July 1

Leadership Lessons from the Great Yogi By Richard Tyson

Business

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“If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.”

I love summer, largely because it’s baseball season. I’ve loved the game my entire life, and I’m unabashedly a diehard Boston Red Sox fan. Even so, one of my favorite players is Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra, the Hall of Fame catcher for the New York Yankees.

Those who follow baseball know that the most intense, and often most bitter, sports rivalry on the planet is between my beloved Red Sox and the Yankees. So, I hate the Yankees, but I love Yogi. How can this be?

It’s because Yogi seemed to understand that baseball is more than a game. It is a metaphor, with rich insights for each of us, as players and coaches in the game of life. Those insights have great value for business as well.

The Game is Largely Mental. Yogi recognized that much of baseball is played outside the baselines, within each player and coach’s mind. He once said, “Baseball is 90% mental, and the other half is physical.” While the math is questionable, his observation is extraordinarily accurate. Virtually all great success begins with our deep thoughts, faith and desires. I think Napoleon Hill may have been inspired by Berra when he said, “Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, the mind can achieve.”

Responding to Failure. The mental part of baseball has much to do with how players and coaches respond to imperfection. Yogi is representative of all players inducted into the Hall of Fame. His career batting average is .285. In other words, as one of the greatest players of all time, he failed 71.5% of the time! With such a high failure rate, Yogi must have been discouraged most of the time, right? Wrong! He once shrugged off his batting struggles, saying, “Slump? I ain’t in no slump! I just ain’t hitting.” Yogi followed a simple rule of resilience: Have a short memory!

Successful baseball players recognize that having a short memory means getting over mistakes quickly, knowing that they will be challenged to make the next play, often immediately after a failure. They have learned that to dwell on a failure is often to compound it with another error. They learn to “want the ball.” When mistakes are made in business, we can’t afford the luxury of becoming depressed or whining. We need to dust ourselves off, and get back to work.

Continuous Improvement. Having a short memory, however, doesn’t mean being apathetic about one’s performance. As Yogi once said, “We made too many wrong mistakes.” After every game, he, his teammates and coaches assessed their performance.

Great players learn to be introspective. They seek to discover the root causes of their errors. They work to continuously improve the finer points of their game. Even when they are successful, they seek ways to improve. In business, we often refer to this as kaizen, a Japanese word for continuous improvement in all processes, functions, and positions within a company.

Vulnerability. One of the best Yogisms sums up vulnerability: “It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility.” President Harry S. Truman famously said, “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Vulnerability requires us to stay in the kitchen, and humility is essential, given the absolute certainty of errors, strikeouts and other mistakes. Great baseball players must be willing to be vulnerable. Every time they step into the batter’s box, they are at risk. Beyond the risk of striking out, they risk physical injury from a 90-mile-per-hour fastball. But they stay in the game, giving their best effort every at- bat. So it is with each of us as we work and lead our businesses; we are at risk, but we must keep stepping up to the plate.

Learn to Laugh. Realize that when all is said and done, baseball (and business and life) is a game. Yogi said, “Take it with a grin of salt.” Yes, there is much to be serious about, but there is almost always something to laugh about as well. Abraham Lincoln would have liked Yogi Berra. He said, “I laugh because I must not cry…”

Never Give Up. Yogi’s 19 years as a player and seven years as a manager reflected this philosophy: “It ain’t over till it’s over.” We would each do well in adopting this credo.

One definition of a yogi is “a markedly reflective or mystical person.” Was Berra such a person? I don’t know, but I will always appreciate the wisdom of this exceptional Yankee!

Richard Tyson is the founder, principal owner and president of CEObuilder, which provides forums for consulting and coaching to executives in small businesses.

About the author 

Rich Tyson

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