Leadership When It Counts

Leadership When It Counts

Spring Training is in full gear and I thought it time to think about the beautiful game that is America’s pastime and the lessons of leadership.

Several years ago I heard a lecturer say about Presidents, “We actually pay these guys for one or two big decisions. There are going to be a couple of really big issues during their presidency and those are the times we need them to step up and make a big decision; and that is what we hire them to do.” I thought of that when I was watching the World Series last October.

Game five of the 2015 World Series. The Kansas City Royals were up three games to one, playing in New York. The Mets sent Matt Harvey to the mound to preserve their chances of staying in the Series and he pitched brilliantly. For eight innings he looked unstoppable, pitching scoreless baseball including nine strikeouts.

In the 9th, Mets manager Terry Collins knew it was time to pull Harvey and give the ball to the bull pen, win that game, and move on to game six down 3 games to 2 at home. But Harvey had been brilliant and in the dug out, when the ace realized he wouldn’t be going back out for the complete game 9th inning win, he became unglued. He went to Collins, threw a bit of a tantrum and begged to be allowed to stay in the game. The crowd of forty thousand agreed with Harvey and vocifeuricley expressed their opinion. Collins caved in to his ace and let Harvey return to the mound – much to the thunderous cheers of the crowd.

There is always a cost to being popular.

Harvey immediately gave up a walk, then a double, and a couple of plays later it was tied. In the 12th Kansas City scored five runs for a final score of 7-2 and a World Series victory.

After the game Terry Collins said, “Obviously, I let my heart get in the way of my gut. I love my players. And I trust them. It didn’t work. It was my fault.” Good for him. He was right about that; it was his fault. He isn’t paid to give in to his players or the fans – he’s paid to make the one or two big decisions; and he blew it.

This is the true cost of leadership. No matter how much you love your people – and you should – or how much you trust them – and you should – your first and most important job is to lead them – and you must.

Collins had one big decision to make in that game: do I trust my own judgement or that of the player. He had watched Harvey all season and knew what he’d seen. He’d made the decision to pull him. It was the right decision. Why was he willing to give in to the player? Why was he willing to turn his job over to a pitcher? Why was he willing to no longer trust his own judgement?

Collins isn’t alone in this. Every leader has had to struggle with those questions in the times of big decisions. Every leader hears the voices calling him an autocrat when he doesn’t listen to his team, and every leader knows that there are times to listen to the team and times to tell them they’re wrong. The great leaders know when to do which.

My guiding leadership principle is this: Visionary, Participatory, Leadership. Leadership must be visionary – they must see the future, and they must paint a picture of where they want to take people. It must be participatory – leaders must include other people in seeing the vision and bring them along in it. If people don’t buy in to the vision then either the vision is wrong or the leader is bad at selling it. It must be real leadership – a leader must have the courage to be out in front of the pack and to know when to make a tough decision.

During my seven and a half years as Ontario director I only made two decisions by fiat. Only twice did I overrule my team and say, “I’ve listened to you and I understand, but I disagree and we’re going to do it my way.” One of those times included standing up to a key donor and local board member who had called the President of the organization to come out and overrule a decision I had made. During the meeting I excused myself from the table, went to the mens room, looked in the mirror and said, “Are you the Provincial Director or not? Did you move all the way from St Louis to Canada to have this twit bully you into making a decision you know is wrong?” I returned to the dinner table and said, “I’m sorry but I’m not changing my mind, and if you don’t like it you can have my resignation.” That donor never spoke to me again, but the decision was the key to the entire success of the next seven years – and I would do it again.

What would I have done if I were Collins? Putting Harvey back in the game in the 9th wasn’t his big mistake. He then walked the first batter he faced in the 9th and should have been pulled right then and there. Not pulling him then was the mistake. He had gone 8 innings. He was done. Collins’ first instinct was right. Once you make a bad decision the key is to correct it as fast as possible. That was when Collins should have done a personal reality check, realized his mistake and marched out to the mound, taken the ball out of Harvey’s hand, soaked up the boos from the crowd and told himself, “Am I the manager of this team or not? Did I come all this way to let a player make the big decisions for me? This is my job; it’s what I get paid to do.” That was his biggest leadership mistake.

Know who you are and be it!

About the author / bobperkins

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