Leadership and Life Lessons from the Baseball Playoffs

Posted 10.15.2012

If you’re a sports fan, the week just ended was one of those that makes you wish you didn’t have to work for a living. Every one of the Major League Baseball divisional championship series went to five games and many of the games went into extra innings. Given the need to sleep and to actually be coherent when I meet with clients, I couldn’t follow every single story line. There are two that stood out for me, though, because of the lessons they stir.

As I’ve written here before, it’s almost too easy to draw leadership and life lessons from baseball. There are a lot of reasons for that. I think the biggest is that the 162 game season is long enough and full enough to replicate the ups and downs of life in general. Every so often, the game offers moments that put into stark relief how quickly things can change. There were lots of those last week.  Here’s my take on two of them and what they can remind us of in our roles as leaders and just plain old human beings.

Having lived in the Washington, DC area for the past 13 years, I was particularly psyched by the series between the Nationals and Cardinals.  The Nats seemed to come out of nowhere this year to post the best regular season record in baseball. When it came down to game five against the world champion Cards, it was in DC in front of a record crowd of almost 46,000. The Nats came out of the gates roaring with three runs in the first inning and three more in the third.  Then the Cardinals started chipping away at the lead. At the end of the 8th, the Nats added an “insurance” run to make the score 7 to 5. In the top of the 9th, Washington closer Drew Storen was twice within one pitch of ending the game. Somehow, though, the Cards scored four more runs to ultimately win the game 9 to 7. They did what defending champs are supposed to do.

Early Sunday morning, I checked out the headlines on the New York Times website and learned that Yankees captain Derek Jeter broke his left ankle the night before in the 12th inning of game one of the American League championship series against the Detroit Tigers. As someone pointed out on ESPN later in the day, there is a whole generation of Yankee fans who have never known the team without Derek Jeter at shortstop. He’s been there for 18 years and, in a flash out of nowhere, he’s out for the rest of the playoffs after making a play he’s made thousands of times before.

So, enough of the SportsCenter recaps. What are the leadership and life lessons in the stories of the Nats and the Cards and Jeter and the Yankees? There are two that stand out for me.

The first is the reminder that both situations give us that nothing is permanent. It could be holding a lead or staying healthy enough to play; when you get on a run or a roll, it can be easy to think it’s always going to be this way. Baseball, like the rest of life, shows us that’s not so. Of course, it’s also true that bad runs aren’t permanent either.  So much changes that is outside of our span of control. The questions for any of us are what are we going to do in response when good things end and what are our options for turning things around when they’re bad?

Reminder number two is to appreciate the good things as and when they happen.  There’s no doubt that Nats fans appreciated the run their guys had this year. It culminated in the insane amount of energy pulsing through Nationals Park when the team was up six to nothing in game five against the world champions.  For Yankees fans, having 18 years of a player like Derek Jeter is a privilege to be thankful for. In the hubbub of day to day life, it can be too easy to overlook what’s good. Leaders look for those things and encourage their teams and themselves to acknowledge and savor them.

OK, all of you baseball philosophers, what other leadership and life lessons should we be taking away from the playoffs?