Leadership Lessons That Transcend the Ballpark

Leadership Lessons That Transcend the Ballpark

It’s been 31 years since the movie Bull Durham premiered.  Arguably one of the best sports/romantic comedies of all time I would argue – but then again I am a sucker for a “feel good” flick – and the story of Crash Davis, the perennial minor leaguer who never gives up his dream of the major leagues has a tendency to stay with you.


I find myself borrowing from one of the pivotal scenes a lot – the one where beleaguered team manager Joe Riggins confronts his band of misfits in the locker room, screaming at his ‘lollygaggers’ while trying to motivate them at the same time.


Baseball, he argues, “is a simple game. You throw the ball… you hit the ball… you catch the ball.”


It’s a hilarious scene – and priceless in the elegant simplicity with which he breaks down the very complicated nature of our ‘national pastime.’


I’ve always thought it offers advice on a larger level.


A few years back I started a consulting firm predicated on a pretty simple premise – the heart that courses life into every organization ultimately ties back to 3 things – the quality of its people, its leadership, and its culture.


Radical thinking? Not necessarily. But the companies that actually embrace these pillars are much more rare than you might imagine.


And the reason – it’s easy to become blinded by the false positive of balance sheets and income statements – GROWTH.


But growth, I’ve found, is walking many firms onto shaky ground – primarily because most of it is being driven by mergers, acquisitions, price juggling, and brand extensions.


Said another way – the jet fuel isn’t organic – it’s inorganic.





The problem is worker productivity is actually diminishing. If GDP is an accurate reflection, as the polling group Gallup reports – we are in trouble.


Corporate expenses are rising even as opportunities to scarf up smaller companies are diminishing. It’s probable that scanning the For Sale ads is not a sustainable path for many who have built solely on the strength of their war chests.


Meanwhile the “scores” on people, leadership, and culture are growing increasingly disturbing.


  • Employee disengagement (a formal way of saying ‘I hate my job’) affects around 2 of every 3 workers in this country. Globally it is a LOT worse.
  • The impact on our US economy is quickly moving close to a billion dollars each year – and it’s rising
  • Leadership effectiveness continues to plummet – Gallup reports even the basics of what constitutes sound management is often times AWOL – we’re talking communicating job expectations, feedback, goal setting, and coaching
  • The most impacted generations – Millennials and Gen Z (an estimated 75% of our work force by 2025)





If the tide of inorganic growth is in fact diminishing, the importance of generating organic growth is quickly becoming Priority #1 for many companies.


Which carries us right back to People, Leadership, and Culture.


There’s a reason LEADERSHIP sits at the core. Without it the seeds of sustainable growth are impossible.


I grew up in a world in which management was based on principles first espoused at the beginning of the Second Industrial Revolution – division of labor, separation of workers from management, and job specialization.


With apologies to Frederick Winslow Taylor – it worked then – it’s archaic in an Information Age where workers demand a sense of purpose and identity – and the “assembly line” mentality is effectively extinct.





Some time ago I was asked a question that gave me real pause for thought.


“What do great leaders do that others don’t?”


“Well, let’s see,” I said as I shifted into my consultant mode, “Transformative leaders engage others…they listen…they effectively communicate the task at hand…they provide feedback…(you can insert ‘yada yada yada’ here.)


I watched my listener pale over.


If I could have put one of those cartoon thought captions over her head it would have read like this.


”Same old – same old.”


She was right. My attempt to answer even the most basic of questions made my listener want to reach for a vodka tonic.


Which carries us back to why many companies constantly struggle to cultivate leaders – and wallow in endless arrays of competency models and training programs.


What is it that transformative leaders do – and why can it be so darn difficult to simply convey it?


That question led me to an important revelation.





“This is a simple game. You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball.”


I’ve spent almost 4 decades in industry and along the way worked with literally thousands of leaders.  How many of them were authentic difference makers?


The percentage might surprise you – hint, it’s on the low side.


When I considered the few that were  – from C Suite to first line supervisors – I found the same characteristics always emerged.




“What do great leaders do that others don’t?”


Three things.


Push aside the long-winded declarations of competency or the elaborate list of management characteristics that make us all reach for the vodka.


There are 3 Indicators – 3 definitive capabilities – that are universal hallmarks.


Today when I speak on Transformative Leadership I often begin with the story from Bull Durham while putting a simple star on the screen – and then explaining the concepts on which The Leadership TriStar is based.


Because though we may work hard to complicate it, every truly Great Leader is able to:


  1. Attract and recruit exceptional talent
  2. Develop and retain that talent
  3. Build the individual pieces into a whole that exceeds the sum of its parts


Throw – hit – catch.


Yes, leadership – and what the very best practitioners actually do – can be confusing.


It doesn’t have to be. The Leadership TriStar is not intended to be all encompassing. It is intended to offer an effective roadmap to what is most important.


We often use The Leadership TriStar to introduce:

  • Discussion on the current state of company management
  • Assess the gaps and the reasons for them
  • Overhaul the sometimes-Byzantine descriptors many use to define their leadership standards.


Why is this so very powerful? It’s because the standard tack for most companies is to immediately drill into a menu of Core Competencies that seem to make good sense – like a chef tossing ingredients into a mixing bowl without any real consideration to the meal they’re hoping to create.


Or a baseball manager so focused on every aspect of the game that he or she hasn’t taken the time to break that game into its core components.


If every player can’t throw – they can’t hit – they can’t catch, little else matters.


If every leader can’t introduce new talent, develop that talent, and then build that talent, little else matters.


That’s why we encourage clients to actually assess current success with the three dimensions of The Leadership TriStar first.


The difference this has made in the quality of Leadership Competencies – and the training devoted to them – has been fairly astonishing. As an example, when we examine the 2nd point of the star –Developing and Retaining Talent– we make sure to:

  • Assess the current state
  • Identify the gaps that exist and why
  • Articulate the behaviors needed to actually address this dimension of leadership – which can and often does lead to robust discussion around the requisite Core Competencies (Coaching, Decision Making, Building Accountability, etc.)


But the above dialogue always begins with a simple star – not the laundry list of competencies that we hope will someday render a return.


Somewhere today a company committed to cultivating a new generation of leaders will reassess their talent pool, their training, their employee engagement, and yes – their results.


Some of them will contract with consulting companies like mine to draft new mission statements – elaborate leadership development programs – and a menu of organizational competencies.


All can be powerful tools – but the game of leadership can be made simpler – much simpler.





























No Comments

Post A Comment