I grew in up Hammond, Indiana during the 1970’s. With an economy of largely based in the steel industry, I unfortunately witnessed the demise of that robust industry during my college years. The steel industry refused to re-tool and modernize to the current times, thus resulting in its demise of steel and the resulting crushing economic impact is a life lesson on the importance of continued learning and growth. I now live in Naperville and our kids have the fortunate advantage of only knowing the stress of the line at Starbucks or getting to school on time.
Little League baseball was the prime sport of my childhood and many of the coaches worked in the steel industry volunteering their time. I had a coach for three years who had the appearance, mannerisms and style of the character “Coach Buttermaker” played by Walter Matthau in the original Bad News Bears
minus the beer in the dugout (he kept that in the trunk of his car). By outward appearance, he was not a leader; however, his name was George Nichols and he was my first leadership mentor. I think of him as my “Coach Buttermaker.” As it turns out, we all need one.
“As Leaders, are we “calling the name” of those who can improve? Are we noticing those leaning toward quitting our team? Are we watching for frustration? Are we addressing frustration by reminding the person of their positive attributes?”
Call the Name of Your Team Members
I had really grown frustrated with baseball and wanted to leave the team in my third year. George took personal time on a Saturday afternoon to come find me while I was out with my friends and coaxed me to return. He began by telling me all of the areas where I had improved and where he thought I might be by the end the season. To my surprise, there was no negative discussion about my actions, contrary to the parental norms of the time. As a result, I returned to play out the season. I don’t recall all the words of “Coach Buttermaker”, but I do recall that I mattered enough to him that he came to see me.
George was a simple steel worker who understood that leading required great humility to generate success from others. I had already decided to return to the team when he got out of his car and simply called my name. As leaders, are we “calling the name” of those who can improve? Are we noticing those leaning toward quitting our team? Are we watching for frustration? Are we addressing frustration by reminding the person of their positive attributes?
I played right and left field on the team, and even though I was small in stature, I did have a solid long-range throw. As a kid, the outfield is rather boring as far as a position. “Coach Buttermaker” often shouted out the skills that were required for playing in the outfield using many colorful adjectives (no swearing) employed to help emphasize the importance of being a “backstop.”
The game of baseball is won and lost within the infield area of the baseball diamond. The ball must immediately return to the infield area if you are going to defeat the other team, because a ball lost in the outfield allows the other team to capitalize. Leaders, much like those in the baseball outfield, are often responsible for making sure hits are always returned to infield as fast possible, they are the “backstop” of their teams.
“Much like the outfielder, a leader must play deep enough to catch the long hits while remaining close enough to return the ground balls.".”
Baseball: A Story of Leadership
Over the years, I have realized the many parallels between being a strong baseball player and being a leader. Much like the outfielder, a leader must play deep enough to catch the long hits while remaining close enough to return the ground balls. A leader celebrates the successes of the team and highlights the individual efforts – much like a good coach does.
A leader must always take the personal risk of picking up that ball and throwing to the player in the best position to help the team win. This is a skill that requires assessing the situation from a distance while knowing the strengths of the people executing the work. We face this challenge regularly and relish in the responsibility to encourage others to succeed. We tend to fail when we are too immersed in the details and try to run from our position and “do the work,” being a leader is about trusting our teammates.
A leader understands and accepts that the future leaders doing the work are going to need some coaching. There are times when errors will be made, but leadership demands that we return order to the team and prevent loss. “Coach Buttermaker” spoke to me only about what could be, not about what had already happened. As leaders, how do we revisit the past in a positive light to inspire individual growth from our players?
My “Coach Buttermaker” influenced me with one simple thought “be a back stop and get the ball back in play.” That thought seems rather simple and silly to me at times. I cannot always put that advice into practice. “Fielden!!!! Pay attention and throw the ball back!!!”
George Nichols, an ordinary steel worker from Hammond, Indiana, taught me the foundation of what it meant to be a leader. Perhaps the outfield isn’t so boring after all.
By Terence Fielden, LEED® AP, BD+C
International Contractors, Inc.
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