Editor’s notebook: Evolution of a leader
Guy Cipriano

Editor’s notebook: Evolution of a leader

Delegation, deflection, strategy, vision. The lessons you can learn from somebody with a unique job title who also holds a prominent national position can help you understand why seeing the big picture matters to your career.

November 16, 2021

Mark Jordan followed a leader into numerous leadership positions of his own. Superintendent. General manager. President of local, state and national associations.

For the past 14 years, the word “leader” has been stamped on his business card. Jordan is the natural resources leader at Westfield Country Club in Westfield Center, Ohio, a 36-hole, insurance company-owned facility 43 miles south of Cleveland and 25 miles west of Akron. How many job titles include the word leader? In 27 years of writing stories for publications, I had never interviewed somebody with leader in their job title until spending a bucolic fall afternoon with Jordan at Westfield.

Outside of home, Jordan is known as the 85th President of the GCSAA. He’s the ninth Ohio-based superintendent to hold the title. The Buckeye State, for the record, also has helped produce eight U.S. Presidents and five football coaches who have guided teams to national titles in the College Football Playoff and Bowl Championship Series eras. Why leaders emerge from Ohio is a subject for historians, sociologists and psychologists. What matters to current and aspiring golf course superintendents are the lessons Jordan offers from spending his entire career in the state.

Part of Jordan’s zest for leadership stems from one of his Westfield and GCSAA predecessors. John Spodnik, coincidentally, also served as GCSAA President while leading the turf team at Westfield. Spodnik retired in 1993, leaving an indelible impression on Jordan, one of his assistant superintendents. “I think the sprinklings of John really helped turn the wheels in my mind of what leadership was,” Jordan says.

With prodding from Spodnik, Jordan pursued a spot on the Northern Ohio GCSA board of directors in 1994, the same year he became superintendent of Westfield’s South Course. Following Spodnik’s retirement, Westfield operated under a two-superintendent system with separate crews and management practices. A year later, Jordan earned Certified Golf Course Superintendent status. His leadership skills expanded when Westfield hired Mark Farrell as general manager. Farrell, now the general manager at Danville Country Club in Danville, Kentucky, mentored Jordan in how to put textbook leadership topics into practice. Westfield transitioned to a one-superintendent system and Farrell appointed Jordan general manager, a front-facing job he held for nearly seven years until assuming his current position.

As his role at Westfield evolved, Jordan became President of the Northern Ohio GCSA, the nation’s oldest superintendent association. He then joined the Ohio Turfgrass Foundation board of directors and ascended to President of the statewide organization.

Lots of roles to juggle. Lots of leadership lessons along the way.

“When I joined the OTF board, it was a different experience for me and helped me understand the fact that you’re now being a leader of leaders, which is a whole different ball of wax because everybody at that level is successful and they have their own mindsets, thoughts and opinions,” Jordan says. “Some are very good at asking for opinions and listening, some are very opinionated and don’t listen. Between here at Westfield and being on the OTF board, I learned how to handle those situations. I learned you can’t just react based on how you feel. You have to ask questions to understand where somebody is coming from.”

Maturing as a leader at Westfield and within the industry for Jordan, who joined the GCSAA board of directors in 2014, means delegation of tasks and deflection of praise. His Westfield team numbers around 40 peak-season employees, including a veteran turf management leadership staff consisting of superintendent Kyle Smith and assistant superintendents Todd Underwood, Bill Thomas and Drew Reed. The quintet possesses nearly a combined century of service at the club and the stability allows Jordan to balance his duties of leading the daily maintenance of two golf courses, both of which recently underwent major renovations, with leading a national association of more than 18,000 members. 

“Early in my career, I did things so maybe I could get a pat on the back, but to me maturing as a leader is letting your team do it,” Jordan says. “Let them receive accolades because that’s a high motivator for them and people will associate success with your leadership. They won’t say, ‘Hey, you’re a great leader.’ But they’ll say, ‘The course is in great condition, you’re doing a phenomenal job,’ and so on and so forth. Allow your team to have the limelight because the work gets done through them.”

Sitting in a clubhouse dining room occupied by leaders in insurance and other industries, I ask Jordan how much of being a modern golf course superintendent is about leadership. 

“I think the job is leadership,” he says. “Sometimes we get focused on managing our operations and not leading them. For me, I had a realization during my tenure as general manager, where I understood the differences between being a manager and being a leader and taking the forefront and having a vision and a strategy versus the day-to-day stuff.”

Vision and strategy are certainly different concepts than aerification and irrigation.

“You have to have that ability as a leader to step out and anticipate,” Jordan adds. “Anticipate adverse situations on the golf course or anticipate opportunities to put your team in the limelight. As an industry, we have some great leaders. But I still think sometimes we have a lot of good managers. That’s what separates the good from the great, quite frankly, those who have the ability at their facility to develop a strategy with club leadership and tie it into the club’s future plans.”

“If your club doesn’t have a master plan, ask the question, ‘What’s our five-year plan? What do we look like?’ You begin churning that way. Some people are apprehensive to do that, and they’ll say, ‘I’m not going to get involved in club politics.’ But if you want to provide direction for yourself and your team, then that’s the way to do it. I know every situation is different and sometimes that’s easier said than done.”

Rising to GCSAA President requires tremendous personal sacrifice and Jordan’s phone buzzes multiple times during our conversation. But decades of serving on boards and attending meetings and events comes with the professional perk of interacting with leaders from all segments of the industry. Jordan says he receives inspiration from GCSAA CEO Rhett Evans and relishes being in the same room as the other GCSAA directors and as opportunities arise with leaders from other allied associations.

Jordan’s term as GCSAA President ends in February. His tenure on the board concludes in early 2023. The quest to become a more effective leader, though, never stops — especially when the word is on your business card.

Guy Cipriano is Golf Course Industry’s editor-in-chief.