are the best at what they do, human beings give a pass to bad behavior. We can argue the quality of that leadership model, but the research seemed firm that those working with and around superstars expected behavior they wouldn’t otherwise tolerate.

But the study also revealed that in groups with a low power dynamic—where there’s less of a gap between the leader and the rest of the team—people expect humility and openness. And they not only expect it, it actually brings out the best of the team: humble leaders in low power dynamics produced greater communication and higher creativity.

So, let me bring it back to Tiger.

In his prime, he was the dominant leader in a high power dynamic. How he behaved—and how people responded to that behavior—was right in line with what the study revealed. He was treated like a superhuman because his play was superhuman. Many turned a blind eye to his actions.

But now?

Tiger’s not the apex. Not anymore. There are too many miles, too many well-documented mistakes, for Tiger to be seen as anything other than human. As a result, he’s leaning into humility, embracing the fact that he’s not so different from the rest of us after all. You could see it in his reaction to the win Sunday and I have friends who work in and around the tour who have shared that the shift in his personality seems real.

We’re happy to welcome him back. The way the gallery mobbed him on the 18th hole Sunday is proof that the world of golf has plenty of room for a humble Tiger Woods.

As fans, we love it when the Great Ones are humble. But despite what we may think, humility isn’t always an innate characteristic. Sometimes, especially as leaders, we have to be humbled in order to be humble. But if we’ll lean into the experience, and own our mistakes, we might just find a crowd of people waiting to welcome us with open arms.

Tiger Woods certainly did.

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About Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), longtime Associate Editor for Sports Illustrated, 11-time New York Times best-selling author, leadership expert and executive coach.

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