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Leadership Lessons from Sparky Anderson

by Kevin Eikenberry on November 5, 2010

in Influence, Leadership, Learning

I grew up like many men my age, a big baseball fan.  I lived in Michigan, and my family was originally from Ohio, so I followed the Detroit Tigers and the Cincinnati Reds.  I listened to both on the radio late at night, and watched whenever I could.  At the height of my baseball interest in the early to mid 1970′s, both teams were good, but the Reds were awesome – the Big Red Machine won two World Series Championships.

The Big Red Machine had great players, but they also had a fabulous manager.   I always liked George “Sparky” Anderson.  I admired him and was pleased when later in his career he managed the Tigers to a World Series Championship as well.  He was the first manager to win a World Series title in both the National and American Leagues.

Sparky died yesterday at age 76.

Even as a kid, I knew there was something special about Sparky, but in preparing to write this post, I was amazed at the leadership lessons in the words of people who knew him and played for him.  Here are two comments from former players:

“I’d walk through hell in a gasoline suit for Sparky Anderson.”  – Pete Rose

(How many of those you lead would say that about you?)

“I remember that day in spring training when he told me ‘I’m here to win and I want you to help me,” Reds’ Hall of Famer Tony Perez told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “Right then, he had everybody. He wasn’t saying, ‘listen to me, I’ll get you there.’ He was saying “help me get us there.”

(How many leadership lessons are in that statement?  I’ll leave it for you to find them.)

These quotes and a ton more – all instructive for you as a leader - came from an article in The Detroit News.
While there are many lessons in the words of his former players, it is a quote of Sparky’s that sparked (sorry) this post:

“People who live in the past generally are afraid to compete in the present. I’ve got my faults, but living in the past is not one of them. There’s no future in it.” -Sparky Anderson (1934-2010)

As a leader we must be looking ahead.  Of course we should acknowledge the past and learn lessons from it, but as a leader and as a highly functioning human being we must look, think and move forward.

Where is your thinking and where is your gaze today?

Look ahead, not back.  Look to the desired future state that you trying to create.  As Sparky said, there is no future in looking back.

Maybe that is why he requested no memorial service at his passing.  Even in death he is living his message to all of us as leaders.

Look forward.

Lead forward.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Josh Chandler November 5, 2010 at 11:01 am

Kevin,

I don’t know much about Sparky Anderson, but after reading your blog post I can see he really understood the importance of effective leadership.

To me I have seen so many leaders who are content with their current setup, afraid to challenge existing viewpoints with radical ideas.

They know they need to change, but they don’t think about how they will achieve this change.

As you stress at the end of this post, it’s all about “looking forward”. We need to know where we are taking our business and team to in order to produce effective long results.

Thanks Kevin for a great post! :)

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Kevin Eikenberry November 5, 2010 at 12:33 pm

Thanks for your comments Josh – they are much appreicated – and you are correct – here’s to looking forward always!

K :)

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Bob Drreyer November 5, 2010 at 1:32 pm

Kevin, I was a kid when the Big Red Machine was in it’s Heyday. It is remarkable to think that Sparky was about 36 years old when he managed the team. He was able to lead a big group of Hall of Fame players, by stressing that success was accomplished as a team and not by the individual. He really gave meaning to the “there is no I in team”. I am in the Cincy Area, and he is still admired, and well thought of. You know, a lot of the former players in the area still speak highly of him. He was a man of integrity. He will be missed, but his legacy will live on.

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Michael VanDervort November 5, 2010 at 1:35 pm

Kevin – great post and a fun read. Like you, I grew up in the midWest (Detroit) and was a fan of the Detroit Tigers and the Big Red Machine…I used to know that entire lineup by heart, but 40+ years have cost me a few of them…One other big lesson….Sparky was a genius manager, but he had great teams and great talent

Talent like:

Pete Rose
Tony Perez
Johnny Bench
Lee May
Dave Concepcion
Joe Morgan
Don Gullet
and a great cast of b level guys…..

Thanks for the trip down memory lane, and RIP, George “Sparky” Anderson!

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Bill McLin November 5, 2010 at 2:33 pm

Kevin- just so happens that I listened to a leadership CD and on that CD the speaker talked about being proactive. Obviously Sparky Anderson was the epitome of proactive leaders. I loved particularly about his refusal to live in the past. Great blog post thanks for sending it out. Bill McLin

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John Halter November 6, 2010 at 7:47 pm

Great post! These are really useful thoughts that can be used by everyone. Thank you.

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Ken Carroll November 8, 2010 at 1:08 am

There’s something great about the old style leaders, espeically in sports. They had a no-nonsense integrity that is often lost in the slickness of modern business. Jack Welch had some of it, but the sports coaches were a law unto themselves. Much to be learned from them. Thanks for sharing, Kevin.

Ken Carroll

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Mitch November 8, 2010 at 1:54 am

You couldn’t take anything away from Sparky Anderson, but I have to admit that when they announced his age as 78 the other day I was stunned because, at least to me, he always looked like an old guy. Bu the could manage men and get their respect, and not everyone can do that as well.

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Kevin Eikenberry November 8, 2010 at 5:31 am

I agree Mitch – so think how young he was when managing the Reds…which makes it all the more impressive.

K :)

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Tim Mushey August 9, 2011 at 11:19 am

Wow great post Kevin! I remember watching all the battles as a kid between the Detroit Tigers and my Toronto Blue Jays. Sparky was a fierce competitor, hated to lose, and of course wore his heart on his sleeve! You can see by the comments above, how much his players loved to play for him. One of the true great leaders in sports history. Thanks for re-posting this.

Tim Mushey

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