Leadership and Life Lessons from Little League

Rick Steinberg, Executive in Residence for Leadership, University at Buffalo School of Management

I just attended my 50-year reunion in my hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We exchanged life updates, hugs, contact information and old memories — some of which were even true. But it was not a high school or college reunion, as you’re probably expecting. It was a baseball reunion.

About 80 people came from all parts of the country who had participated in Pony League, a team of 13- and 14-year-olds from a small, one-school community. The reunion included nine years’ worth of players, who are now in their late 50s to late 60s. (During those nine years, our team won the championship three times against about 30 teams, all from larger communities.) I picked up a longtime friend and fellow ballplayer from his Atlanta flight, and others came in from Florida, California, Ohio, Washington, D.C., and of course, Buffalo. My two brothers were there. A couple of the players’ parents even showed up, including my 92-year-old mother.

Why would so many people come to reminisce and celebrate what might seem to most outsiders to be a relatively insignificant one- or two-year blip in someone’s life?

Because it was not insignificant. Because even back then, as relatively naïve teenagers, many of us had a feeling that we were learning lessons in life and leadership that were going to influence, help and guide us for the rest of our lives — and longer, if we were able to pass these lessons to our kids and students.

It goes without saying that this does not diminish the significant and meaningful life lessons we learned from our parents or guardians. But our coaches — two brothers with full-time jobs and other responsibilities — devoted huge amounts of time, effort and patience (lesson No. 1), as leaders and mentors to form, teach, develop and inspire 15 or so young kids each year who wanted to play baseball.

Common themes emerged through pre- and post-reunion emails about the event, mostly about our coaches. There was a deeply sincere appreciation for the leadership and life lessons that these remarkable brothers taught us. And, while they may seem like clichés, they are as true today as they were back then:

  • Have a vision, and establish a strategy and goals
  • Practice, practice, practice
  • Always give your best effort; persevere; stretch
  • Be responsible; self-management is key
  • Teamwork is the foundation of success: Coordinate, work together and support one another
  • Do things for the benefit of the team, not the individual; no one is bigger than the team
  • Be goal- and results-focused
  • Be committed and passionate about what you do
  • Learn from your mistakes
  • Maintain high character and integrity

My point here isn’t that all necessary leadership and life lessons can be taught to 13- or 14-year-olds, or to share what a wonderful adolescence my baseball buddies and I had. The lessons learned, while meaningful, were not fully formed, understood or appreciated until much later. For each of us, there was still a lot more room to grow.

And that’s precisely the point: Whenever life gives us a chance to immerse ourselves in opportunities that help us be better leaders — indeed, better people — we should take advantage of it.

Of course, back then, leadership development, while we knew our coaches were special, wasn’t the primary thing on our minds. We just wanted to play baseball, have fun — and win. But, along the way, our coaches taught us the ‘soft’ things — dare I say competencies — we needed to be better ballplayers and a better, winning team. Isn’t that what we’re looking for in our careers?

Rick Steinberg has been executive in residence for leadership in the University at Buffalo School of Management and a facilitator for the school’s Center for Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness (CLOE) since 2016. He has a PhD in organizational psychology from Michigan State University and brings 35 years of human resources experience in publicly traded global organizations to his role working with faculty and staff to support the school’s programs, primarily in executive/leadership coaching and strategic planning.

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