I’m a life-long Red Sox fan who can’t manage to hate a great Yankee, Derek Jeter. My admiration was sealed during one play in the 2001 playoffs against the moneyball Oakland A’s. With the game tied, a runner on second and the series on the line, the A’s slashed a base hit to right field. As the runner rounded third, the Yankee right fielder scooped the ball and made a weak, off-line throw to the plate. Seemingly out of nowhere, Jeter appeared on the first base line, intercepted the dying throw and, as if snap-turning a double play, shovel-flipped it to the Yankee catcher just in time to tag the runner out. I’d never seen a shortstop do that before or since. It has become his signature play known as “The Iconic Flip.”
What created the conditions for such creative, cool headed leadership in a crisis moment when the whole season was about to go down the drain? I gained some insight about that when, a few years later, the Yankee’s signed Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod was younger than Jeter. He was an above average shortstop for the Seattle Mariners with better range and a stronger arm than Jeter. I was amazed when Joe Torre announced that Jeter would remain at short and A-Rod would be moved to third. Did character matter that much? The Yankee organization took a stand that it did. Jeter re-signed with the team when his contract came up, and retired a life-long Yankee who for 12 years was the captain and on-field leader known, because of key plays, as “Captain Clutch.”
I thought of Jeter’s remarkable flip play during a team building discussion I had at a large dealership this summer. Each team member was asked to answer the question, “What was the strongest leadership moment by one of your colleagues of late and why?” In response, the head of their western region, Jerry, told the story of a moment that occurred in March. His sales manager, Peter, came to him one morning, his face ashen. “Boss, we screwed up,” he said. He went on to report that their largest customer, who traded over 20 tractors and combines regularly, just informed Peter they were starting the process of switching their business to another dealership with a competing brand. The customer cited a lack of product support, including support for their precision farming needs.
Jerry did some research, and his face turned ashen as well. He knew this situation had a good chance of rippling through the organization, hurting their image and affecting a lot of good people’s livelihoods. He felt kind of sick, he told us. Jerry dreaded the call that followed. He called up his owner’s son, Ronny, and told him the bad news.
“Jerry” said Ronny, “we’re going to get through this.” Jerry went on to tell our leadership development group that his boss’ tone was generous, unflappable and calm. They spent the next half hour talking through the action plan, and though Ronny’s ideas were helpful, they were not the reason Jerry chose this as his critical leadership example.
“When I got off that call,” said Jerry, “All the stress had drained out of my mind. I was thinking better, and I was inspired. The first thing I did was call up the sales manager.” “Peter,” Jerry repeated, “We’re going to get through this.” He went on to describe how they were going to work with all departments (sales, service, parts, precision farming) at several stores on how to “raise their game — together.” They were going to turn this “failure” into a teachable moment by focusing on how to improve support to the customer in every department and to work as one organization that values the customer. In short, they were going to lead.
Great leaders build teams that turn threats into opportunities. Staying in the eye of the storm is not done alone, it is a team phenomenon. In my story, the owner’s son Ronny knew his father and mother had his back, as they had shown him how to handle a crisis many times over the years. They took the long view but realized that success is made of many small steps and being in the right place at the right time. The owner’s father, the dealership founder, had done the same for him.
The great Yankee from Kalamazoo, Derek Jeter, had a great manager from Brooklyn, Joe Torre, and I suspect his infamous boss who actually grew up in Ohio wasn’t as bad as they say either.
Editor’s Note: This month’s column is an account from an experience told by Erik Thompson.