Leadership Lessons from MLK and Baseball’s Transformation

By Alicia La Hoz, Psy.D.

        When Branch Rickey, one of the owners of the Dodgers at the time, made the groundbreaking decision to sign Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945, he created a seismic shift in the world of baseball. This move was so revolutionary and full of crisis that it shook the very foundations of the sport.

        On August 28, 1945, Rickey signed Robinson, who had never played in the USL, to a minor league contract. Prior to this, Robinson had been showcasing his talent as part of the Kansas City Monarchs. Robinson’s decision to join Rickey’s team stemmed from his innovative spirit, unwavering determination to break down segregation, astute business acumen, and idealistic nature.

         Robinson’s primary goal was simple – he wanted to play baseball and he wanted to win. However, by aligning himself with Rickey, he willingly subjected himself to a barrage of racist verbal abuse and physical threats without retaliating. His role was not only to excel on the field and secure victories, but to also remain composed in the face of adversity. Robinson understood that he was leading the way for other black players, and thus had to serve as a shining example.

        The outcome of Robinson’s courageous journey captured in the movie, “42” was truly remarkable. In 1947, the year he shattered baseball’s “color line,” Jackie Robinson was rightfully crowned the National League Rookie of the Year. Two years later, in 1949, he earned the title of the league’s Most Valuable Player. Robinson’s leadership propelled the Brooklyn Dodgers to an impressive six league championships and one World Series triumph.

        As leaders, we embrace the role of Change Champions. Change is no longer just a concept, but a way of life. We navigate through increasingly intricate environments, facing challenges such as limited resources, tight timeframes, evolving technologies and heightened expectations from clients and customers. These are all very powerful tensions that demand much from the leader. To succeed in this dynamic world, organizations must embody agility, innovation, cost-consciousness, and responsiveness. This requires managers at all levels to confidently take charge of change and guide their teams towards success. Taking charge of change necessitates a comprehensive and well-thought-out change strategy.

        In her book, “What Type of Leader Are You?“, Ginger Lapid-Bogda explores the captivating connection between personality styles and effective leadership. She provides a formula for change strategy, delving into the essentials:

(D) demand, dissatisfaction, and desire for change;

(V) the vision or model for the change; the

(P) plan and process for the change;

(R) resistance to the change; and ultimately, the

(C) results that the change brings.

Lapid-Bogda’s formula looks like this: D x V x P > R = C

       As a leader, it is crucial to thoroughly assess the current situation, uncover the underlying causes, inspire and rally individuals to embrace the change through various effective communication channels, and present a compelling argument for the need to initiate change.

        Branch Rickey possesses a clear and powerful vision. He is a visionary who seizes the opportunity presented by the altered post-war environment to drive social change. His approach is far from accidental; he does not stumble upon an exceptional black player and make a spontaneous decision to hire him. Instead, Rickey embraces a deliberate vision to challenge the unwritten rule of the ‘color barrier’ and defy convention.

         The film “42” features Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey and Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson, and it beautifully unfolds this dramatic narrative. In “42” Rickey confidently declares to his advisors, “I may not know who he is or where he is, but he is coming.”

        A visionary leader crafts a compelling vision for the future, effectively conveying the vision with passion, utilizing selective storytelling and testimonials. It also entails ensuring that all facets of the change align with the organization’s values and enlisting the support of top management and key individuals.

         In the film, the crucial role of the manager becomes deeply evident when a crisis arises – namely, a team rebellion in which a group of players initiates a petition expressing their refusal to play alongside Robinson. Their manager unequivocally asserts that the issue is not open for discussion. Rickey’s objective is to ensure that the current managers in place offer the essential support to successfully execute the plan.

         Plans and processes for change encompass a flexible master plan that aligns with the overall vision, the creation and implementation of a supportive network, the establishment of key milestones and accountability measures, and the allocation of necessary resources.

          Rickey knows he’s going to meet a tidal wave of resistance. “We’re a ship without a captain, and there’s a typhoon coming,” he tells his friend Bert when persuading him to be their new manager. He tells Robinson at his recruitment interview, “I want a player who’s got the guts not to fight back.”  

           As a leader, it is vital to accurately identify the root causes and triggers of resistance, develop effective strategies to overcome it, foster positive relationships with influential leaders and groups, encourage active participation, and guide individuals towards embracing any potential challenges. Resistance often looks like fear, anger, and frustration. If you are perceptive to these emotions when you see them in yourself or others, they can be powerful signals of resistance. Its time to intervene otherwise progress will be deterred. Unexpected obstacles and difficulties may arise, posing a threat to the plan. How will these be addressed and conquered? Resistance has the potential to be so strong that it can overshadow the vision and plans, crushing any real possibility of achieving the desired outcome.

           Rickey’s exceptional leadership is undeniable, and there are valuable lessons we can learn from his transformative approach. Personality theory offers insights into each dimension of change. Some of us possess extraordinary vision and the ability to set goals, understanding the necessary changes and envisioning a future that inspires others to join our mission. Others excel at identifying potential obstacles, devising strategies and plans to ensure our success. When we come together as a team, we bring a diverse range of strengths and areas for growth to the table. By harnessing each other’s strengths, we can drive organizational change with even greater success and achieve the transformation we aspire to. While we can all learn and grow in these areas, we are truly stronger when we operate from our strengths and rely on the strengths of our team.

        Have you taken the time to discover your own unique strengths and areas for growth? And as a team, have you pinpointed the specific areas that could be improved through strategic hiring or restructuring? We invite you to reach out and explore the wide range of personality tools available to help elevate your change leadership. These tools provide daily coaching insights and customized leadership programs that are tailor-made to fit the specific needs of your organization. Reach out to take the next step towards unlocking transformative success.  

            Let’s fully embrace our positions as leaders and Change Champions, armed with the knowledge and tactics to navigate the constantly evolving terrain and propel our organizations towards success.

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