O Captain My Captain: Lessons in Leadership from Derek Jeter

It’s official. After 20 years on the diamond, Yankee captain Derek Jeter has officially played his last Major League game. (Note that I didn’t say, “his last game in pinstripes,” as he’ll surely be back on the field for Old Timers’ Day one of these days.) We can all ask that he “say it ain’t so,” but it’s so.

That all being said, there’s a lot to learn about leadership from diving just a little bit into this one man’s career. It should go without saying, I guess…I mean, his nickname is The Captain, after all. And it must be true if Forbes has beaten me to the punch. I’ll leave a few of the easy ones alone for right now (e.g. Dive in head first, Be in the right place at the right time even if it’s not the right place to be, etc.) and focus on a couple that have jumped out at me over the last few weeks/months:

Sometimes you’re born with it: Joe Torre has told some great stories over the last few months about Derek Jeter, in particular his ever-present leadership skills as noted over the course of his career:
  • What will the Yankees miss most when Jeter is gone? “Leadership is [generally] something that has to be nurtured. It doesn’t happen right away. Derek was very unusual. Someone like Derek doesn’t come down the pike very often. To be at a young age very responsible and very comfortable in your own skin doesn’t happen very often.”
  • Joe Torre on Derek Jeter’s legacy: “He was a lot more mature at 21 than I was. That’s the one thing that hits me first. He had great parenting…he’s a remarkable human being. I used the one word, which is ‘trustworthy’ to describe him, based on the fact that everybody around him was better because of him and he’d always be there for them.”
  • During an interview during today’s game: “When did we start looking to Jeter for his leadership? Guys like Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez, everyone- we started looking to him during the 1996 season – his rookie season.”

All of these stories remind me: each of us has to be the type of leader that we are. As much as leadership practices can be learned, it’s also something that’s a part of you- and so much of that success is just about being comfortable in your own skin.

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My dad and me nerding out at a NYY@BAL game this year. Yes, we’re wearing the same Jeter shirt. No, it wasn’t planned.

Every team member matters: On my own family’s visit to see Jeter’s “Farewell Tour,” my father shot this video capturing Jeter’s pre-game dugout ritual. In it, you see Jeter walk from one end of the dugout to the other, giving a fist-bump to each and every one of the players, coaches, and batboys prepping for the game. No one gets left out- I even see him try to “dap” the security guard at one point, though my guess is they’re generally supposed to avoid that kind of contact with the players (especially the visiting team).

What it shows me: it’s important to this leader that every member of the team get that show of support, that reminder that they’re all part of something bigger. Their captain is the one who connects them together.

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“Hate the Yankees, love the Captain.” –Trevor Przyuski (photo credit Jude Przyuski)

You might be The Captain, but it’s really about everybody else: A good friend of mine went on a baseball trip with his son in 2012 to see the Nationals play the Yankees. During the game, his son was able to take this photo to the right. According to my friend, Jeter “noticed [the young boy] with the camera, stopped, took off his helmet, and smiled – in the middle of the game.” Life is full of these little moments- I had one of my own with my childhood hero Michael Jordan at a pre-season Bulls’ game- and it’s incredible when these larger-than-life figures notice that you’re there, and that you’re connected.

That’s a huge lesson for leaders: Notice people. Stay connected. No matter how busy the world gets in your specific sphere, recognize that ultimately it’s not all about you and your experience- it’s about everyone else. These seemingly small connections on your own part may last a lifetime for all of those with whom you are connected.

Note: Published just a few weeks ago, this Gatorade ad pretty much summed up that same idea:

Find out what people are thinking: I ran across a series on MLB.com called “One Word For 2”, where they shared what amounts to a 360 evaluation on Jeter just by asking a simple question of players in the league: “What’s one word that comes to mind when you think of Derek Jeter?” I love that you can disaggregate responses from his teammates, from his opponents, and from alumni of the game. Their variety of responses tells you all you need to know about who this leader is and what he’s about.

This little post reminds me to consider how you’re known in the eyes of those around you, not just how you think you are. However you’re remembered in those people’s eyes, that’s ultimately how you’ll live on. I wrote a post once before about that concept called Gone, But Not Forgotten that might be an appropriately interesting reflective piece in the same vein.

Lessons from his last at-bat: Jeter’s last at-bats (both home and away) are tough acts to follow, but I’ll try:

  • It ain’t over ’til it’s over. You have to come through in the clutch. Over the course of Jeter’s career, he has come through when it counted for his team, and his last home at-bat was no exception.
  • It doesn’t have to be pretty. In his last home at-bat, Jeets hit a standard, run-of-the-mill single to right field. His last at-bat in Boston was even less picturesque: a real Baltimore chop that bounced off of home plate and stayed in play just long enough to allow him to reach first (and drive in a run). Neither were especially pretty, and both got the job done for the team.
  • It’s not about the accolades. Jeter took himself out of the game after that infield single, accepting the cheers that would follow his last moment on the field. What’s unique: exiting the game at that time left him with 149 hits for the year, which with one more hit would have tied him with Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and Pete Rose for the most all-time seasons with 150 or more base hits. His response? “I’ve never played this game for numbers, so why start now?”
  • Everything ends, and everything begins anew. One of the most moving parts of the last home at-bat is the sight of the rest of the Core Four waiting alongside former manager Joe Torre for Jeter to join the fold. It moved me on a variety of levels, but I hadn’t landed on the full extent of why. I read that this Core Four had played together for 17 seasons. Through good times and bad. Through championships and early exits. Through it all, they are family. And seeing Jeter walk off that field into their arms meant that the days of that family on the field have officially come to an end, so that a new era can officially begin.

Those shared moments during the last at-bats reminded me of something a mentor of mine once said (and I’m paraphrasing): “Every once in a while, these special moments in time happen when everything and everyone just fits together. You get this level of collaboration and synergy that is so infectious and energizing, and you never want it to stop. And eventually, like everything, there comes a time when that moment passes. What’s powerful about it is, once you’ve experienced it, you’ll look for it everywhere you go, no matter where it is that you end up.”

What sticks with me is ultimately that’s a leader’s job: to shape the spaces for these potential moments of seeming perfection, and help people realize that moment and “seize the day” while it’s there. Here’s to hoping we can learn from Jeter’s example.

#RE2PECT.

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