Major League Baseball pitchers Clayton Kershaw, Jake Arrieta, Justin Verlander and Max Sherzer are undoubtedly loved by their teammates. But for several hours during each of their careers, not a single teammate would talk to them.
You see, baseball is a game of unwritten rules: Don’t talk about a no-hitter in progress, don’t saunter around the bases after a home run and if your best player gets hit by a pitch, hit your opponent’s best player the next inning.
It’s a strange and similarly unwritten rule that pitchers are generally not seen as team leaders. Although MLB teams rarely name team captains, an article published by Bleacher Report named theoretical captains for all 30 teams. Of the list, only two (one of which was Mr. Verlander), were pitchers.
While the pitching personae may not translate to leadership between the lines, my experiences as an All-State high school player and pitcher for Harvard University proved perfect preparation for building and leading a company.
Performing in the spotlight. Getting teammates involved. Being vulnerable and listening to feedback. All these lessons are keys to success on the mound, and more importantly translate to the C-Suite with surprising velocity and accuracy.
Performing under pressure
I fell in love with baseball in 1977, watching the New York Yankees on TV with my father. Growing up in Connecticut, players like Bucky Dent, Thurman Munson and Ron Guidry represented the Holy Trinity.
Watching games led to hours playing catch in the back yard and the installation of a rebounding net so I could continue to throw long after my father’s arm tired. Five years later, I was on the mound as a Yankee — a Jolly’s Drug Store Yankee — in the Madison Little League throwing my first no-hitter.
The pitcher’s mound provides a view unique in all of sports: Almost every one of your teammates sits behind you, your coaches appear in your visual periphery and those eyes looking directly at you. It’s high theater in cleats — and I could not imagine being anywhere else.
Leading a company, no matter the size, puts you at the center of attention. It’s not about ego; it’s about “wanting the ball” and understanding that even in the context of a team game, you (like a pitcher) have the single greatest ability to affect the outcome.
“Leading a company, no matter the size, puts you at the center of attention.”
Whether its standing in front of the company at town hall meetings, getting on technical troubleshooting calls, getting out in the field and visiting our stores or just coming in with a smile on my face each day. I know all those eyes are on me, the team is relying upon me and I can impact our ability to win.
You can shy away from the challenge as CEO or use your elevated position to get in the middle of the action, assess your team, confront challenges and clear the base paths for success.
Getting teammates involved
Baseball experts talk about the difference between pitching and throwing. When I was young, I focused on striking out as many people out as possible; not only because I thought I could, but I also didn’t trust the 12-year-old picking dandelions in right field.
As I matured into a high school pitcher and then attended Harvard, I knew I had great teammates behind me. Having that trust helped me realize striking everyone out was not only impossible, but also not a viable winning strategy.
Pitchers that “put the ball in play” throw fewer pitches and also keep their teammates active. Ground balls, pop-ups, double plays: This team involvement allows more players to have a direct impact on the game, and creates a force multiplier effect in the dugout and at the plate.
When leading a business, especially a start-up, it’s easy to rely on yourself or a couple of heroes to continuously save the day. Why delegate when you can just get it done? Why ask for everyone’s opinion when you know the right answer? Why engage in debate when you have the power to prescribe?
While this may be effective in small organizations, this practice will eventually inhibit your ability to scale. Even worse, it creates disengagement from your vision. Like any excellent pitcher, your employees need to feel not that they simply occupy a position on the field, but rather that you truly rely on them to get you and the company through the game.
Despite all your planning and execution, over the course of nine innings, things can go seriously sideways for a pitcher: You give up a home run or the umpire misses a call. Mature pitchers look at this as an opportunity.
CEOs and business leaders have been known to lose their cool from time to time, including me. But like those visits to the mound, I welcome open and honest feedback from key colleagues with a different view of the situation.
Admittedly, some feedback is hard to hear at first. Like athletes, business leaders can struggle with vulnerability. But just as I recognized the value of those visits to the mound, I am proud of the fact that I am willing to open myself to hearing about instances where I could be better. Albeit without the accompanying ballplayer’s slap on the rear.
“Like athletes, business leaders can struggle with vulnerability.”
Now, as I sit in the stands watching my 8-year-old develop his love of the game, I reflect on what baseball means to me. As an athlete, pitching provided incredible memories, the thrill of victory, unforgettable camaraderie and a torn rotator cuff that still hurts when it rains. In the boardroom, pitching prepared me for the pressures of leadership, the power of a trusted team and the humility to handle of feedback and failure.
So let’s not give up on pitchers as leaders. Who knows, maybe the MLB’s Clayton Kershaw won’t just pitch for the Dodgers. Maybe he’ll trade his glove for a tie and run them one day.
Tyler Leshney is the President of Ultra Mobile, the innovative telecoms company delivering cost effective mobile voice, text and data services for the estimated 46 million foreign-born people living in the United States who regularly call or text internationally.