By Dr. Henry Cloud
Jack Nicklaus is the greatest golfer the world has ever known. His record of major wins is unsurpassed, even years after his last victory. Winning eighteen major tournaments is a record that is likely to stand for a long time. For those of you who are not golfers, that is the equivalent of more Super Bowls, World Series, heavyweight championships, tennis Grand Slams, or any other sports crown won by a single person or team. If you’re not a sports person, just call it the Oscars and think Katharine Hepburn.
Of all of his feats, one stands out to me. It was in the 1972 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. On the seventeenth hole, he faced what he described as a howling wind, a 218-yard shot, and a three-stroke lead, which on a hole like that could quickly disappear. What happened? He hit the shot. The ball hit the flagstick and fell a few inches from the hole. Birdie! And a locked-up U.S. Open victory. (Google it. You will watch it several times.)
In a career spanning so many years and so many victories, why does that one shot stand out to me above all others?
Here’s the rest of the story.
Nicklaus has described what happened in that historic moment. Right at the beginning of his backswing, the wind howls and forces his swing somewhat off-line. He can feel that it’s not right. So what does he do? He adjusts his swing plane midswing, right in the middle of one of the most important shots in the U.S. Open. Hitting a 1-iron, an impossible club anyway, in a gusty ocean wind, on a monster of a hole, under all that pressure, he has total awareness of a moving golf swing, the effect of the wind on his angles, and he makes an adjustment. Remember: his golf swing would move the clubhead somewhere around 120 miles per hour. And still he’s able to adjust midswing and hit the shot, and it stops three inches from the cup, 218 yards away. That is self-control to a degree that I just have no words to describe in strong enough terms, from sports to neuroscience to magic. It’s just who he was. It came from his character and makeup.
His sense of self-control, ownership, and responsibility were even more evident when he lost. In recent years, looking back, when asked about his greatest shot, he didn’t mention that shot or any one shot, but a sequence of holes in 1966 at the British Open. He was standing on the sixteenth tee, he recounted, and said to himself, “OK, Jack, I want a 3–4–4 finish and I think you’ll win the Open if you do that.” And he did. He finished 3–4–4 and won. How’s that for total self-direction, control, execution, and ownership?
A few years later, he stood in the exact same place, right among the leaders, and said it again: “OK, Jack, 3–4–4 and you’ll win the championship again.” Unfortunately, he didn’t make the shot that time around, and here is the kicker … the main point: as he looked back on that loss, he commented, “I finished 4–5–4 and lost by a shot. So I had my own destiny in my hands … and I just didn’t do it” [emphasis added]. That statement reveals the secret of his greatness. He saw himself as being in control, win or lose.
Listen to the ownership, the total realization of who is in control of Jack and his performance: Jack. He doesn’t offer excuses, such as, “It was windy that day and a gust of wind carried the ball too far on seventeen.” Or, “Someone yelled in my backswing.” There’s no “the dog ate my homework.” Instead, we hear total ownership: “I just didn’t do it.”
I have never seen great performers who felt themselves to be out of control of their own performance, emotions, direction, purpose, decisions, beliefs, choices, or any other human faculties. They don’t blame others or external factors. The greats are not like lesser performers, who try to explain away their failure as being somehow caused, forced, or controlled by someone else.
Click to Tweet: I have never seen great performers who felt themselves to be out of control of their own performance, emotions, direction, purpose, decisions, beliefs, choices, or any other human faculties.
Self-control is a big deal in human performance. Getting better depends upon it. You cannot get better if it’s not you who has to get better. You are the performer, period. You are the only thing you can control.
In the psychological world, this idea and description of health is called by many names. “Self-efficacy,” “agency,” and “locus of control” are a few. It is the “perception that one is in control of oneself.” If you have a 1-iron in your hand to win the U.S. Open, it’s good to realize that it’s in your hand, not someone else’s. If you do know it’s in your own hand, your mind and body (two parts of Siegel’s performance triangle) can adjust it to hit one of the greatest shots in history and win a U.S. Open. If you don’t, you’ll just continue the swing and then look up to see where it went. Good luck. A lot of people’s days and even lives are like that. They look up to “see where it went.” The greats in business, sports, or life know that they and only they hold the club. (See my book Boundaries for Leaders, HarperCollins, 2013.) And, remembering Siegel’s mind as regulator, you can see how a mind that has that kind of self-control can lead to very high performance.
Whether as a business leader, an individual performer, a parent, a spouse, or even as a patient in the health care system, once you realize that—that the 1-iron is in your hand—you are on your way to breaking through to the next level. You are 100 percent in control of your side of the relationship, your levers in the business, your input, the training and discipline of your kids, and on and on. Self-efficacy is part and parcel of any kind of human performance. Obviously you are not in control of the universe or other people, but you are always in control of yourself.
But The Power of the Other (from which this post is taken) is not a book about self-control. In fact, this isn’t even a book just about self. It’s a book about the power of the other—the power that someone else, not you, has in your life of performance, achievement, and well-being. Seems like a contradiction, right? On the one hand, I’m saying you’re totally in control of your performance, but on the other, I’m telling you that other people have power over your performance too. Which is it? Self-control or the power of others? Anyone confused?
The answer is yes. We all are confused. The reason we’re confused is that we see self-control and our individual performance as totally dependent upon ourselves and what we do, which is right, and as having nothing to do with anyone else, which is wrong. The truth is that, while our self-control and performance is totally in our control, it derives much of its sustenance from the power of our formative relationships. Yes, others, in the past and the present, help build our capacity for self-control. That is the paradox of performance.
Said another way, how much you perceive yourself as being in control of your life depends in part on how much the most significant people in your life support that ability and simultaneously hold you responsible for it. Winners not only perceive themselves as being in control of themselves and their choices, but also they exercise this control every day, and we can see it. They have that incredible sense of ownership, but in part it was built and is sustained by relationship.