How Baseball Made Me a Better Leader

By Jeff Burkhardt posted 07-16-2020 11:34 AM

When I got into my late 30's, and I realized the Philadelphia Phillies probably weren’t going to call me to play second base for them anytime soon, I gave up playing men’s league baseball for a full-time seat behind home plate.

At age 38, I became an officially licensed and certified Babe Ruth Umpire. It was hard work learning the game I loved at a different level, taking time to understand the myriad of rules and subtleties that make baseball America’s greatest pastime.

14 seasons and nearly 1,300 games later, I have experienced some remarkable feats in youth, high school, pre-collegiate, and men’s league baseball. I have called games in Cooperstown, NY, home of the MLB Hall of Fame. I have called games for players that have gone on to play at the collegiate and professional level, and importantly so, have forged long-time relationship with players, coaches, and even fans, that I am proud to call as members of my extended baseball family.

I have learned over those years on the diamond that officiating organized baseball has true parallels with being an effective business leader. I have incorporated lessons learned, earned on the field, and experienced in the boardroom, that I am able to utilize mutually and to much success.

  1. Decisiveness. On the field, nothing is more troubling to players and coaches when exclamations and signals are unclear and necessary calls missed. An umpire’s ruling (or lack thereof) can completely alter the outcome of the game. As in business, clear, direct communication with partners, vendors, and staff is required if critical timelines are to be met and deliverables are to happen. Acting swiftly and confidently, during pressured situations, is a talent an effective business leader must utilize. Passivity guarantees failure. No decision is a decision. Make your call and stand by it.
  2. Knowledge. Hall of Fame Umpire Doug Harvey said one of the virtues that made him a most revered official was that he always studied the game. He read the rulebook every day. He recognized that good umpires had to know the rules and know them well. Like umpires, it is necessary business leaders keep up on trends in business, pay attention to the news, study the past, and be cognizant of potentially transformational practices.
  3. Energy. It is difficult to imagine for me the feeling of walking onto a beautiful ballfield, smelling freshly cut grass, and hearing the buzz of players on the field and fans in the stands, and not get energized. Every game for me is an opportunity to show others I am there for them, to officiate a game to best of my ability, with enthusiasm and focus. Games with non-engaged officials never go well. Like in business, real business leaders have an opportunity to show, not tell their teams how to get things done. They lead by genuine example and you can tell when a leader’s heart is truly into their craft and what they do. Their impact is infectious.
  4. Fairness. Objectivity is the name of the game in baseball, as it is in business. Just because there are rules in place regarding how games are to be played, and business is to be accomplished, does not mean there are times when we need to be open-minded to other people’s feelings, opinions, theories, and thoughts. However, at the end of the day, rules are rules, and should be applied with fairness in mind and the goal for obtaining positive outcomes. Not always will people be happy with your decisions but be confident your rulings are fair.

The best baseball umpires are the ones to keep the game moving and keep the spotlight off themselves, one inning at a time. As in businesses, true leaders orchestrate success by keeping a level playing field for all, provide the guidance necessary to achieve objectives, and staying out of the way, letting their staffers shine. Play Ball!

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08-01-2020 11:40 PM

Wow what a personable story! I liked that you added enthusiasm as a key factor. Being enthusiastic doesn't require exclamations and emojis either. 

I've always have a lot of respect and gratitude for leaders that teach, especially when they are happy to share why they made decisions. 

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