On April 7th 2011, Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland shot a 7-under-par 65 to take the lead in the first round of the US Masters golf tournament. Two days later he shot 70, giving him a 4 stroke lead for the final day. At the age of 21 he was on the brink of greatness. The sporting world stood ready to acclaim a new champion.
But it didn’t happen. On Sunday McIlroy took 80 for his round – the worst round in history for any golfer leading after the third round of the Masters. He eventually finished tied for 15th place and instead of wearing the famous green jacket, he “couldn’t get to the airport fast enough.”
In his next few events McIlroy’s form dipped further. The doubters nodded their heads. He’d been mentally broken by his collapse at Augusta. He’d never be the same player again. And now his next tournament was another ‘major’ – the US Open on the notoriously difficult Congressional course at Bethesda.
On June 16th McIlroy stepped onto the tee at Bethesda and shot 65 to take the first round lead. On Friday he became the first player ever to hold a score of 13 under par at any point in the tournament. On Saturday he shot 68 for a three round total of 199 – a record for the tournament, giving him an eight shot lead going into the final day. And a final round of 69 gave him the title – and beat Tiger Woods’ lowest ever aggregate score.
I’m constantly fascinated by the parallels between sport and business. In sport it doesn’t matter who you are – Ed Moses, Roger Federer, Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy – no-one wins all the time. Business is the same – even the most successful entrepreneurs will tell you that they only get 50% of their decisions right. In fact, one of the key traits that defines a successful entrepreneur is the ability to overcome a wrong decision – what the outside world sees as ‘failure.’
Richard Branson has probably lost more money in failed ventures than everyone reading this blog will earn in a lifetime. But he’s had a few successes along the way and in any survey he’s just about the most admired entrepreneur in the country. So what’s his definition of failure? Simple: “not trying something new.”
Successful entrepreneurs don’t see failure as failure. They tried something. It didn’t work. So what? It was a learning experience. Let’s move on – there’ll be another opportunity along tomorrow. They’re playing the long game – and that keeps what other people label ‘failure’ in perspective.
Back to Rory McIlroy. The New York Times reported a conversation between McIlroy and his manager Andrew ‘Chubby’ Chandler. “Honestly,” said McIlroy. “I don’t know what all the fuss is about, Chub, because at the end of the day, it’s just a golf tournament and I’m 21.” McIlroy kept it in perspective. He knew there’d be plenty of other golf tournaments. The entrepreneur knows that there’ll be plenty of other opportunities.
We all have setbacks – whether they’re in sport, life or business. But that’s all they are – setbacks, not failures. After all, if you’re driving from Leeds to Manchester and the M62’s blocked at Huddersfield, it doesn’t mean you can’t get there. You’re just going by the scenic route…
I sometimes worry that Board members are afraid to admit when things go wrong. I love it when someone comes in and says “Tried this. Didn’t work. Disaster. Lost some money.” Because I know – even in my short experience, but more importantly, colleagues in the US bear it out – that next time they’ll be saying. “Tried this. Worked brilliantly. Taken the business to a whole new level.”
So here’s a commitment. Next time someone at a Board meeting says, “Didn’t work. Disaster. Lost some money,” the rest of us will start applauding. And afterwards we might quietly ask if you have any shares for sale…