A Quick Thought on Leadership and Baseball

BaseballA story combining two of my favorite topics: baseball and leadership.  For those who don’t follow the Mariners, a quick recap is in order.  Ichiro Suzuki is easily the best player on the M’s and possibly one of the best outfielders in baseball.  He came over from Japan after already having established himself in their national baseball league as a top-flight player, and has done nothing to dispel that reputation while he’s been in our major leagues.  The guy set the major league record for hits in a season, has never had fewer than 200 hits in a season since he came over, etc. etc.  An amazing talent.

Ichiro is, from all accounts, a pretty quiet guy around the rest of the team.  Although, according to other players, he speaks English and Spanish well enough to communicate with no problem, he still does all his interviews in Japanese (using a translator to interact with the press).  He seems to also have a tendency to do his job and focus on making sure he performs to the best of his abilities every day.  Because of these traits, he’s gotten an (unfair) reputation as a bit of a selfish player.

Since the Mariners were a horrible team last year (they lost 100 games), there was a lot of finger pointing going on with the team as to what was the real reason for their problems.  Since Ichiro is so well-known throughout the game, and has the reputation he has, a lot of the blame fell on his shoulders.  Many of his (anonymous and cowardly) teammates bashed him in the press, saying he was too focused on personal achievements and wasn’t doing “the little things” to lead the team that he should have ben doing.

I’ve got two issues with that.  The first is purely related to tactics: no one really provided anything that he could have been doing, but wasn’t.  Some folks suggested that, since he’s so fast, he should be stealing more bases.  I won’t go into why that’s a stupid thing to say (it involves a lot of math, and it’s not really the point I’m trying to get at), but I will say that individual stolen bases, especially from someone who already steals 40-50 a year, aren’t really going to do much to help the team win more games.  MAYBE one game in the whole season could have been converted from a loss to a win.  They would still have sucked.  So, with all the fingers being pointed at him, no one offered any concrete solutions that he could have tried out to “improve the team”. 

The second issue hits a little closer to home, because I was, at one time, accused of this same type of thing.  Not with baseball (I wasn’t good enough to lead ANYONE on the diamond), but with the “leadership vs. selfishness” issue. 

When I was going through boot camp, I was pretty good at “being in the Army”.  I was detail-oriented, could handle the monotony of it, and it didn’t hurt that I was older and more responsible than a lot of the people I went in with.  I was a squad leader (in charge of four or five other people), and was nominated for the soldier of the cycle award, presented to the “best soldier” in each basic training company.

During the inspection/interview associated with competing for this award, I was asked a question by one of the drill sergeants.  I can’t remember it exactly, but it was something to the effect of “If you’re headed into battle, what is your responsiblity as a leader: do you get ready, or do you get your people ready?”  I knew the answer that they wanted, but I didn’t say, “I get my people ready”.  I told them that I would worry about myself, and then I told them why.  I said that my primary responsibility in that situation would be to get everyone back alive while accomplishing the mission.  In that situation, since the responsibilities lie totally on my shoulders, I want to make sure (as much as possible) that I can accomplish that on my own.  I need to make sure I’m fully equipped to do the job and get everyone home.  The time for checking up on people who are supposed to be professionals is during the training, not going into the fight.  If I haven’t trained my people well enough to take care of themselves (my bad), or if I’m taking time out of my training to focus on someone who just can’t or won’t get it (their bad), I sure don’t want to let their lack of focus or dedication get me killed because I can’t get ready myself.  I think that’s pretty good reasoning, don’t you?  Anyway, I still didn’t win.  They don’t like independent reasoning there in the Army. 🙂

Now, baseball’s not life or death; but most situations where leadership is called for aren’t.  However, the same principles apply.  A lot of a leader’s job is to set the example by getting as prepared as possible and by doing the job better than anyone else can.  In this way, he or she can often pick up the slack for those who haven’t prepared themselves as well, or who can’t execute as well as the leader can.  The bit about Ichiro being selfish comes from dudes who want to blame other people because they’re not good enough to get things done on their own.  I dislike people like that.

photo courtesy: TheBusyBrain

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