Is Tiger Woods a Leader or a Golfer?

Last Updated Apr 12, 2010 8:43 PM EDT

Tiger Woods' return to the Masters following his sex scandal gives me a chance to underscore the difference between a celebrity and a true leader. We sometimes confuse the two, or assume that since a public figure has a high profile, then he must know something about leadership. Woods is -- or at least has been -- the leading golfer in the world. But being the best in something doesn't necessarily make you a leader of anything. We shouldn't confuse the two.

Billy Payne, the Chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, where the Masters is played, delivered a gratuitous lecture to Woods the day before the tournament began. In his rather misguided and self-righteous sermon, Payne said, "Our hero did not live up to the expectations of the role model we saw for our children." Give me a break! A pro golfer as a role model for our children? If Woods was a leader (in business, government, the clergy, etc.), then yes, Payne's comments would have been spot on. But it strikes me as dumb to hold the the world's best golfer up to the same standards to which we should hold real leaders. Here's why. The word "leader" is misleading: it means being the head of an organization or group, a role that includes inspiring everyone else and galvanizing followership. But it can also refer to the person with the lowest score on the golf course (the "leader" on the scoreboard). We're talking about two very different things here. Part of real leadership is serving as a behavioral role model. Barack Obama recognizes this and does it admirably. But Tiger Woods is supposed to be really good at golf, period. While I'm not defending what he did in his private life, to cast it in such moralistic terms rather than seeing it as a fundamentally private, emotional problem strikes me as misdirected and hypocritical.

In fact, if Billy Payne, who is supposed to be the "leader" of a golf club, were acting as a real leader, he would have stuck to his knitting and graciously welcomed us all to the Masters. True leaders lead people. Celebrities are not generally leaders of other people. There's nothing wrong with being a star, but they're usually looking out for Number One.

  • Kerry Sulkowicz

    Kerry Sulkowicz, M.D., a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, advises CEOs, boards, and investors on psychological aspects of leadership in complex organizations. He helps companies with CEO succession, boardroom and senior team dynamics, human capital due diligence for investors, high-stakes hiring assessments, and the psychology of negotiation strategy. Kerry also advises large family-owned enterprises in the US and abroad. He is the founder and managing principal of the Boswell Group LLC, a consulting firm based in New York, and he has written columns on the psychology of business for BusinessWeek and Fast Company magazine. He is on the Faculty of the Psychoanalytic Institute at NYU Medical Center and is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine.