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Leadership Qualities of Lou Gehrig

Known as the “Iron Horse” while as a player for the New York Yankees, Lou Gehrig was a key figure for the team through the 1920’s and 1930’s.  Often playing in the shadow of the headline grabbing George Herman “Babe” Ruth, Gehrig displayed a team first attitude and is often considered one of the all-time great players in the history of baseball.  Gehrig not only set the record for consecutive games played (2,130), but was a seven time all-star, two times MVP, and was a six time World Series champion.  Gehrig is also famous for a rather unfortunate disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), which came to be known unofficially as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”.  Gehrig is often thought as the ultimate teammate, excelling in the constant shadow of the most popular player the game has ever seen, Babe Ruth.  His displayed professionalism and quality leadership as a player and provides a role model for all leaders to follow.  Several of his leadership attributes include:

1.  It is Important to be a Good Teammate

Lou Gehrig played most of his career in the shadow of Babe Ruth.  Ruth was by far the most popular player in the game, and has to be counted among the most popular figure of all sports.  While Ruth was a bombastic and larger-then-life figure, Gehrig was silent, methodical, and professional.  Gehrig could have put his ego up front and competed with Ruth for popular acclaim and in a sense cause division within the team.  Had this been the case, it is debatable that the Yankees of this time period would have been as successful.  Gehrig demonstrated an ability to play a part in a team environment, but still excel at his job as being part of that team.  Today in sports and in life in general, too many individuals put their own interests ahead of the team.  Leaders need to preach a team-first environment to be able to accomplish great tasks.  Leaders that put their own interests ahead of the team will undermine the very thing they are trying to accomplish.  Putting one’s needs above the many will allow for an environment where everyone will adopt the same philosophy, which will weaken the foundation of any organization.  Instead of a good decision to benefit the organization, decisions will be made to benefit the individual, which are not always aligned with organizational goals.

2.  Be Dependable and Reliable

Any professional athlete that is able to go a fifteen year span without missing a game is comparable to most professionals or workers in general working an entire career without having taken a day off.  Without the aid of modern sports medicine or advanced medical techniques, Gehrig was able to play in 2,130 consecutive games.  This staggering number was only recently overtaken by Cal Ripken Jr. in 1995.  His teammates, the team in general, and the fans of the Yankees were able to depend and rely on Gehrig’s consistent determination and excellent productivity.  Late in his life, x-rays discovered multiple fractures from previously undisclosed injuries.  However, in spite of these injuries, Gehrig felt it was his responsibility to continue to play as long as it was humanly possible, rather than take time off and potentially let his team down.  Leaders in general need to be able to demonstrate that everyone can rely on them not only when things are going well, but most importantly in times of crisis.  Failure to demonstrate these qualities will severely hamper even the most talented of individuals.  When a leader is not viewed as dependable or reliable, the lack of confidence in the team will lead to higher rates of failed projects and lowered quality in its products or services.

3.  Speak Through Actions, Not Words, and Leaving a Lasting Legacy

How often players in sports today showboat, or have a need to draw attention to their efforts?  Every weekend during football season, players can be seen celebrating a score, or simply an above average play.  Even in the professional realm of business, many executive management individuals need to be seen and heard at every opportunity.  In some extreme cases, celebrity CEOs may be more famous that the company they are responsible for.  Leaders need to sacrifice for their people, not use them to promote themselves.  Gehrig let his actions on the baseball diamond tell his story.  In a time before well before the information age, where fans of the game could hardly hear radio broadcasts in a TV free world, Gehrig has set an enduring legacy far beyond his time.  In 1969, he was voted as the best first basemen in the history of the game.  In 1999, while celebrating the history of baseball in the 20th century, he was actually the leading vote receiver (which included Ruth, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, just to name a few) for the “All Century” team.  While Ruth may have enjoyed popularity far ahead of its time, over the years, the artistry of Gehrig’s baseball prowess, combined with his professionalism, has endured and prospered.  Leaders need to realize that most people can recognize smooth talk and rhetoric, but when they see actions in play, it will carry much more weight.  By only talking about how good they are, or through shameless self-promotion, leaders can only go so far.  A truly great leader will let actions speak.  Actions will tell their story far better than someone telling their own story.  Actions are unbiased and can be judged through study of results, whereas some people are smooth talkers, but cannot back up their claims with the necessary actions.

4.  Be Graceful and Act With Dignity

May 2, 1939 will forever be a sad day in baseball.  After struggling through spring training that year, and showing signs of what would later be diagnosed as ALS, Gehrig pulled himself from the game.  Telling manager Joe McCarthy that he was benching himself for the benefit of the team, he walked out to deliver the lineups to the umpire.  As the stadium PA announcer broadcast that it was the first time in 2,130 games that he was not appearing in the lineup, the Detroit Tiger fans gave him a standing ovation.  While playing on what is perhaps the most polarizing team in sports, the fans had no reason to dislike Gehrig the individual and his years of professionalism was recognized by the home team’s fans.  True to his nature, Gehrig would reinforce his grace and dignity on July 4, 1969, when the Yankee team paid tribute to him in a retirement celebration.  The resulting ceremony, known for the famous “The Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth” speech, is one of the enduring moments in baseball history.  While celebrating with his teammates and fans, the Yankees retired his number 4 (first number retired in baseball) and many testimonies and tributes were paid to him by many different teams.  Clearly, Gehrig was extremely respected by his peers.  He could have viewed himself as a victim of a terminal disease, but via a quick speech to the crowd he actually viewed himself as being lucky for everything that he was able to do and for the support of everyone.

It should not take a disease or misfortune for leaders to act with grace and dignity, but by using Gehrig’s example, they can be viewed as a positive force for any organization.  In times of setbacks, individuals who can act with grace and dignity will be able to diffuse volatile situations and remain positive.  By remaining positive, things can proceed to a good conclusion, in spite of any setbacks.  An individual’s character can be forged in a crucible of turmoil.  While facing insurmountable odds, a good leader will emulate Gehrig and focus on the positives instead of the uncertainty of the future.

5.  Focus on the Greater Good

While stricken with ALS, Gehrig made all efforts to survive and continue with a good quality of life.  After his retirement from baseball, and with a renewed public interest in his struggles with the disease, he shunned opportunities that offered him speaking engagements and visits, even though they would have been lucrative opportunities.  Instead, he wanted to take on a position as a public servant, and took a position of the New York City Parole Commissioner.  He quietly and efficiently performed his tasks and insisted that any of his visits to the New York City correctional facilities not be covered by media.  Gehrig could have easily taken a quick position or made much more money in a short amount of time, but as per his character, he wanted to do something good for the city.  The lessons that can be learned from Gehrig’s example are that leaders and managers should not simply focus on their own salary or perks, but should do what is good for the organization.  People should receive what they earn, but leaders should ask themselves whether or not they should have a privileged parking space or that fancy office.  What they do not realize is that often times their perks and luxury items separate them from everyone.  When in isolation, they lose the ability to read their team, they may not realize what is going on, or will allow a disconnect to exist that will violate their desire to create a healthy team environment.  As soon as these individuals are seen as better than anyone else, no positives will come of it.  In times of turmoil, these individuals may then try to lead effectively, only to realize that their voice is not being heard.

Few athletes, or anyone in general, was able to garner the admiration and respect as Lou Gehrig did.  His legacy will be forever set in stone in baseball history.  Anyone who reads and learns from the example set by Gehrig will be a better professional and person as a result.  He showed that people can put the good of the team ahead of their own self-interests, yet still be a model of excellence.

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