Authority, Leadership and the Little Napoleon

May 24, 2011 by Thomas Stanley

This blog was written by Seth Bate, consultant and Coach for the Kansas Leadership Center John McGraw was the umpire-shredding manager of the New York Giants from 1902 to 1932. I recently read a biography of him; to my surprise, he has been on my mind as I have taught, discussed and tried to practice leadership in the last few weeks. At the WSU Center for Community Support & Research and the Kansas Leadership Center, we define leadership as the activity of mobilizing people to do difficult work on complex issues. We think of authority as a position—such as manager of a baseball team—and we believe that people who hold authority are expected to provide protection, order and direction. Authority is sometimes useful in exercising leadership, but it is not the same as leadership. John McGraw had and used authority. The press dubbed him (somewhat redundantly, as his biographer Charles Alexander points out) the Little Napoleon for his strategic prowess and bellicose manner on the field.  He often called every pitch and play in a game. One of McGraw’s innovations was to teach players sign language so when they missed a conventional sign from him, he had a second way to give instructions. In a spring training interview, McGraw once explained that he told his players to execute what he told them, and if something went wrong, he would take the heat. It seems to me that this is what many of us look to in our authorities; tell us what to do, and shoulder the risk for us. In baseball, relying solely on authority can be enormously effective. It worked for McGraw. He is second on the all-time list of wins for major league managers. There is some evidence, however, that there was an issue McGraw cared about for which authority was insufficient to make progress. In the Ken Burns documentary Baseball, it’s said that when McGraw died, a list of African-American players he wanted to recruit into the segregated major leagues was found in his papers. I’m speculating, of course, but one interpretation is that McGraw couldn’t do more than make a wish list because he only knew how to use authority. To tackle a daunting civic issue like integrating baseball he would have needed to use leadership competencies. The Little Napoleon’s baseball record makes me think he had some capacity to intervene. He demonstrated some elements of the KLC Competencies for Civic Leadership:
  • Hold relentlessly to purpose. McGraw doggedly pursued winning. On the field, every close play at the plate was worth a profane argument with an ump. Off the field, every political maneuver at the league level was suspect and could result in a blistering letter. What if he had recognized that the pool of black players could serve his purpose of winning and pursued that as fiercely?
  • Give the work back. It might seem uncharacteristic, but McGraw had a soft spot for players who had washed out of the majors because of their drinking or womanizing habits. In a few instances, McGraw gave second and even third chances. Still, he didn’t take on responsibility for the player’s rehabilitation; he provided the space to play, but the work of getting back into playing form was the player’s. What if he took the same approach to a few pioneering minority players and created a level playing field on which they could succeed or fail?
  • Act experimentally. McGraw was one of the innovators of “scientific baseball,” a style based on smart baserunning and small tactical advantages. He disparaged the new offensive style of baseball that came into vogue in the 1920s with Babe Ruth. In his final years, though, he risked ridicule and began actively recruiting sluggers, even landing the great Rogers Hornsby for a short time. If McGraw didn’t completely abandon his position, he at least experimented with another approach. What if McGraw had risked even wider ridicule and recruited African-American players?
Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa—who has a bit of Little Napoleon in him—is on pace to pass McGraw on the all-time wins list in 2012. When that happens, I hope McGraw gets his due. He was a fascinating character and a brilliant manager — and his story might still have something to teach us about the authority and leadership.  


Im a big baseball fan. (White SOX!) I enjoyed this article big time. Thanks.

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