As part of my position as a General Manager of a baseball team, I was often asked to speak to various groups in the community. I spoke to elementary school kids, high schools, little leagues, rotaries, chamber of commerce meetings, American Legion groups, some corporate functions, and many others. I was even a regular guest “professor” in a Sports Management program at a local university, teaching MBA students about running a professional baseball team.
Over the three years while I was running the team, I must have spoken to well over 100 different groups.
Most of the time, my message was about success, passion, loving what you do for a living, and making a difference in the lives of people around us. Obviously I spoke about baseball, as well, and always shared some fun stories about players on our team, coaches, things that happened on the road, etc. Working in sports, it was easy to find material for speeches, and many people love hearing about what goes on inside the clubhouse, on the 15 hour bus rides from town to town, in the dugout, etc.
Of the many speeches I gave over the three years, only a few stand out.
One in particular was to a group of Rotary members in Brea, California.
I was asked a few weeks before to come to their breakfast meeting and spend 30 minutes talking with their group on the “subject of [my] choice.”
It was just after our season had ended, and the Major League play-offs were going on. I hadn’t really thought much about my topic over the three weeks, knowing that I would have time to come up with 10 – 15 minutes of material, and that the remaining balance, as usual, was left open for questions.
Sometimes I spent a lot of time preparing notes, and rehearsing for my sessions. On this occasion, however, I spent little time thinking about what I was going to say. I knew that I would have plenty of material, so I didn’t really worry too much about it. I had plenty of stories that I could tell, and I would just talk about baseball, our season which had just ended, and plans for the off season, then answer questions.
I had learned that all you really need to do is throw in a funny story about a player that was a household name (and I had many stories), and you would capture everyone’s attention.
The night before I was to speak, there was a play-off game between the Los Angeles Angels (of Anaheim!) and the Chicago White Sox (presumably, of Chicago?).
Something happened at the end of that game that gave me everything I needed for my talk to the Rotarians.
It was a close series between the two teams, and at the end of the game, a play which led to the winning run for the White Sox, and an eventual series win (they went on to win the World Series that year, too), there was a very questionable call made by an umpire which, as replays would indicate, was the wrong call. This call led to the Sox winning the game, and Angel fans everywhere were outraged and up in arms over this bad call “costing us the game!”
I watched that game, and I, too noticed that the call was questionable but, not being an avid Angel fan, didn’t think about it much once the game was over.
As is the norm for me, I turned on ESPN later that night to catch highlights and scores. That play was shown several times, and the obligatory post game interviews with both teams, especially the Angels, and their manager, Mike Scioscia, seemed to be played over and over.
Now, put yourself in the shoes of the players or manager in this situation.
One bad call. Easy to see. Costs your team the game. Possibly the series. World Series hopes dashed. All the work since Spring Training in February, seemingly gone. One bad call. Game, and season, over!
The sports reporter shoves a microphone into your face, just moments after the game, and asks my favorite questions (sarcasm intended here), “So, what are your thoughts about that call at the end of the game? What are you feeling?”
Nine times out of ten, or maybe more, the players, the coaches, managers, etc, probably respond with words that can’t air on TV, and that I choose not to type here, and most of the “blame” for the loss is placed squarely on the shoulders of the umpire(s).
When asked the same questions after this particular game, Scisocia responds with the following sentence:
“We should never have put ourselves in a situation where one questionable call can cost us the game. When that happens, we have not done everything in our power to win the game.”
Wow. What a classy response!
No blame of the umpires, no pointing the finger at a player on his team who probably could have negated the “bad” call by playing the ball differently. No mention of a play early in the game when one of his players appeared to give up on a ball that probably should have been caught, and it led to a run by the other team.
No, he figuratively stood up and took accountability for the outcome of the game.
“Things happened in the third inning where, if I would have made a different decision, perhaps we could have won.”
Again, no mention of the umpire, the call, or anything even remotely close to pointing the finger.
That was impressive to me, but what really impressed me was what came next.
Obviously still looking for an angry reaction from a player on the team, these same reporters went into the Angels clubhouse, and asked the same questions.
“So, what do you think about that call at the end of the game that obviously cost you guys the game”, or something similar, was asked by several writers and reporters.
“We should have never been in a position where one call could cost us the game,” echoed several Angel players, obviously influenced by their great leader and manager. “We should have played better. If I would have caught that fly ball in the 4th inning, we would have won this game.”
I went to bed that night, thinking more about the great responses from Scioscia and his players than I did about the game itself, or the “bad” call.
* * * * *
I woke up early the next morning that, not really thinking about the night before.
“What will be my message”, I continued to think as I got ready that morning, and started my short drive.
I turned on a local sports talk station, and of course they were going on and on about the bad call, about the umpiring, how it seems to have gotten worse, etc. All the callers were frustrated and upset by the call, and the feeling of blame and pain was palpable.
I was only in the car for about fifteen minutes, so I did not have a lot of time to listen to the calls, or think about my message.
As I entered the hotel lobby where the meeting was to take place, I picked up a copy of the Orange County Register from a coffee table as I was walking towards the ballroom, and stopped briefly to see what the paper had to say.
The front page had a picture of the play from the previous night, and the headline, and first few lines of the story, were all about the blown call.
I put the paper down, shook my head, and then entered the ball room. There were probably 50 or 60 people, mingling around, all of whom were involved in the same discussion topic, only in small groups of 5 or 6.
Every conversation I heard was all about the night before, and the feelings I overheard being expressed were about the same as what I had just heard on the radio.
“Great timing,” someone shouted. “The baseball guy is here. Let’s get his impression of that horrible call.”
I just quietly grabbed a plate, put some eggs and bacon on it, poured myself some juice, and then sat down at the table that they had designated for me.
The man who arranged for me to be there came up and chatted with me for a bit, and said “I hope you are prepared for a lot of questions about last night’s call”, as if I had anything to do with it, or was some kind of expert.
“I am sure we will have a lot of fun with it this morning,” I responded.
I then knew exactly what my message would be for the next 30 – 45 minutes.
The meeting was called to order, which I am guessing was a little more difficult than usual, given the circumstances, and they went through their rituals and traditions, which included “fines” for having a birthday, an anniversary, or some other significant event since their last meeting. One guy was even fined for being a White Sox fan, and another for being a little league umpire! Tough crowd!
This seemed like a really great group, I thought, and they obviously love baseball, so this will be fun.
Once all of their business was complete, and everyone had eaten their breakfast, the plates were cleared, and I was introduced.
“I’d like to talk with you all about something that really impressed me about last night”, I started.
I could see everyone look at me with a puzzled glare. “Impressed? How could he be impressed with anything about last night?”
“This morning, I will talk with you about what I learned from the game, and from the post game reactions and responses, including some things I have heard this morning.
“Years ago, I heard a great story about the difference between reacting and responding”, I continued. “When you go to the doctor, and he prescribes medicine for a condition you are experiencing, you typically will have a follow up at some point in the future. If you go back to see him and he says, ‘You are having a reaction to the medication’, what is your feeling about how the medicine is working?”
People responded by saying that the medicine is probably not working.
“Now, if he says ‘You are responding to the medication’, how would you interpret that?”
The responses were that they felt as if the medication was working.
“Exactly”, I said.
“So, now let’s take that analogy and compare it to last night’s baseball game, and the aftermath it has created.”
I went on to briefly recap what had happened at the end of the game, just in case someone in the room was not aware.
“But what I want to talk about”, I began, “has nothing to do with the call, or the reaction to the umpire. No, instead, I want to talk about the response that impressed me the most.”
I shared with them what Scioscia had said immediately after the game, and then what his players said, as well.
They chose to respond to the situation, and took accountability for the loss.
We then talked for most of the remainder of the meeting about how a great leader takes accountability, owns his results, responds to what happens, what others say and do, and does not ever place blame.
“A true champion never blames others in defeat, and always praises others in victory.” I don’t know where I heard this the first time, but it is true.
We also discussed how impressive it was that his players voiced the same response in their post game interviews, and how not once did any Angel player express on TV, or to the newspaper reporters any disdain for the call by the umpire.
It simply never came up.
“That”, I expressed, “is great leadership. When your people see how you respond in tough situations, and that you don’t react, they will tend to behave the same way.”
It would have been very easy for Scioscia and his players to react, like most of the fans did, and like most players and managers would in that situation. But he handled the situation with complete class, dignity, and as a true leader. He set the tone for the rest of his players, and even though I am not a big Angels fan, I was impressed.
As we discussed leadership that morning, the attitude and atmosphere in the room also shifted from feeling like victims to a bad call, to a feeling of recognition that so much more goes into the end results, whether it is in a baseball game, in a corporation, in a family, or in any relationship.
If we look at ourselves first, and ask ourselves “what could I have done differently to create different results”, then our overall outlook on life will be better, and we will not go through life blaming others for our shortcomings and defeats.
I had planned to spend some time talking about that lesson in leadership, then was going to tell a few fun stories about a few of our players, and from some of the former Major Leaguers that I was getting to know in my job with the Flyers, and then tell them a little bit about the Flyers, and our plans for the off season. However, with all of the discussion on leadership, accountability, and owning our actions, and our results, our time was up.
When we move from a feeling of being victims in life, and feeling like others are out to get us, or others have wronged us, to a feeling of complete control over our situation, responsibility for our actions, and accountability for our circumstances, life becomes much easier, and we are bound to have more success, and happiness, in our lives.
I had some success as a leader when I was young, and was driven by my love for my team, but I did not realize that leaders are being watched at all times, and that people will tend to make their decisions based on the actions of their leaders, and not necessarily by their words.
“Your actions speak so loudly that I cannot hear your words” is a quote that I have grown to love over the years.
Over the years, I have come to realize that some of the best leaders in our society do not, actually, have the title of “leader”. They are leaders because they truly lead by example, and the people around them see their actions, and want to follow because they trust and honor the person who is leading.
Author and National Speaker Hall of Fame member, Mark Sanborn, summed it up simply in the title of his book “You Don’t Need a Title to be a Leader.”
As we speak with others, and work on growing and nourishing our relationships, it is critical to realize that the way we live our lives, and the example that we are to them, will be the true measure of how much we can influence them, and assist them to grow in their own lives.
Imagine the impact the veteran players on that Angel team had on the younger players, as they spoke of accountability, ownership, and made the loss about their efforts, or lack thereof, rather than pointing the finger. The veterans did not have the title of “leader” on that team, but they followed their leader, and set a great example.