According to many published reports, New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner will fire the team’s manager Joe Torre this week for failing to lead the Yankees past the American League Division Series for the third consecutive year. Steinbrenner backers say that the owner pays for the groceries, paraphrasing former NFL coach Bill Parcells, and therefore has the right to dictate who cooks them. This is true. However, if Steinbrenner does fire Torre, he will only succeed in exposing his own flaws as a leader.
George Steinbrenner, a.k.a. “The Boss,” is best known in the sports world for his famously strong drive to win at all costs. Historically, George has led with equal parts money and mouth, paying top dollar for player and coaching talent and liberally criticizing this talent in the media when they do not perform up to his expectations. Those expectations are famously high. The Yankees, in Steinbrenner’s eyes, only have two types of seasons: World Series championships and failures. One would surmise that if George was really “all about winning,” he would be very pleased with Joe Torre’s accomplishments as the manager of his New York Yankees.
In the Torre era, the 12 seasons from 1996 through 2007, the Yankees have won four World Series championships, six American league pennants, ten division championships and have qualified for the playoffs in all twelve seasons. By contrast, in the 12 seasons immediately preceding the Torre era, the Yankees won no division titles and made only one playoff appearance. By most standards, results like these would have earned the coach responsible lifetime employment. One may even expect Steinbrenner to remember how infrequently the Yankees played in October in the years before Torre’s arrival and be thankful for such an esteemed track record. After all, even making the playoffs are not a given for any team. The Yankees were only playoff team in 2007 that qualified for the playoff in 2006! However, as any baseball fan knows, the Yankees do not adhere to any standard except that of “The Boss.”
Were The Boss more self-aware, he would use his unique vantage point to learn from the leadership acumen Joe Torre has demonstrated over the last 12 years. Torre is servant leadership embodied, running his team as if he only exists to put his players in the best position to succeed. Torre gives the players credit for their achievements, but takes sole responsibility for team failures. He never “motivates” by criticizing players in the media, a favorite tactic of Steinbrenner’s, but disciplines players in private. Despite its location in New York City, a city in which the media is just as intent on creating controversy as reporting it, you rarely hear finger-pointing come from the Torre-led Yankee locker room. These Yankees are much more difficult to dislike than other editions because they operate in the image of their on-field leader, with class. Torre understands his most important role, like a masterful director, is to help the actors perform rather to trying to be the show.
The best testament to Torre’s ability as a leader, however, is the non-stop chorus of supporting coming from his players and even opposing players in support of his continuing on as the Yankees manager. In an era in which professional athletes regularly throw their coaches “under the bus” after bitter defeats, it was almost heartwarming to see Yankees stars Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Alex Rodriguez, and Johnny Damon all speak out in support of Torre. However, when Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz said that the Yankees would be “crazy” to get rid of Torre, “The Boss” should have been taking particular notice. One does not get these types of endorsements by being the wrong person for the job.
By contrast, George Steinbrenner’s leadership style does not inspire many people to “stomp their feet and light a match” on his behalf. In an industry in which the most successful team owners choose strong front-office and on-field leadership and then get out of the way, George Steinbrenner has always been the prototypical “me-first” owner. The “me-first” owner is not content with just winning, but he must win in such a way that gives that owner the lion’s share of the credit. The “me-first” leader’s cravings for limelight are often poisonous to organizations of all types that hope to be successful. Not coincidentally, “me-first” owners in sports generally do not win championships. The simple fact is that a corporate CEO in an unrelated industry, the profile of most major sports team owners, is no more likely to have success at running the on-field operations of a sports franchise than the average sports general manager would have running a Fortune 500 company. Even the most mediocre big business CEO knows that he or she has no business signing the checks and running the plant. However, George’s ego will not allow him to stay out of the plant. This is the fatal flaw of all “me-first” leaders.
By this time next week, the Yankees may have a new manager. That would be a shame, but not at all unexpected. Very rarely does a poor leader at the top of an organization tolerate extraordinary leadership talent to thrive at lower levels. Invariably, that “leader” gets tired of looking inferior by comparison.