The dangers of 'my way or the highway' leadership
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?
Sports leadership is a different beast than leading in business, government or other arenas. For one thing, the measure of your success is crystal clear. Good leadership is defined more by results than by public opinion; a leader who does not succeed will not have followers, "everybody loves a winner" as William Bell said. George Steinbrenner understood very well what it meant to be a baseball team owner in a major metropolitan area. He understood the risks, though he occasionally misjudged those he could take, and understood what drove revenue. His biggest challenge was ensuring his own intensity did not burn his team.
George Steinbrenner was not of the Zen school of sports leadership a la Tony Dungy and Phil Jackson. It takes a special/rare person to pull off that style in the testosterone-driven physical and emotional world of major league sports, and in New York, it may be impossible! George Steinbrenner was of the larger-than-life, my way or the highway school of sports leadership.
Steinbrenner actually had much in common with the leadership styles of many successful but controversial sports pioneers like Vince Lombardi, Al Davis, Bobby Knight, Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, the list goes on.
The qualities these leaders share include:
· A relentless dedication to the sport - full-time, 24/7, bordering on an obsession
· A demanding and highly disciplined environment - every last detail from permissible hairstyles to every second of practice laid down as law - you sign up to be part of a tight system
· A zero tolerance policy on failure - including definite opinions on whether or not each member of the team (including management) is performing to their potential
To be that passionate about your job and that driven to succeed leaves you vulnerable to being overcome by your own intensity; however, the line between acceptable and unacceptable is gray at times. Woody Hayes was a great football coach who lost his career when he lost his temper and punched an opposing player during a game. The often temperamental Bobby Knight hurled a chair during a basketball game but that did not immediately end his tenure at Indiana University. George Steinbrenner was not suspended from baseball for losing his temper, but rather for some unethical actions taken to disgrace a player he wished to trade. He was able to return three years later but he had less influence over the day-to-day operations of the team. Pete Rose also engaged in unethical behavior off the field and has never been able to return to the sport in any capacity.
Steinbrenner has engaged in plenty of the behaviors that have tanked the careers of other leaders, most recently General Stanley McChrystal. What made him a successful leader of a storied sports franchise was his ability to win, and a very tolerant Major League Baseball Commissioner.
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