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Play Ball: What Leaders Can Learn from Umpires

Little boys who play baseball often dream of becoming major leaguers. Only a handful actually do! But on the same field where they play, there is someone who might be more apt role model for anyone aspiring to lead – the umpire.

Little boys who play baseball often dream of becoming major leaguers. Only a handful actually do! But on the same field where they play, there is someone who might be more apt role model for anyone aspiring to lead – the umpire.

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After listening to a delightful interview with Bruce Weber, a New York Times reporter and author of As They See ‘Em: A Fan’s Travel in the Land of Umpires, I realized that there are qualities of an umpire that would hold any leader in good stead. Most important as Weber told Fresh Air’s Dave Davies, the umpire has to maintain discipline so players can do what they do best: play the game. So here’s what leaders can learn from umpires:

Get into position. When the ball is struck or a throw is made, an umpire must move to a place where he has the best angle on the play. He listens for sound of ball into the  fielder’s glove and watches glove, ball and runner’s foot to determine if the player is safe or out. For a leader, getting into position means finding a place where you can observe what is happening for yourself. In Japanese it is called gemba, where the work is done. Firsthand observation is essential to good management.

Sell the call. Umpires call balls, strikes, walks and outs. Umpires maintain authority by being right and so it is important that they use their voice and body language to punctuate the call they make. It is part of maintaining the flow of the game and ensuring orderly play. When you make a decision, you use your authority to communicate your confidence that it is the right decision. This encourages others to follow your lead. [Note: unlike umpires leaders can change their minds if circumstances dictate, but the confidence in the ability to decide remains high.]

Enforce the rules. Umpires exist to maintain the rules. When a player or manager transgresses those rules he may be thrown out of the game. Great latitude goes into this decision. Managers may vent all they like at the umpire; it’s traditional. Weber says the “magic word” when deciding to toss the manager “is you.” That is, curse the call but not the umpire. Likewise, leaders enforce standards; they ensure that things are done right. When employees do not adhere to those standards, then they might find themselves off the team, temporarily or permanently.

Live with decisions. An umpire’s job is making decisions; they make the call and live with the consequences.  Watch how an umpire conducts himself after he makes a controversial call; he keeps his head in the game just as leaders must do. This is something that managers need to do, too. Decide and live with the consequences.

Stay above it. Here is where umpires shine. Fans love to boo their decisions, but soon enough umpires learn to trust themselves enough to ignore the crowd. You never see an umpire go into the stands to confront a fan. Leaders, too, need to stay above the fray; they must stay on the high side of the road and not engage in vitriol. Such behavior cheapens their leadership authority. They may be seething inside, but never let on. Radiating composure is a sign of strength.

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There is one aspect where leaders differ from umpires. Leadership is a process of achieving intended results. Umpires should not achieve results that influence the game. An umpire who strives to control the outcome of the game is not doing his job. Umpires make calls that affect the game but their calls reflect the play, a ball, a strike, a walk or an out. Umpires reflect what happened whereas leaders affect the outcome. Big difference!

There is another aspect of umpiring that is relevant to leadership. Professional umpires have a passion for what they do. It is an arduous journey from the minors to the majors with little pay and little respect except among your peers. Laboring diligently at a craft you love is an honorable thing. It is what gets you up in the morning. And if you are an umpire standing behind the plate and watching a fast moving object come straight for you protected only by your mask, and as Bruce Weber says, a catcher who might not particularly like you, that’s commitment.

Legendary umpire Bill Klem once said, pointing to his heart, “I never missed one, in here.” Trust your instincts and do the best you can do. Good advice for any leader.

 

John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership development consultant, executive coach, author, and speaker. In 2010 Top Leadership Gurus named John one of the world’s top 25 leadership experts. John’s newest book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up (Amacom 2009). Readers are welcome to visit John’s website, www.johnbaldoni.com

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