The Dark Side of the Steinbrenner Legacy

There Ought to Be a Word for His Management Style—and There Is

As I observed all the folderol surrounding the passing of George Steinbrenner, what struck me the most was that many of those asked to comment about him obviously did not like the man and were courteously struggling to find something, anything, nice to say.

There is no doubt that George Steinbrenner was a talented man who achieved much success during his life. (Although a closer examination of his success would show that it was not as great as his PR machine would have us believe and had as much to do with circumstance as talent.) Nevertheless I do not really question his success, but I do challenge his methods.

Steinbrenner was the personification of the idea that, “the end justifies the means.” It says a lot about Steinbrenner that he took pride in (and self-promoted) the nickname of “The Boss,” even though for most it was a form of derision, not an affectionate compliment. In reality, his nickname should have been “The Bully.”

Steinbrenner’s management style was based upon fear, intimidation, greed and the bribery of “buying” (as opposed to earning) loyalty. These are management techniques that I find to be the antithesis of ethical leadership. The objective of this approach is to make “the boss” look good at the expense of the feelings of others in the organization and its future.

Whenever someone’s management theme makes it clear to all that they are “the boss” and the center of all attention, we are viewing someone who is either weak, insecure or an egotistical psychopath. Steinbrenner was probably a bit of all three.

Cartoonist Bill Gallo of the New York Daily News best characterized Steinbrenner’s style by depicting him in a Prussian military uniform, complete with spiked helmet, gold epaulettes and medals, calling him “General von Steingrabber.” (A Teutonic style of management with which I am all too familiar.) Sport Illustrated viewed Steinbrenner as a Napoleonic despot. George Will, the modern historian of baseball, once described Steinbrenner as a “baseball dumb-o-meter.”

Steinbrenner’s leadership strategy was to buy people by paying them more than they could receive from others and then browbeat and intimidate them like they were little more than indentured servants.

A tell-tale example of Steinbrenner’s management style and the-ends- justifies-the-means philosophy was his interaction with one of his top employees (players) Dave Winfield. After signing Winfield to the then largest contract in baseball, Steinbrenner constantly and publicly derided Winfield’s performance. Eventually Winfield was forced to sue Steinbrenner for failing to pay Winfield’s foundation the $300,000 that was guaranteed in his contract. Steinbrenner’s reaction was to pay a shady gambler $40,000 to “dig up dirt” on Winfield. (For this arrogant act, Steinbrenner received a “lifetime” ban from baseball. This followed an earlier “suspension” from baseball when Steinbrenner pleaded guilty to illegal contributions to Richard Nixon and felony obstruction of justice.)

The examples of Steinbrenner’s abusive, intimidating and micro-management style are almost too numerous to mention. Many note that during the first 23 years of his Yankee ownership Steinbrenner made 20 managerial changes. How can someone perform to their potential when they know that with one mistake (even if only perceived) they will lose their job? Steinbrenner was such a micro-manager that he even dictated the type of hair cut his players could have. This polluted work environment caused a number of top players such as Ken Griffey Jr. to list the Yankees as the one team they would never play for; no matter how much money was offered. Others were bribed by Steinbrenner with such large contracts they ignored the situation. And, they paid the price.

In fairness, Steinbrenner is lauded for his financial contributions to charity and community, but this also has its dark side. Heavy publicity was given to his actions and most of the contributions came with the requirement that the facilities bear Steinbrenner’s name. These contributions seem to be the actions of a man with a guilty conscious. It is as if the sinner builds a beautiful church, then God will forgive him.

Steinbrenner was not the only manager to believe that fear, intimidation and the entrapment of high pay is the most effective form of management leadership. He was simply the public face for thousands of corporate managers who believe such an approach is the path to success.

For some, the success of the Yankees is validation that this type of leadership is the best way, but they are wrong. There is no question that under Steinbrenner the Yankees have become the dominant franchise in baseball, but a closer look at history will reveal that in the past the Yankees were even more dominant. The Yankees have been successful because the revenues that could be generated in New York allowed Steinbrenner to buy the most talented players available. This unique situation allowed success to be achieved despite his management style—not because of it. One must wonder if his style would have worked in Cleveland. (A team he attempted to buy before the Yankees.)

As I watched the memorial service for Steinbrenner at Yankee Stadium, I could not help wondering if what we saw were crocodile tears, and the true feelings were of relief, not sadness.

And the Moral of the Story . . .

The truth is that a manager who uses fear, intimidation and bribery to dominate and control others does so out of weakness and insecurity, not from strength of his leadership. In business intimidation makes cowards of the brave and the result of this management failure is wasted time, talent and opportunity.

There should be a new term in management that would immortalize Steinbrenner and his leadership style. When a manager makes it all about “the boss,” seeks greatness for himself at the expense of others, always recruits outside talent rather than developing from within, and all the while seeks to intimidate all around him, then such behavior should be called a “Steinbrenner.” And for my money, the meaning of “Steinbrenner Management” is as clear as a Charles “Ponzi Scheme” or a “Queen of Mean” hotel manager Leona Helmsley.

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One response to “The Dark Side of the Steinbrenner Legacy

  1. you hit the nail on the head. not many will agree but good job.

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