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What Business Leaders Can Learn from Arnold Palmer

Oct. 11, 2016
Real leaders inspire; they don't demean. And no one illustrated that lesson better than Arnold Palmer.

Put away your nine iron. You can learn a lot about being a successful business leader from the late Arnold Palmer, and it has less to do with golf and more to do with character.

In my book, Truth, Trust + Tenacity, I cite Palmer as an outstanding example of a real leader.  Palmer, who died September 25 at the age of 87, was known for his constantly attacking golf swing, easy smile, matchless charisma, unstinting generosity and business acumen.  He had an uncanny ability to relate to all people, regardless of their position. Palmer understood the power of respect and civility: he cherished and appreciated his fans and treated them well, selflessly giving his time to sign autographs for hours when asked. Palmer built such a large fan base that the press gave them a name: Arnie’s Army.

Arnold Palmer never forgot his modest Pennsylvania roots or the discipline he learned throughout his enlistment in the United States Coast Guard. Men and women alike loved and respected him—I confess I was one of them.  I closely followed Palmer’s career, first in the gallery when fresh out of the Navy and later as a PGA Tour marshal.  When I met him, like countless others, I felt like I was the most important person in his world.

His genuine humility and strength of character are relevant today, especially in the business community. Too many so-called business “leaders” don’t lead. They boss. They demean. They disparage. They don’t motivate, and they lack personal integrity. Real leaders inspire. They encourage risks without repercussions, and they treat everyone with dignity and respect—just as Arnold Palmer did with his fans and later with all his business associates.

Palmer can teach each of us about what it means to be a true leader. Here are three critically important lessons we can learn and apply from him:

  1. Treat people decently and you will be rewarded with appreciation, hard work, and loyalty. Being successful in the sports world is a two-way street—just as it is in the business world. Palmer understood this more than anyone and became a role model for the right way to treat others. He showed great patience with his fans as he stopped to shake their hands, make eye contact and sign autographs. He was never too busy to acknowledge the little guy who adored him. Palmer’s fans appreciated this, and as a result, supported him throughout his career. It may be a cliché, but the golden rule is just as relevant today as ever. 
  • Remember your roots, and appreciate them. In other words, being in charge isn’t a license to be a snob or an elitist. Even though Palmer was astonishingly successful and achieved wealth beyond his wildest dreams, he never forgot his roots, and never stopped appreciating those who helped him achieve fame and fortune. Palmer understood that without this support, he would not have accomplished what he did. He won 62 PGA Tour events and seven major championships, was the first pro golfer to break the million-dollar mark in earnings, and even piloted his own airplane to fly to tournaments. Thanks in part to his efforts to democratize the game, the majority of golf courses are public, and everyone is welcome. His fame and fortune never stopped him from returning audience smiles and shaking hands. His personal touch made you feel special, and made you want to support him.
  • Inspire others through your personal acts. Palmer was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal, America’s highest civilian awards. His charity, the Arnie’s Army Charitable Foundation, continues to provide financial support to organizations that help children, families and other important causes. A few years ago, I toured the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando, a truly remarkable facility I won’t forget. Real leaders understand the importance of giving back to their employees and their communities.

Palmer may not go down in history as the planet’s best golfer—that title may be Tiger’s or Jack’s. I bet Palmer would be okay with that. In fact, he would no doubt tell you it’s more important to be remembered as one of the world’s best citizens. As he once said, “Success in this game depends less on strength of body than strength of mind and character.”

Arnold Palmer certainly exuded both, on the links and in the boardroom.

Ritch K. Eich, author, executive and retired Navy captain, is a management consultant in Thousand Oaks, Calif., whose leadership contributions have been recognized by many organizations. Proceeds from his three books have been donated to important non-profit organizations. Eich has served on more than a dozen boards of directors and trustees. His Ph.D is from the University of Michigan.

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