Derek Jeter – Five Lessons for Leadership Success

Yesterday Derek Jeter became the 28th player in the history of Major League Baseball to reach the 3,000 hit milestone in his career, the hit coming on a home run in the third inning against David Price of the Tampa Bay Rays. To top it off, he drove in the winning run with an eighth inning single and finished the day having gone 5 for 5 at the plate with a home run, double, 2 RBI, 2 runs scored and a stolen base. Not a bad day at the office.

Having coached youth baseball at all age levels over the last 15 years, I’ve always told my teams that one of the reasons I love the game of baseball is because it teaches us lessons about life. A look at Derek Jeter’s journey to 3,000 hits teaches us five things about becoming a trusted and successful leader:

  1. The Value of Consistency – Derek Jeter shows up for work. Every day. Over the full 15 seasons of his career (not including his first season of 15 games and the current season), he has played in an average of 152 games a season (out of 162), not to mention the additional 147 postseason games he’s played in during that time. Achieving 3,000 hits in a career is a testament to not only longevity, but to the skill and effort required to maintain a high level of performance over a long period of time. Woody Allen was famously quoted as saying “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” While that may be oversimplifying it a bit, the most trusted and successful leaders are those who show up every day, establish a track record of success, and maintain consistency day in and day out. Jeter was quoted yesterday saying “Playing well gets you here; consistency keeps you here. That’s the thing I’ve always tried to focus on.” Overnight wonders or flashes in the pan need not apply.
  2. There’s No Substitute for Hard Work – Life in the 21st century has bred a level of impatience in our lives. We have become so accustomed to having what we want, when we want it, that the idea of putting in the long, hard hours to achieve career milestones is almost a foreign concept and a lost art. How many tens of thousands of ground balls do you think Jeter has fielded in practice? How many hundreds of thousands of batting swings has he taken over his lifetime? Truly successful leaders practice their craft. They keep learning new things to stay atop the latest trends in their field. It’s the hours of practice behind the scenes when no one is watching that determines how you will perform when it’s game time.
  3. Humility – I think Derek Jeter exemplifies the Level 5 Leadership qualities that Jim Collins discusses in his classic business book, Good to Great. Collins describes a Level 5 Leader as someone who has a blend of personal humility and professional will. No one has ever questioned Jeter’s will to win. He’s known as one of the most clutch performers in the history of baseball. When the game is on the line, there are few players other than Jeter that you’d want at the plate. Yet for all his skill and success, you’ll never hear Jeter disparage a teammate, fellow competitor, or boast about his personal achievements. He lets his play on the field do his talking. When trusted leaders experience success, they attribute it to the efforts of others and to factors beyond themselves, yet when things go poorly they take personal responsibility. People want to follow leaders who understand leadership is not about feeding the leader’s ego; it’s about facilitating the success of others.
  4. Love Your Work – If you don’t have a joy and passion for what you do, it will show sooner or later. Jeter clearly loves his work and it shows through the creativity, emotion, and passion he displays on the field. Leaders who love what they do convey a sense of authenticity to their followers that cannot be faked. Finding joy in your work allows you to tap into a deeper level of dedication and commitment that otherwise isn’t attainable. If you don’t have that now, find a way to get it.
  5. Team First – Derek Jeter knows that ultimately it’s not about him, it’s about the team. In a post-game interview, Jeter mentioned that what really made the day a success was that his team won the game. He said it would have been really awkward to celebrate his personal achievement if the team had lost. Hal Steinbrenner, the managing general partner of the Yankees said that “Derek has always played with a relentless, team-first attitude.” The most successful and trusted leaders understand that leadership involves letting go of your ego and putting the needs of those you lead ahead of your own. Reaching the mountain top is always more enjoyable when you bring others along for the journey.

Derek Jeter is certain to be elected to the Hall of Fame the first time he is eligible, five years after he retires. Most of us won’t make the mythical “Leadership Hall of Fame,” yet through application of these five lessons we learn from Jeter’s baseball career, we just might stick around the big leagues long enough to have a pretty decent career and earn the reputation as a person who played the game the right way.

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