Ryder Cup Captain Thomas Bjørn on Winning, Leading, and Facing Down Fear

Read what professional golfer Thomas Bjørn, who led Europe’s 2018 Ryder Cup team to victory, shared during our Inspiration Keynote at Workday Rising Europe.

Denmark historically has not been a hotbed of international golfing talent, so when a young Thomas Bjørn set his sights on becoming a challenger on the European Tour, there were more than a few raised eyebrows in the Bjørn household.

Not that Bjørn was deterred from fulfilling his dream.

“My mum looked at me like I was nuts. My brother actually had to travel home to convince her,” recalls Bjørn. “At the time, golf was not a hugely popular sport in Denmark, and there was negativity [toward me] from some of the older Danish golfers, but sometimes it’s about getting your elbows up and moving forward. I pushed myself very hard to achieve and challenge the perception of what was normal for a Danish golfer.” And in 1996, at age 25, Bjørn joined the European Tour.

At this year’s Workday Rising Europe in Vienna, we were fortunate to be joined by Bjørn, who has won 15 European Tour tournaments and served as captain of Europe’s 2018 Ryder Cup winning team. What follows are highlights from Bjørn’s discussion during the conference’s Inspiration Keynote with English golfer Nick Dougherty, and from a follow-up discussion he and I had after the keynote.

Team Europe was the underdog going into the 42nd Ryder Cup in September, yet won by a considerable margin. Given that golf is essentially an individual sport, how did you harness that collective effort as the team’s captain?  

I think it’s important to let people be individuals, and try to put some shape behind them that helps them understand the bigger team goal. In business and in sport, individuality is very important, and we are who we are—you should never try and force someone into a certain mould.

With the Ryder Cup team we had 12 individuals, but very much one team and one family. The main thing was to convince them that they could achieve individually and that in turn would help us achieve collectively as a team.

What do you consider the qualities of a great leader?

I believe firmly that you have to stand behind your team and push. There are key moments where you have to be the one out front waving the flag, but generally, I believe that the best leader is the one who lets team members each be the driving force.

There’s no point leading at 200 mph when the rest of the team are only going at 120 mph; then you end up out on your own. It’s about enabling your people and supporting them to be the best they can be.

“Boundaries are set by other people. Never, ever believe that boundaries cannot be broken.”—Thomas Bjørn

The pressure can be huge in sports. How did you channel that fear and nervous energy to ensure the team had the best chance of winning?

You have to take nervousness and fear and use them as a positive force. Nerves wake us up and get the senses going. When you are good at what you do and believe in what you are doing, then fear is okay. Nobody goes through life without fear or failure, and anybody who says they do is not being truthful. But, as soon as you embrace that instead of fighting it, you can move forward positively.

During the keynote, you talked about how despite all your successes, it’s also important to fail. Why is that?

You build character through failure. It’s easy to see what happens through the good times but it’s about how you work through the tough times. It’s an uncomfortable feeling: “Do I want to be here?” You let that feeling of discomfort drive you. You have to be a bit cruel to yourself to be a sportsperson.

I know you’re a big Liverpool (Football Club) fan—a club that dominated its sport during the 1980s—but who are your other major influencers, both in sport and other areas?

There are so many individuals who have helped form my beliefs, so it’s hard to pick one. I look back to when I was a kid, so Kenny Dalglish and people like that were my heroes. But then you become a sportsman and you look at (Roger) Federer and (Michael) Jordan. In golf, Seve (Ballesteros) and (Jack) Nicklaus were massive influences.

With a total of 21 tour wins and the honour of leading Europe to Ryder Cup victory, you must have achieved most of your professional dreams. What advice would you give to others who are aiming for targets that may seem just a distant dream?

Boundaries are set by other people. Never, ever believe that boundaries cannot be broken. You have to make your own decisions, set your own bar, and not let others define what you can achieve.

That happens easily in sport and in business, where others are keen to put you in a certain hole or tell you how good you can be. Set yourself ambitious goals and keep raising the bar and asking yourself, “Where can I go next?”

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