On Fortune’s 2014 list of The World’s 50 Greatest Leaders, Derek Jeter ranked 11th, right beneath Jeff Bezos (10) and well above Tim Cook (33), the CEO of Apple and the subject of last week’s blog. Mr. Jeter was the only sports figure to make the list.
The primary antagonist in Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night urges, “be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.” As the sports universe marks the retirement of Derek Jeter, it is no stretch to suggest that that his greatness was not an either-or proposition.
He leaves the game with broadly earned respect, not for having been born with tremendous gifts, nor for having been disciplined enough to work relentlessly to be great (Pete Rose exhibited a similar work ethic), nor for having been drafted in an era and by a team destined for greatness, although all three were true.
His well-earned respect comes rather from having worn the mantle of “captain,” so very well for so very long. With remarkable consistency and discipline, Mr. Jeter demonstrated at least three distinctive leadership traits worthy of emulation.
Disciplined humility – We choose to follow leaders who understand that leadership does not exist to feed the leader’s ego. Trusted leaders attribute success to others. When things go poorly they take personal responsibility. The best in leadership lifts the organization and seeks no praise for personal performance. While Mr. Jeter is known as one of the most clutch performers in the history of baseball, he never boasted about personal achievements. He was remarkably disciplined to never publicly disparage a teammate, or even a competitor. 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.
Unrelenting consistency – Life in the 21st century has bred a collective impatience and demand for convenience that has not served us well. We have become so accustomed to having what we want, when and how we want it, that the idea of putting in the long, hard hours to elevate performance is almost a foreign concept and a lost art. Mr. Jeter remarked after reaching the milestone of 3,000 hits, “Playing well gets you here; consistency keeps you here.” He earned his way to the hall of fame by showing up for work. Every day. Fully prepared. With an unrelenting will to win. Over a 20-year career he only played less than 148 games (of a 162 game schedule) three years due to injuries in 2003, 2011 and 2013. He also set an MLB record for the most post-season games played (158). Woody Allen said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” Trusted leaders show up every day, demonstrate a tireless work ethic, practice their craft, and do the right things day in and day out. They keep learning new things to stay atop the latest trends in their field.
The ability to perform best when the lights shine most brightly – Great leaders know how to step into the spotlight and perform when it most matters. Leadership can be a lonely craft. When the glare of the spotlight hits the organization, it illuminates the leader first. Over a 20-year career as the shortstop of the New York Yankees, Mr. Jeter was no stranger to the brightest lights. Off the field, he respected the mantle cast upon him and behaved in a manner that was a credit to his organization. His grooming, dress, comportment and controlled public comments consistently added to and did not detract from his team. On the field, he had an uncanny ability to be intense without becoming tense. He significantly elevated his performance when it most mattered. In no less than 10 postseason series he batted over .400, including the 2009 World Series where he won his fifth championship ring. On the day that he became the 28th player in history to reach 3,000 career hits, he also drove in the winning run, went 5 for 5 with a home run (his 3,000th hit), a double, 2 RBIs, 2 runs scored and a stolen base.
Aptly, his last at bat after 20 years playing in Yankee stadium was a walk-off game winning RBI single. Great leaders know how to step into the spotlight and perform when it matters. No one did it better than Mr. Jeter.
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