Sports legends like football's Tom Brady or basketball's LeBron James say plenty when surrounded by press, eager to gobble up their every word. We'll often take those words and translate them into important lessons for our own lives.
On a recent flight to Cincinnati, I got a chance to hear it straight from the sporting legend source. I happened to sit next to controversial baseball legend and all-time hits leader Pete Rose.
Rose and I talked the entire flight and carried on the conversation while leaving the airport. The player regarded by many as the greatest hitter of all time--a man who earned both the moniker "Charlie Hustle" and his lifetime ban from baseball by betting on his own team--rewarded my mental hustle with five leadership gems:
1. Never underestimate the lower profile positions on your team.
Many believe the greatest professional sports team of all time was the Cincinnati Reds of the 1970's, known as "The Big Red Machine." From 1970-1979 the team won six division titles, four pennants, and two World Series (1975-76), averaging an incredible 95 wins per year during that span.
Rose, who played for that dynasty, told me the key wasn't him or the other players in typically high-profile positions that tend to be the biggest producers of offense. It was the fact that they had perennial All-Star and MVP candidates playing second base and catcher (Joe Morgan and Johnny Bench respectively)--positions that tend not to be the source of offensive fireworks.
Leaders must never forget that every position on a team is valuable, especially in smaller companies. Often, your best talent might lay hidden within positions that don't get as much of the limelight.
On every successful team I ever ran, there was always at least one or two "quiet superstars"--employees who worked below the radar but who everyone knew and respected and who quietly set a tone of excellence within the culture. Appreciate these diamonds.
2. Leaders should never forget who helped get them there.
On September 11th, 1985 in Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium, Pete Rose singled into left-center and became baseball's all-time hits leader.
Rose received an impossibly long nine-minute standing ovation that night while standing at first base. He admitted to me that at the seven-and-a-half minute mark he broke down in tears because all those who helped him achieve greatness flooded to mind.
Leaders should never forget who got them there and shouldn't wait to show their appreciation. I've been to retirement parties where I heard the retiree tearfully thanking people for the impact they had and apologizing for not saying it sooner. Learn from their mistake.
3. Trying to do too much as a leader means something will eventually break.
Pete Rose was player/manager of the Reds from 1984-1986, a feat no one has attempted since. Rose told me the multiple duties were too much.
As player/manager of the Reds, he had to spend time coaching each player, talking with the media, and honing his own baseball skills. Each suffered as the other duties took their toll.
This is the number one destructive behavior I've consistently seen in young, hungry leaders. You can't take on too much as a leader. Eventually, it will affect some core part of your responsibilities. So choose your workload wisely and boldly delegate and empower others.
4. Leaders don't make a team great. They keep great players on that team great.
Rose was clearly rankled as he described to me managers of teams that are assigned (or take) too much credit for a team's success. He asked me, "When was the last time you saw a team in any sport win a championship with a great manager but just mediocre players?"
He answered his own question: "It doesn't happen."
Leaders must assemble a great team and keep the players on that team great. That means seeing each player's fullest potential and working hard to bring out/sustain that greatness. You don't manage your way to greatness. You manage great players to greatness.
The very best leaders I've ever known understand this.
5. Understand early that transparency is the only way.
Rose surprised me by bringing up the topic of his betting on baseball. He told me a fan recently thanked him for his openness now in how he talks about it, to which he responded, "I see now there's no other way to handle it."
I don't know if Rose always practices what he preaches, but I don't want you to miss this sermon. Rose may never get into the Hall of Fame because of his transgression and how he handled it. And you might never be forgiven as a leader the first time you're caught not being transparent--I've seen this over and over. Truth is, nothing's more transparent than when someone's not being transparent.