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What George Steinbrenner Taught Us About Being the Boss

Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was a larger than life bully. He also provided us with a new—and not entirely discredited—model for management.
New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner

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New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner

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The New York Yankees made quick work of the Kansas City Royals in the 1978 American League Championship Series — just as they had the year before, and the year before that — and after the final out, Royals owner Ewing Marion Kauffman entered New York's locker room to congratulate owner George Steinbrenner.

"Let me say something about the Yankees," Kauffman told those assembled. "George Steinbrenner is smart. He's intelligent and aggressive. He spent his money wisely and if I had his brains, we'd probably be in the World Series."

Steinbrenner sympathetically draped his arm on Kauffman's shoulder, and the losing owner turned to the victor and gave him a kiss on the cheek. It was a sign of respect from one executive to another: a boss recognizing that his company had been bested by more ruthless management — by The Boss.

For 37 years Steinbrenner ruled Yankee Stadium with a dictatorial fist that has earned him few friends inside or outside the Yankee organization. He hired and fired with abandon, demanded results at unreasonable levels, and often seemed to let his emotions drive decisions the market would have rejected. A plaque on his desk quoted another famously cantankerous boss, George S. Patton: "Lead, Follow, or Get the Hell Out of the Way."

Every executive has had his share of "Steinbrenner moments" when a well-paid employee botches a presentation or loses an all-but-closed account. Sometimes in the heat of the moment an immediate firing, or at the least a withering tongue-lashing, seems like a good idea. Successful executives, we're often told, are able to resist these impulses and focus on the long-term. Not George. Quick and severe was the Steinbrenner way. And in its way, it was an appealing leadership model.

In Steinbrenner's pursuit of dominance, human resources were there to be exploited. He gave fat salaries to overhyped players, and was the first to dump their bags on the subway platform once they floundered under the Steinbrenner-induced glare of New York.  But it was middle managers for whom he saved a special degree of ire. Former manager Lou Pinella was hired and fired — twice. Another former skipper, Dallas Green, alluded to the boss's meddling in day-to-day affairs, by calling him "Manager George." Green was fired after just one season.

When Dick Howser was set to announce his departure from the Yankees manager position following the 1980 season, it was Steinbrenner, with Howser standing stiffly nearby, who announced that "Dick has decided" he wouldn't be returning the Yankees the following year. As the New York Times reported it, a reporter asked, "Dick, why don't you want to be?'' Staring straight ahead, Howser responded: ''I have to be cautious here.'

''At no time,'' Steinbrenner later told reporters, ''Did I lay down rules or commandments that Dick would have to live by if he returned as manager."

But of course there were rules, whether the Boss thought of them that way or not, that all employees had to follow. Like a boss demanding piles of papers on employee's desks be limited to one inch in height, Steinbrenner forced players to shave beards and trim long hair. Step out of line, and The Boss was just as likely to berate his employee in the pages of the New York Post as he was to call them in for a motivational chat.  

But for those who survived, the rewards were handsome. For every employee seemingly sapped of their power by the Spartan rules (see: Giambi, J), there was another whose bat seemed rejuvenated (Damon, J) And one thing was always clear about the Yankees: Players and managers and ball boys and groundskeepers all had horror stories about the boss upstairs, but would any of them have chosen to play anywhere else, for anyone else?

In Steinbrenner's world, anything less than a World Series was a disappointment, and missing the playoffs was — literally, for some managers — a firing offense. He had unreasonable expectations for his employees, and though many failed under pressure, others helped lead the Yankees to seven championships in Steinbrenner's tenure.

So, is Steinbrenner a model to be followed or avoided? Ewing Kauffman, the Midwestern gentleman to Steinbrenner's New York hot head, offers an instructive counterpoint. He was beloved in Kansas City, where there was a sense that he cared as much about the well-being of his players (his employees) and his fans (his customers) than he did about wining (his profits). Short-term victories were eschewed in the hope of the long-term health of the franchise.

But... the Royals won only one championship on Kauffman's watch and, following his death in 1993, there was no one left to execute on his long-term plan. The team entered a long slide to the bottom of the division.

Steinbrenner, meanwhile, often seemed to lack a long-term plan beyond "win at all costs." Decisions were made seemingly on a whim, and yet, more often than not, especially over the past 15 years, his style worked. For all the noise and all the drama, few franchises are more revered than the Yankees because few franchises have been as successful as the Steinbrenner Yankees. And only the most bitter of former employees would not give his impetuousness at least some credit for that success.

The visionary, team-building boss like Kauffman has a place, and will almost always win the heart of his employees. But sometimes success requires a strong personality, with seemingly no personal attachments and an insatiable drive to win.

In short, sometimes success requires a Boss.

Last updated: Jul 13, 2010




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