Skip links

Transformational Leadership: Changing and Inspiring Club Culture

Transformational leaders, by definition, transform the organization and the individuals around them. The term was coined by James MacGregor Burns, a leadership expert and presidential biographer, who describes the style of leadership as when “leaders and followers make each other advance to a higher level of morality and motivation.” These leaders identify a necessary change, create a vision to guide the change by inspiring others, and execute the change in tandem with a committed group of members.

For clubs, the concept is based on aligning the core values of the membership, and then inspiring and empowering your team to accomplish goals and objectives. In other words, a transformational leader understands how to figure out the end game, creates the road map to get there, gets people to believe in your path, and then develops them to succeed. The best way to predict the future of your club is to define it, always taking into consideration the importance of a plan that is thoughtful, thorough and informed.

Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Today’s boards know better and should want and expect more from their club managers. The success of the group, in our case the club, defines your success as a leader. During my nine-year tenure at Merion Golf Club and Janine’s 12 years at Philadelphia Country Club, we have developed loyalty and trust in our teams. We are focused on working together. Loyalty and trust lay the foundation for effective working relationships.  

Employee Committees

Both Merion Golf Club and Philadelphia Country Club (PCC) have committees designed to empower employees and increase their productivity. Merion has an Employee Engagement Committee and PCC uses an Employee Relations Committee. These committees provide a forum for staff to offer their ideas and suggestions to improve the club and their performance and give Janine and me the opportunity to work together and communicate the importance of these committees as well as bounce ideas off of each other.

At PCC, the Employee Relations Committee plays a key role in establishing loyalty and trust. This committee operates just like a standing committee within the club’s governance model and is run by key staff members representing all club departments.

Several years ago, Janine worked with an ad hoc committee of the membership to create a core value statement that would attach to the club mission statement: “Our community is guided by our core values, which are integrity and respect for each other, our Staff and the traditions of the Club.” This very simple, yet powerful statement was then expanded by the Employee Relations Committee to identify and define professionalism, trust, teamwork, positive communication, safety and passion for service to the club’s membership. The core value statements provide language models for the team to emulate when interacting with each other and they facilitate open, honest and non-confrontational communication between team members and departments within the club. PCC’s core values have become the cornerstone for leadership conversations and they are entrenched in performance evaluations and employee recognition programs.

That foundation also extends to the relationships with the club board of directors and committees. All of our committees trust our professional staff with the responsibility to oversee the day-to-day operations of the club. As club managers, we want our members to enjoy their round of golf or their dinner at the club, and allow them in their committee roles to concentrate on the bigger picture. As leaders, we must guide the process by knowing and understanding our club’s vision, and by being trusted to achieve the desired outcome. Transformational leaders take on the responsibility of clarifying the vision. When shaping your club’s vision, many people will have an opinion. In our club roles, we help guide the outcome and are accountable for the results.

Our experience in club leadership has given us a broad- based perspective, founded not just on the knowledge of our membership, but on our industry expertise and by utilizing our peers. This involves having a selflessness that puts the club’s well-being in front of your own and encouraging others to do the same. Harry Truman said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish when you do not care who gets the credit.” Our role in the committee system is to make others look good. The goal is to make thoughtful and informed decisions and give credit to the committees and employees. General managers do not need credit for these decisions. Our reward as a transformational leader is in the outcomes, which are member satisfaction and employee enrichment.

Characteristics of Transformational Leaders

Integrity and concern for others are critical components of transformational leaders. People at all levels must trust you. Good leaders build trust because they are competent, reliable, authentic and caring. Without integrity, the foundation for trust and relationship building does not exist. Transformational leaders make a point to connect every member and employee at every level and ensure that these two groups are heard.

As a transformational leader, you learn to be everything to everyone. You are an advisor, therapist, architect, designer, contractor, and above all, a good listener. That only comes from understanding and respecting the perspectives of those around you and having the interpersonal skills to connect with them. Be visible, be sincere, and be engaged with all your constituencies. Make informed decisions that are aligned with your club’s objectives, will be supported by your membership, will inspire your team, and will then be developed by your team.

At Merion, we have a saying, “Make sure that everything is new, but nothing changes.” There is some degree of fear in our industry that clubs are difficult to change, or that it is too tough to sway the collective mind of a membership. Clubs do, of course, pride themselves on a having strong traditions, but that is not an acceptable reason to avoid change. A strong leader constantly assesses needs, whether you have been at your club for four days or 20 years. Do not do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. If a need arises, do not be afraid to address it.

The 2014 addition of our Hugh Wilson Pavilion is a great example of this motto in action. As part of Merion’s long-term strategy that helped plan our first major clubhouse addition since 1948, the Pavilion has blended in seamlessly into the fabric of our club and membership. Members often comment that it feels like the Pavilion has always been there. We have added a new amenity to our club, while leaving the club’s traditions and values untouched.

Strategic Leadership

Being a transformational leader requires a fine balance between strategic management, which focuses on details, and strategic leadership. A manager and a leader possess different qualities. A manager focuses on planning, organizing and controlling things, while a leader focuses on inspiring, influencing and motivating people. Despite the broader responsibilities of being a leader, these individuals, too, are detail-oriented. Think of an hourglass filled with sand. Your members make up one side of the hourglass, and your employees the other. Which side is on the top or bottom of the hourglass will change from time to time. The constant is in the center, where the general manager serves as the facilitator from which information flows from top to bottom, and vice versa. An exceptional club leader not only identifies and lives their core values, but also allows them to naturally filter through to the rest of their team.

As a leader we still must pay attention to detail. It takes one million things to go right for one member to have a good experience—from a warm welcome when members arrive, to ensuring doorknobs are in working order, the silver is polished and members receive a gracious farewell—all things you can’t overlook in your strategic quest.


A transformational leadership style should embrace the concept of coaching as a strategy to improve employee job satisfaction, diminish stress and to motivate. This is accomplished when the coach fosters an environment that creates self-awareness in order to increase the teammate’s ability to self-manage daily tasks. The leader offers support to the team member as they seek to solve problems and raise the bar on their individual performance. This leads to improved performance and cohesion within the group.

The PCC team collaborated and created a descriptive model of a functional team and compared it to the characteristics of a dysfunctional team. Using a model of an “ordinary team” as a baseline, the PCC team then listed the attributes of a “beyond excellence model” for the department to emulate. This strategy raised the self-esteem level of employees while increasing the level of respect and trust between teammates. The implementation of coaching guided this team to develop personal mission statements and personal core values that were refined into actionable goals for the team to pursue. In this case, coaching created a more positive work environment and stopped the ongoing turnover the department was experiencing.

Daily Performance Audits

An annual evaluation is not the most productive way to assess your performance. Transformational leaders regularly perform a “leadership self-audit” to be accountable and to keep focused on the right goals and objectives. By constantly evaluating themselves rather than waiting for the board or committees to do it, high performing club leaders are aware of their progress and effectiveness.

Do a daily audit of yourself and your team. Janine uses a mental scorecard to rate her performance, conducting it on the ride home each evening. Questions to ask about your performance include: “Who did I help today? Who have I not helped today? What could I have done better? Did I praise a job well done? Did I encourage someone who was struggling? What can I do better tomorrow?” This process offers the added benefit of balance because it allows you to process the day before you arrive at home, allowing you to leave each day behind so that going forward you can focus with consistency and urgency to improve yourself and others. This does not need to be complicated to be effective.

For me, the scorecard works best as a pass or fail rating, rather than a typical A through F letter grade scale. If you overwhelm yourself, what you take away from the self- evaluation will be short-term and ignored. I also include deadlines to improve performance based on my self-evaluation. Together, these two methods help me better quantify my priorities.

A daily assessment of your team also provides value, and does not always require a formal meeting in a business setting to be effective. For example, I went on a turf tour to examine conditions with Merion’s director of golf course operations. This gave me the opportunity for valuable one-on-one time with my superintendent—to better understand his needs with both visual evidence and meaningful dialogue. These moments help general managers learn about staff and offer important information for them to become more effective leaders. Club leaders should look forward to these occurrences.


People have an intrinsic want or need to be led. A good human resources team will tell you the same. A team that  knows where their performance rates against expectations  can effectively concentrate on their respective tasks. These individuals work with confidence and the belief that they are  making a valuable impact on the club.

In our role as their leader, we have to be open about our expectations, and communicate whether or not our staff is meeting them. Leaders who do not effectively communicate these ideas will have more difficulty getting the most from their staff. Employees may become unclear on their duties and goals and lose motivation. By clearly communicating your expectations, staff can more easily make well-informed decisions that accomplish their specific duties and in turn enhance the club.

Creating a Plan

Leadership development also requires knowing your strengths and weaknesses. For me, a written plan holds me more accountable. Your daily scorecard may provide you several ideas for your plan. Perhaps there are areas in which you can improve upon or ones in which you are regularly hitting your goals—the scorecard can help you identify these strengths and weaknesses.

Connecting with a coach, mentor or facilitator can help you feel supported and help you accomplish your plan. It’s similar to going on a diet. If you want to be successful with the diet and lose weight, you will tell someone who you trust to support you and help keep you accountable for your decisions. A strong philosophy for team leadership calls on its leaders to connect, to guide, to share, to influence and to inspire to lead. As an example, on my first day on the job at Merion, I told all of our staff that they had an “A” on the letter grade scale, and that it was theirs to keep or to lose. As a result, if they began to fail, they knew that they were now solely accountable for their grade.

Culture and Trust

Your club’s culture is its personality. Taking signals from its leaders, the club culture determines how we behave and how we treat each other, and how the staff responds and emulates club culture. This further illustrates the value of being a leader with integrity. Be yourself, keep your word, do what you say you will, and your staff will trust you. Strong interpersonal skills like listening and empathy are critical and much-needed practices to ensure a positive club culture. Organizational culture is the single most important thing to get right at your club.

The leader creates the club’s roadmap. To accomplish this, it is critical that you authentically build trust with both members and staff. Strengthening the relationships with these individuals bolsters your club’s foundation and mission. After all, clubs are in the relationship business. By building relationships through trust, you are earning respect from your board members, who will allow you to lead effectively and enhance the health of your club.

Organizational Health

A healthy club clearly determines its goals and objectives. Through teamwork and cooperation the leadership team (board, committee, and managers) shares the collective responsibility for establishing big picture goals and objectives, giving the club leader the framework he or she needs to excel.

Healthy clubs have clarity in their missions with minimal confusion, boast high employee morale and member satisfaction, and have high productivity with low turnover of employees. Their leadership teams recognize that the health and consequently the success of the club are tied to the active participation of many. Their teams also know that a healthy club requires a strong leader that empowers others. That person will engage leadership and set expectations for both the rules and culture of the club. The rules versus the culture can be differentiated as the “what’s” versus the “how’s”—the “what’s” being your employee policies and the “how’s ” being your team’s behavior and attitude.

A Last Word

It is imperative that you promote an overall environment of excellence, whether you are providing members “the Merion Experience” or offering Philadelphia Country Club’s “gracious hospitality.” To achieve this, coach the staff by providing them with the tools they need to be successful. Praise jobs well done, encourage those who are struggling, and educate those who are lost. There is great importance in selecting and retaining the right people on your team, ones who are willing to be engaged, to anticipate needs and to participate in opportunities. In a high performing model of organizational health, club managers manage, club governors govern, and club employees execute, and club members enjoy.

Christine Pooler, CCM, is general manager at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa. She serves on both the NCA and NCA Foundation boards and is co-chair of the Membership Committee. She can be reached at [email protected] or 610-642-5600. Janine Budzius, CCM, CCE, is general manager at Philadelphia at [email protected] or 610-525-6000.