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Leadership: Burning Lessons

“I gotta go with Billy on this one, Reggie,” the owner said, insisting that Reggie meet individually, man to man, with each of the players on the team to apologize for his remarks in a sports magazine in which he had criticized the team and its best player. The owner is none other than George Steinbrenner, and “Billy” is Martin and “Reggie” is Jackson.

“I gotta go with Billy on this one, Reggie,” the owner said, insisting that Reggie meet individually, man to man, with each of the players on the team to apologize for his remarks in a sports magazine in which he had criticized the team and its best player. The owner is none other than George Steinbrenner, and “Billy” is Martin and “Reggie” is Jackson. Later that same year, as depicted in ESPN’s drama series, The Bronx Is Burning, Steinbrenner also urges the “best player,” Thurman Munson, to bury the hatchet with Jackson for the good of the team and as a personal favor to him the owner.

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Being that this is TV drama, one cannot be certain how accurate these scenes are, but as depicted, Steinbrenner comes across as an enlightened leader, doing what is necessary to back his management and hold his team together. Of course in other scenes we see him go off the rails, and act more like his public persona – the meddlesome Boss. And now that the real-life Steinbrenner, rumored to be in ill-health, has stepped back from active management in favor of his sons Hal and Hank, it may be time to remember the Boss as a senior leader who did do some things right. These include:

Let the manager decide. When Steinbrenner backs Martin’s insistence that Jackson make personal apologies, the Boss is showing support for the manager to manage the team. That’s what managers in baseball as well as “real life” are supposed to do. Managers need to be able to run their own departments; support from senior leadership helps them do this.

Reinforce the team. Steinbrenner desperately wants to win; he had instructed his general manager, Gabe Paul, to assemble the best players he could. That done, Steinbrenner insists that they play as a team and will not tolerate players who do not pull their weight, either on the field or off it. He gets rid of the underachievers. Leaders need to put the needs of the organization first.

Get personal when necessary. Reaching out to Munson, as team captain, to make nice with Jackson is a good example of how leaders can get real with their employees. When you pick you moments to invest your character, you make leadership personal. Choose these moments carefully; too much is meddling; too little is uncaring.

Of course the Yankees of 1977 are a world away from us now, but in some ways they typify, the superstar as Greek god theory – noble in gifts but petty when interacting with each another. And so for that reason, there is a new role model of superstar, Ichiro Suzuki, centerfielder for the Seattle Mariners. Ever since he came into the league he has torn it up hitting wise. And after five years, he has been rewarded with a mega-million contract that will pay him some $90 million.

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Super contract for a superstar, okay, but here’s the difference. As ESPN’s Colin Cowherd commented on his show, Ichiro is deferring $5 million of salary per year in order to give the Mariners more room under the salary cap; this will give team management more room maneuver as they negotiate better salaries for better players for a better team. True, Ichiro’s getting $12 million annually, and so the $5 million deferred is not a financial hardship. It’s not a hero story, but it is a good example of how one superstar does put team first.

In baseball history, the ’77 Yankees stand out as one of the better teams, in part because it had such a colorful cast of characters who were always mixing it up. But in terms of how to play the game today, I’ll take Ichiro.

Sources:
The Bronx Is Burning on ESPN-TV is based on the book The Bronx Is Burning New York: Picador 2007; The Colin Cowherd Show ESPN Radio 7.20.07