Reflections of a veteran golf course superintendent

Former GCSAA president Dennis Lyon shares some of the lessons learned from nearly 40 years in the industry.


Dennis Lyon
Then and now: A photo of Dennis Lyon, CGCS, early in his career, superimposed on a more recent photo. Lyon retired in 2010 after serving as superintendent for 37 years as superintendent/manager of golf for Aurora, Colo. Photo courtesy of the Colorado Golf Association

My superintendent career began in 1973, when I was hired as the superintendent at Aurora Hills Golf Course in Aurora, Colo. Aurora Hills GC was the city’s only course at that time. 

I graduated from Colorado State University in 1970 with a degree in horticulture. After two years in the Army, I was hired as an assistant superintendent at a country club in Aurora. One year later, I was hired as the golf course superintendent at Aurora Hills. When hired by the city of Aurora, I was short on experience but hopefully long on potential. 

I arrived at Aurora Hills in the spring. At that time, Richard M. Nixon was President, the EPA was just 3 years old, and the Toro Seven Gang Parkmaster was the heavyweight champion of fairway mowers.

During my 37-year career with Aurora Golf, the division grew from one course to seven. During my tenure, I had the opportunity to manage the construction of four new courses. The city also purchased a former country club, and the division managed a golf course on a closed military base for many years. I retired from Aurora Golf in December 2010 after an exciting and challenging career. 

Listed below are my reflections on leadership and life. When reading this article, please know these reflections are the product of more than three decades of experience. This experience, although successful, included many mistakes, miscalculations and questionable decisions. All this experience assisted me in developing the material for this article.

My reflections on leadership and life

Accept full responsibility when things go wrong, give credit to others when things go right.

An effective leader knows crediting staff for positive achievements will motivate and inspire. By accepting responsibility when things go wrong, a strong leader confirms their commitment to staff and accountability.

Don’t try to be an expert in all things.

Relax!!! Know your strengths and weaknesses. Be aware of what you do not know. Utilize the expertise of others to maximize their success — and yours.

Toro Seven Gang mower in use
Back when Lyon first started working in the golf industry, the Toro Seven Gang mower was the king of the fairway. Photo courtesy of The Toro Co.

Look in the mirror.

Do you see traits that: 

  • Embrace humility and kindness?
  • Promote virtue, values, and ethics?
  • Aspire to the tenants of honesty, wisdom, and trust?

The application of these traits will determine how we are valued by those with whom we live and work. These traits are also strong indicators of an organization’s ultimate success.

One cannot not communicate.

As a supervisor/leader, you are always “on.” The eyes and ears of those around you are constantly tuned in. Whatever a leader says or does is absorbed, both accurately and inaccurately. This situation results in nonstop communication — and potential miscommunication. Leaders often underestimate the impact their actions and communications have on others. Words and actions once presented cannot be withdrawn.

Delegate, delegate, delegate.

  • Use the Delegation Formula:
  • 2T+D+E=Productivity.
  • 2T is Train and Trust.
  • D is Delegate.
  • E is Evaluate.

A strong leader will ensure staff members are adequately trained in all aspects of their job. Once trained and entrusted with the job, the leader, who delegates, steps out of the way. The “how” to accomplish the task is entrusted to staff. The leader evaluates results and implements modifications, as necessary. Successful delegation will motivate employees to take ownership of their accomplishments and be proud of their achievements. Delegation also provides the supervisor with additional time to focus on other issues.

Dennis Lyon speaking with team member seated on a red tractor
Successful leadership includes exercising empathy in communication with team members and an analytical mindset in solving problems and addressing mistakes. Photos courtesy of Dennis Lyon

Planning, predicting and prevailing.

A successful leader emphasizes planning, predicting and prevailing. Planning involves reviewing organizational goals, policies and procedures. Predicting includes looking ahead and anticipating issues and potential problems before they develop. Prevailing means resolving these issues and problems effectively and efficiently. It has been said, “The best problems are those that never happen.”

Evaluate mistakes; empathize before you criticize.

Mistakes happen in the workplace and in life. Accepting and learning from mistakes is a sign of strength. A strong leader is slow to criticize and quick to analyze. When there is a mistake, first evaluate the “why.” Was the mistake a result of training, attitude, ability or simply an accident? In the workplace, was this situation an employee issue, a leadership issue or both? Always respond to mistakes with empathy and a positive path to resolution.

The leader sets the performance bar.

Employee performance is driven by a leader’s expectations. A strong leader will decisively set the performance bar high. Others, when they respect and trust their leader, will accept and work to achieve these high standards. A weak leader is frequently not valued or trusted. Poor leadership often results in misunderstood and disappointing outcomes. In the workplace, a weak leader may blame operational failings on others. This situation often results in poor employee morale and substandard performance. 

Follow the Platinum Rule.

The Golden Rule is to treat others the way we want to be treated. The Platinum Rule is to treat others not the way we want to be treated, but the way they want and need to be treated. 

All people bring different skills and expectations to the workplace. A strong leader will work to meet everyone’s differing needs. The Platinum Rule is especially important when working with generational and social differences. 

Who works for whom?

In an organization, the leader is responsible for performance. A superintendent’s responsibility is to provide the training and resources necessary for employees to be successful in meeting golfer expectations. The leader is tasked with ensuring the employer’s performance needs are met. In answer to the question, “Who works for whom?” a strong superintendent’s response is, “The employees work for the golfers, and the superintendent works for the employees.” This reverse concept of leadership can be highly successful.

Kindness is free.

Golf course superintendents always face the issue of limited resources. One valuable resource all superintendents have is to invest in kindness. The positive response from employees, when regarded with genuine kindness, is powerful. Acts of genuine kindness may be a superintendent’s best investment.

Invest in the quality-of-life balance.

We all arrive on this earth with a limited time allocation. Faith, friends, family and profession are life’s major components. Quality of life is determined by how our limited time allocations are expended. The value of these investments became obvious to me following a near-fatal injury in 2011. My advice on achieving a quality-of-life balance is to spend your time wisely.

Dennis Lyon seated at an office desk
Lyon, in his office at Aurora just before his retirement in 2010.

Closing thoughts

I would like to conclude this article with some reflective wisdom provided by the legendary golf philosopher Bagger Vance from the Warner Bros. movie The Legend of Bagger Vance. The title character said:

  • “Inside each and every one of us is our true authentic swing, the one we were born with. Over time, the world can rob us of our swing buried inside under all the wouldas, couldas and shouldas.”
  • “You say you’ve lost your swing, and we’ve got to find it. We will find it somewhere in the harmony of all that is, all that was and all that will ever be.”
  • “You can’t see that flag as some dragon you’ve got to slay. You have to look with soft eyes, see the place where the tides and the seasons and the turning of the earth all come together, where everything that is becomes one. You’ve got to seek that place with your soul.”

Was Bagger Vance reflecting on golf, life, or both?

Dennis Lyon, CGCS Retired, served as superintendent/manager of golf for the city of Aurora, Colo., for 37 years before retiring in 2010. A 51-year GCSAA member, he served as GCSAA president in 1989 and was honored with the association’s Col. John Morley Award in 2013 and the USGA Green Section award in 2011.