Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

What Babe Ruth Can Teach Leaders About Facing Today’s Challenges

Being Canadian, I’m sure it comes as little surprise that I’m not much of a baseball fan (growing up, hockey, football and soccer were the sports I preferred playing). Of course, you don’t have to be a fan of baseball to enjoy or relate to the wonderful stories, both humorous and inspiring, which have become a part of this sport’s history. There’s one story in particular I’d like to share because of the lessons we can glean from it on how leaders can approach the challenges they face in today’s globally connected and engaged world.

When it comes to baseball heroes, few are as well-known and revered as Babe Ruth, or as he’s affectionately known by baseball fans “the Bambino”. While he certainly had a storied career in baseball, it was during his declining years that we get a real appreciation for both of his dedication and drive to honour the sport he loved.

In October 1932, Babe Ruth and his team the New York Yankees faced the Chicago Cubs in Game Three of the World Series at Chicago’s Wrigley Field. Although his team was performing well, winning the first two games in the series, Ruth himself was suffering from a batting slump. At the halfway mark of Game Three, Ruth was standing at home plate with two strikes against him when the crowd began to boo, adding to the heckling Ruth was already getting from his opponents in the Cubs dugout (a common behaviour among teams at this time in the sport’s history).

Faced with the natural decline in his physical abilities and this stream of negativity emanating all around him, the odds seemed to favour that the Bambino would strike out at bat. However, when the ball was pitched, Ruth not only hit the ball, but he hit it with such force that it ended up becoming one of longest home runs ever made at Wrigley Field.

After the game, a reporter went up to Babe Ruth and asked him what was going on in his mind at that moment. Ruth replied that he was thinking about what he always thinks about when he steps up to the plate – of “just hittin’ that ball”.

Ruth’s response is certainly a memorable and humble one, and I have no doubt that it’s moments like these in his career which transformed him from being viewed as a talented baseball player into a beloved sports legend. In addition to providing us with a glimpse at the man behind this legend, this story in its own way also helps to shed some light on three key attributes today’s leaders need to exemplify in order to be as successful as Babe Ruth when stepping up to the leadership plate.

1. Persistent focus on your organization’s objectives/goals despite surrounding distractions

You just can’t beat the person who never gives up.” – Babe Ruth

If there’s one thing that’s clear from this story it’s Babe Ruth’s ability to tune out whatever distractions were around him so that he could concentrate on doing his part to help his team succeed in winning the game. In spite of all that was going on around him and most likely within him, he never lost sight of what he needed to focus on in that moment; of what really mattered and what required his attention.

Granted, leaders rarely, if ever, have to worry about standing before a heckling crowd that’s eager to see them fail. But like Ruth, they do face the challenge of a constant barrage of distractions and calls for their attention which can challenge their ability to keep their focus on what’s most important or required of them.

In fact, many of us are dealing with a fragmentation of our attention spans as a result of the numerous communication, social, and information channels found at our disposal, as well as the growing ubiquitous nature of them being right at our fingertips.

Thanks to our growing preoccupation with keeping tabs on these avenues, our ability to accurately perceive what’s going around us is weakening due to this reduced focus and awareness (consider, for example how many countries have made it illegal to drive and talk on cell phones thanks to the increase in car accidents). Our diminishing capacity for sustained focus in light of all the distractions around us not only impacts our ability to understand what those around us are trying to communicate, but it also has a deleterious impact on how employees perceive their leaders and the value they ascribe to that person’s involvement or contributions.

Looking at this moment in Babe Ruth’s career, it’s not hard to imagine what the outcome might have been if he allowed himself to be distracted by the heckling calls of the opposing team and the boos coming from the crowd around him. By developing a persistent focus towards what he wanted to achieve, instead of simply responding to whatever was happening around him, Ruth was able to help his team win the game that day, as well as reinforcing his place in baseball history as one of the greatest players to ever play the game.

2. Managing failure outside of the context of past successes

Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.” – Babe Ruth

If there’s one thing all of us dread it’s those moments where we have to deal with some form of failure, especially when that failure occurs in the public eye, or at least in plain view of those around us. Indeed, looking at today’s organizations, it seems that many of them are becoming more risk-adverse than risk-taking, in the hopes of avoiding any kind of failure which might rock their boat.

One of the reasons why we have such difficulties in facing failure is that we often frame it within the context of our past achievements or successes. Indeed, it’s those very successes which often compel us to pull back from challenging ourselves further; that we simply rest on our laurels, rather than striving to push ourselves to not only attain that success again but to take it one step further.

Looking at this moment in Babe Ruth’s career, he wasn’t simply facing a batting slump as he was the reality that he would never be as good a baseball player as he had been in his younger years. However Ruth decided to view his current batting slump in the context of his capabilities at that moment, using that focus to help him get past those two strikes he had made and aiming instead for another home-run to help his team win the game.

To share another quote from Babe Ruth: “Yesterday’s home runs don’t win today’s games.”

3. Love and respect what you do

Baseball was, is and always will be to me the best game in the world.” – Babe Ruth

When it comes to leadership, love might not be the first word that comes to mind. However, the reality is that to be effective as a leader requires that you love what you do; that you appreciate the value and importance of being in service to others and finding a sense of fulfilment and purpose from helping others to achieve their goals. Being able to approach leadership from this viewpoint will help you to deal with the challenges, stress, and difficulties that are par for the course with this role, more than any preoccupation with seeking prestige or financial remuneration will.

I’m sure if you read any biography about Babe Ruth, you’d find that his love of baseball was not simply due to how many home runs, World Series pennants, or sports records he earned. Instead, his love for this sport was derived from the sense of accomplishment that came from helping his team succeed and watching how others were inspired to challenge themselves by following the example he gave when he stepped out onto the playing field.

When he was at the home plate during Game Three of the 1932 World Series, he could have striked out and shrugged his shoulders, admitting that he wasn’t as strong a player as he used to be in his peak years. But Ruth had too much respect – both for the game he loved and even for the fans who were booing him from the stands – to not give all that he could of himself in that moment.

In this light it’s not surprising that to this day, he still serves as an inspiration for baseball players and fans alike, because Ruth made it clear that his efforts were not about him, but about the game he loved and respected with all his heart.

There’s little doubt that Babe Ruth was one of the best baseball players to ever play the game. In sharing this story of how the Bambino responded to one of the challenges he met near the end of his career, perhaps we can also begin to appreciate how he can serve as a role model for today’s leaders in how to manage and guide their teams toward reaching their shared goals, if not also of the importance of making every moment count.

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  1. On June 1st, 2011 at 9:02 PM Steene said:

    #2 was especially important for me. Too often I let my ego get in the way of me trying something new, in fear that any failures might tarnish who I am as a person. So foolish when I stop and think about it, but sometimes you just need to be reminded. Thanks!

  2. On June 2nd, 2011 at 9:09 AM Kathy said:

    Nice post! Today's leaders might not have a "heckling crowd that’s eager to see them fail" but many may have inner hecklers. It can sometimes be your own demons that do the most damage.

    I'm am also not a baseball fan, but have used a baseball stat for motivation for years. An all-star baseball player gets a hit only 3 out of every 10 times at bat. They fail 70% of the time. And they are all-stars!

    I think in business (and maybe life?) we expect results 100% of the time. It's an unrealistic bar height.

    As Babe Ruth said "never let the fear of striking out get in your way."

  3. On June 2nd, 2011 at 10:56 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Wow, that's a great stat for people to take note of, Kathy. I agree with you that there's a tendency to want to have or see immediate results. This is another facet of how we couch failures in the context of successful outcomes or achievements. When we look at a list of accomplishments, it's easy to think you've done more than anyone else and so now, you can coast and live off those past glories, if not protect our legacy of being successful

    However, as you pointed out with that baseball stat, the all-star players in baseball were not given such recognition because they hit the ball every time they stepped up to the plate. Rather, they earned the reputation and recognition of being an all-star because they didn't let those seven times they failed to hit the ball stop them from persisting so they could hit it the other three times.

    Thanks again, Kathy, for bringing this up. Appreciate your contribution to this discussion.

  4. On June 5th, 2011 at 1:47 AM Syed Moiz said:

    #1,2,3 were apt and well said by Babe Ruth, For me leader is like a Johny Walker punch line 'Keep Walking'.

    Key focus on goals with end results of initiatives sucess/failures must be constructively enriched to improve performance and betterment of future actions.

    Thanks for the post.


  5. On June 6th, 2011 at 9:38 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Moiz; glad you enjoyed this piece. Thanks for adding your thoughts to the discussion.

  6. On June 7th, 2011 at 6:12 AM Jim Matorin said:

    Tanveer: You hit a home run with this post. One thought this morning. There are too many distractions out there between people being asked to do more with fewer resources and information overload, I am witnessing a decline in focus. For me it is evolving into an issue since I am finding it harder and harder to keep my clients on track. After years of consulting I have learned to be flexible, but missed time lines by months vs. weeks is new territory for me. Any thoughts on how to get people to focus more on their original objectives in our cluttered world?

  7. On June 7th, 2011 at 3:53 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Jim! I appreciate that.

    That's a great question you ask about how we can help our team members to focus more on the key objectives/goals despite the distractions around them. The topic of our diminishing focus is actually one of the articles I'm currently at work writing about. There are two points that I'd like to offer to answer your question.

    The first point is to help your team to recognize that distractions are all around us so that they shift from being reactive to being responsive. By this, I mean that you help your team members to become more aware that distractions are around them and using that awareness to help them isolate them to deal with them later. A good way to help with this is to block off time in the day – “distraction time” – where you can deal with those emails, updates, unexpected calls for help or your attention. Knowing you have a dedicated time for such distractions makes it easier for you to not react to them when they come up, but instead respond to them by directing to being dealt with during this block of time.

    Of course, some people will say they have too much to do in their day to block off time for such. In those cases, a good trick to do is to get them to note what they do every day for one week and what they'll see is that they spend more time reacting to these distractions than doing the work they wanted to do that it's not surprising they feel like they're spinning their wheels.

    The second point builds on this increased awareness by reminding your team what really matters, what's the goal behind your collaboration and what's the outcome everyone is working to achieve. This way, if some distraction comes up, your team members can ask the question 'If I deal with this now, how will it help our efforts move forward?'. And if it doesn't help with pushing ahead with your objectives, can it be dealt with later during their block of “distraction time”? Again, more often than not, we tend to create this sense of urgency around everything we do, without actually taking the time to really evaluate whether A) it's urgent and B) if dealing with it now helps us move closer to achieving our goal.

    Encouraging your team to draw more on their awareness to become more responsive to what's going on around them instead of merely reactive is a key step to helping your team maintain their focus on what matters.

    Hope that helps, Jim and thanks again for adding your thoughts to the discussion.

  8. On April 9th, 2012 at 3:42 PM Lauren T. said:

    Hi. I am looking for a video clip, no more than 3 minutes, that I can share at an upcoming meeting that demonstrates a leadership quality that I pocess. The quality that I am looking to get across is that of encouraging my reps to be forward thinkers and that yesterday's homerun doesn't win todays game, but it is the strengths that they have that they can use for forward thinking and future wins. Can you help with suggestions on a video/movie/speech clip. Thank you…Lauren T.

  9. On April 9th, 2012 at 6:40 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Lauren,

    Off-hand I can't think of one, but what I would suggest you consider is that instead of relying on a clip to relay that message you instead find one which will allow you to draw your audience in by providing the context on which you'll inform them of your message. Good luck with the presentation.

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