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Johnny Miller’s Straight Shot from a Long-iron of Humility

Johnny Miller is a straight shooter. It’s a quality that served him well as a professional golfer – he won two majors, shot a 63 in the final round when winning the 1973 US Open, and is a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. It also served him (and golf fans) well when he became what many consider the best-ever golf analyst on television. And I’m sure it will serve him well in whatever he does next.

Miller, 71, announced last weekend that he is retiring from NBC’s golf broadcasting team, where he’s been a mainstay since 1990. As his longtime broadcast partner Dan Hicks aptly put it, “the tower will never be the same.”

If you’ve ever listened to Miller’s analysis of a tournament, you know he doesn’t sugarcoat what he sees. He was one of the first broadcasters of any sport, in fact, to build a reputation for blunt analysis. Some might say he was overly blunt, and there were times when he pushed the limits, perhaps even crossed a line or two. But there’s a reason Miller made it work and, in the process, caused so little damage in his relationships with the players he often criticized: Miller understands the importance of humility.

We don’t often think of humility in critics, but who needs that quality more than someone who is tasked with speaking difficult truths? tweet this Miller’s job was to provide viewers with meaningful insights about what was going on and why. As a player, he was brutally honest about his own game. He might come off as arrogant when he played well, but he was the first to tell you he choked or played awful after a bad round. He brought that same approach to the broadcast booth. He praised players when they were doing well, but he never avoided the harsh realities when someone was playing poorly.

Here’s how he described it: “I take off their clothes, but I leave their underwear on.”

Miller’s appreciation for the game and how difficult it is to perfect gave him the guardrails he needed as he broke down how others were playing. He kept it real without making it hurtful. Sure, his comments weren’t always well-received, mainly because professional golfers aren’t accustomed to hearing what people really think. They got used to it, got over it, and, in many cases, learned from it. And, in some cases, Miller apologized.

In the end, however, Miller saw himself as a commentator on the game he loved, not as someone who was bigger than the game. And he proved his respect for golf in the way he handled the announcement of his retirement. It is significant, for instance, that he broke the news Saturday, the third day of the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Why Saturday instead of Sunday, the last day of the tournament? Because he didn’t want his retirement to take away from the winner’s celebration. 

Most of us can define humility, but the real test is to live it. tweet this That’s what Miller did as a broadcaster and as he moved into retirement. And that’s the challenge for all leaders. It’s easy to see the success of our teams as a result of our great decisions. And it’s easy to think our expertise and our position on the org chart gives us a license to “tell it like it is.” But if we shoot straight without humility baked into our leadership, we’ll soon end up in hazards with little chance to recover.

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