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John Baldoni
Leadership author

John Baldoni

John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review online. His most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

Flaws of an undisciplined leader

Q: George Steinbrenner violated just about every rule of the leadership handbook, yet he brought tremendous success to the NY Yankees, both on and off the field. What does this say about the conventional wisdom on leadership?

"The only discipline that lasts is self-discipline."

A friend sent me that quote today and in light of George Steinbrenner's passing it is particularly apt. Man who uttered the quote is Bum Phillips, the buzz cut, cowboy-boot-wearing head coach of the now defunct Houston Oilers. Bum won a lot of football games and was liked and respected by those who played for him. His quote resonates with what it takes to lead: Do not ask of others what you would not ask of yourself and, at the same time, be disciplined in thought, word and deed.

It's a fine definition of leadership but not one that I would not apply to George Steinbrenner. Certainly he was a winner; he loved the Yankees; he loved his players but his personal management style - no matter how many titles his teams won - left much to be desired.

Steinbrenner was tempestuous: he lost his temper and vented to the media about players and managers with whom he had a beef. Steinbrenner was inconsistent: he hired and fired Billy Martin (an volatile manager with little self-discipline himself) five times. Steinbrenner was also a self-promoter. Yes, he wanted the Yankees to win, but as documentarian Ken Burns noted, winning a game or a even title was never enough. Steinbrenner was possessed by the need to continue to win but sadly it often seemed so joyless.

True enough Steinbrenner had a heart of gold. He was generous with his players, including those he fired. He donated his time and his resources to charitable causes. And he could even laugh at himself. He allowed himself to be lampooned on Seinfeld for years. In fact he even starred in a couple of episodes that were never aired, and he did play himself on Saturday Night Live.

So was George Steinbrenner a leader? To a degree certainly. He achieved outstanding results: He grew the net worth of the Yankees by more than a hundred fold. He won seven World Series titles. And he gave New Yorkers something to talk about: the Yankees! Which prior to his ownership had fallen on lean times. Steinbrenner put the pride back into the pinstripes.

And for all his flaws Steinbrenner reminds us that good leaders are not perfect. One leader George conjures is another George -- Patton, fearless and courageous, yet vain and self-destructive. Patton was a brilliant strategist but a shrewd one. And despite his nickname, "Old Blood and Guts," Patton sought to outflank his enemies when possible and in the process saving lives on both sides. After all it was he who said, "Sweat saves blood, blood saves lives, and brains saves both."

Yet Patton ended up on the sidelines for D-Day after slapping a soldier suffering from combat fatigue. After the European war was over, Patton was denied a command in the Pacific Theater and so was effectively retired on the job.

Not Steinbrenner! He left on his own terms by ceding control of the Yankees to his sons. But like Patton, Steinbrenner was a well-intentioned leader who ended up suffering from flaws that a more self-disciplined leader might have controlled.

By John Baldoni

 |  July 15, 2010; 2:39 PM ET
Category:  Sports Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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