Lessons from the Derek Jeter School of Business

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By John Lonsdorf, President, R&J Public Relations

I’m not a New York Yankees fan.  Far from it in fact; I am a dyed-in-the-orange-and-blue Mets fan.  However, as a rabid baseball fan, and one who has keenly observed the career of the Yankees captain, Derek Jeter for the past twenty-some years, I have a strong, if sometimes grudging, appreciation for how he approaches and plays the game.

Jeter has announced his retirement at the conclusion of this season.  He will be missed by the fans, his teammates, and by the game as a whole.  Watching him on TV the other night and thinking about his long and illustrious career, I was struck by several of the outstanding qualities that he has brought to the game, and how those same attributes can teach us valuable lessons in the business world.

Here are a few that come to mind:

Always Play Hard.  Jeter has been called a throwback for the way he plays the game.  He’s never lazy, and plays hard every game, every inning, and every pitch.  And while it might be excusable for a player with such universal acclaim – one whose earnings in salary and endorsements rival the GDP of many small countries – to occasionally wander mentally, Jeter never does.  He plays the game “the way it’s supposed to be played” day in and day out.  By keeping his head in the game, he is always ready to give his maximum effort.

Pay Detailed Attention to the Fundamentals.  Jeter always knows the game situation – whether his team is at bat or in the field.  And knowing the fundamentals of the game (the “fundies” as one Mets announcer preaches) as well as Jeter does, allows him to do exactly the right thing in the right situation to help his team to win.  You’ll never catch Derek Jeter throwing the ball to the wrong base or running the Yankees out of an inning on the basepaths.  Do you know and really understand the “fundies” of your business?

Go the Other Way.  No player I’ve ever seen in my 50+ years of watching baseball has been as skilled as Jeter in driving the ball to the opposite field.  This ability is key to helping the Yankees to advance runners and to stay out of double plays, and it keeps the defense off stride.  But when it’s called for, Jeter can pull the ball down the left field line as well.  The point is, just as hitting for Jeter is “situational,” in business we need to quickly assess and respond to different situations in the best, most productive way.  Be flexible in your thinking and actions.  Don’t be afraid to “go the other way.”

Great Players Play Hurt.  Joe Torre, and now Joe Girardi, had a hard time sitting Jeter.  He always wanted to play, even when nursing any of the countless bumps, bruises, strains or maladies that will inevitably occur over a grueling 162-game, 6-month season.  Jeter knew that the Yankees were a better team with him in the lineup – even if he wasn’t quite 100%.  We should all strive to be that valuable to our respective teams.  Show up to play every day.

Make Others Better by Your Presence and Example.  One of Jeter’s most underrated attributes for the Yankees is his ability to make others around him better, by his constant presence at the top of the dugout steps cheering on his teammates, his clubhouse presence, and the example he sets on the field through playing hard, playing hurt, knowing the situation and his attention to the fundamentals of the game.  In this regard, Jeter epitomizes the ideal where “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”  More than simply doing our jobs well, we should all strive to be great teammates, helping to make our teammates better in the process.

In his twenty years in the big leagues, Jeter has never once won an MVP award (he’s been in the top 10 in voting eight times, and came in second in 2006).  That said, looking at his career as a whole, I believe he is the Most Valuable Teammate of his era.  His statistics are certainly impressive.  But more than that, the intangibles that he brings to the game – every game – are what make him a “winner,” more valuable to the team than just his statistics.

In our business lives, we would all do well to emulate many of the examples that Derek Jeter has shown over his career.  He will be missed, but fortunately, we can all remember him for his contribution to the game, and in five years, we can remember him when we visit Cooperstown.

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