Leading Like Rickey

The movie 42 tells the story of how Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier to become the first African American man to play Major League Baseball.  Amidst continuous racial discrimination and taunting from fans and players alike, he led his team to a National League pennant in his first season. Robinson earned Rookie of the Year, paved the way for other African American players the following season, won a second National League pennant two years later, and went on to win four more National League pennants and a World Series with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Paralleling his position as the first African American player in the MLB, he was also the first inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Robinson's life story is regularly taught to children as part of the curriculum on civil rights, and is now, for the second time, an inspirational story being played out on the silver screen.  No question that Robinson was a trail blazer.  He was a great leader.

But this movie opened my eyes to another great leader. Someone I didn't learn about in school. I'm certain I've never heard this name before because it is the kind of name one remembers. Branch Rickey.

Rickey was the General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1943 to 1950. He orchestrated Robinson's entry into Major League Baseball in 1947 and led the charge toward its integration. Robinson was a true leader. Few, if any, would argue that.  But, what about Rickey? If what 42 portrayed about Rickey's actions is true, I'd say Rickey is a great leader from whom we can draw two inspirational lessons about leadership.

1. Set a daring vision

Prior to seeing 42 I had this idea that Jackie Robinson broke the MLB color barrier because someone somewhere saw him play and said "I must have that player on my team; I don't care what color his skin is." Perhaps I'm alone, and maybe this was a naive perspective.  But, either way, I know now that I was wrong.  According to this movie, Jackie Robinson was not on Rickey's radar when he made the courageous decision to bring a black man into his baseball organization. Rickey made this decision on his own.

Read what is written on Rickey and you'll find that his motivations are contested. Was it money? Was it his desire to right a wrong spurred by the racist treatment of a black teammate from college? Was he driven by his religious convictions? Or was it all three?  I think his motivations for making this decision are less important than the fact that he made it. Because, whatever the motivation, that was one risky decision.  So risky that his collaborators in the movie begged him not to do it.

What we believe about character-based leadership is that it manifests from within. Character-based leadership also requires having the guts to transcend the status quo, and having an idealized vision that dares to be different. Rickey courageously and aggressively scouted African American talent for his Dodger organization.  That is when he met Jackie Robinson, and the rest is history.

2. Cultivate talent

Since watching the movie I've learned that Rickey was also credited for developing the farm system in professional baseball.  A farm team provides experience and training for young players, with the understanding that successful players can move on to a higher level at a given point.  In 42 we see Robinson first signed to play with the Montreal Royals, the farm team of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Once he proved himself, both on the field and off, Rickey brought him up to the big leagues.

Rickey knew how to choose talent. In Robinson he didn't want just a great ball player. He wanted a great ball player who could also withstand the added pressure of being the first black ball player. That sort of scenario required a special combination of skills. Rickey knew that, and he found it in Jackie Robinson.

About the farm system, Rickey is quoted as saying the following: "We controlled the instruction and discipline, and we had a much better idea of a player's major-league ability than if we had gone blindly into the open market."

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Branch Rickey is not a household name like Jackie Robinson.  But, what a great name for leaders to learn. Rickey could set a vision and Rickey could cultivate talent. Maybe we should try leading like Rickey.


Photo image: www.fotopedia.com

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