I am a fan of sports. However, I am not one to make great athletes and coaches into heroes. I am not a fan of all-star games or discussions about the greatness of individual players, especially in team sports. I do not believe that elevating individuals who have been blessed with great talent to the position of heroes and gods is good for either the target of such praise or those who admire them.
However, from time to time, there are specific people in all walks of life who earn my respect both for what they do and what they are.
Bernie Miklasz, who is retiring after 30 years as a sportswriter for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, is one of those rare individuals. Through many years of following him, both in the paper and on the radio, I have admired his talent as a writer who provides great insight with amazing humility. His balanced view allows him to respect and admire people who have achieved success in sports without dishonoring them by elevating to something they are not.
Through the years, Miklasz has shown amazing compassion and understanding when athletes and coaches have done something that tarnishes their image or reminds us that they are human. Unlike most sports writers and commentators, Bernie does not hold other people to standards higher than those to which he holds himself. He understands that all of us are flawed. He is aware that everyone makes mistakes periodically and deserves another chance.
Miklasz isn’t like many in the press who portray themselves as living perfect lives, thus giving themselves permission to pummel any of their sports heroes who stumble. Instead, he has gone out of his way through the years to share about his personal demons and display understanding and empathy to sports figures who have stumbled.
In one of his last columns before retiring from the Post-Dispatch, Bernie shared recollections and lessons learned from some of the great sports leaders in St. Louis that he has known in the last 30 years.
All leaders can learn from the lessons Bernie recalls in his column. The full article can be found at: http://www.stltoday.com/sports/columns/bernie-miklasz/bernie-great-sports-leaders-i-ve-known/article_ac7eae87-012b-5422-b12a-a2e806960f67.html
However, if you can’t find time to read the full article, here is an abbreviated list of the leaders that Bernie shared and a summary of the lessons he learned from them. I have added some of my own observations as well.
- Whitey Herzog – As a true professional who is more comfortable being himself than one would think is possible, Whitey showed that “you can laugh, enjoy the good times, tell stories and entertain while also being extremely competitive, serious and bold in your work.”
o I have met Whitey personally and Bernie’s comments are right on. He had an amazing ability to demand excellence and effort from his players while, at the same time, he was having a great time.
o Whitey was also willing to do things differently than everyone else and try approaches that went against the grain. When the rest of the league went for power, he emphasized speed and defense. He is an example of a leader willing to take chances and do things differently to be successful.
- Miklasz describes Tony La Russa as the “most tenacious competitor I’ve ever covered. And probably the best at cultivating a team culture. TLR was relentless, his teams were relentless.”
o Many St. Louisans did not like Tony La Russa, even though he is one of the winningest managers in Major League history. I think some of that was due to the fact that he did not have the folksiness of Whitey Herzog. But, as a model of effective corporate leadership and building a team that could compete at the highest level on a daily basis, he stands out. He was intense and single-minded. He was committed to competing at the highest level, and he never gave less than 100% in any game. He was fearless and intensely loyal to his players and his friends.
- Bernie’s points about Joe Torre were brief and to the point. “I’ve never come across a finer gentleman … and I use ‘gentleman’ in the traditional sense of the word. Courteous, hospitable, a pleasant conversationalist, and respectful to others.”
o What Bernie learned from Torre: “A couple of things; (1) it doesn’t hurt to show some class, and it isn’t a sign of weakness; and (2) I don’t care how good a manager is, if he doesn’t have enough talented players he won’t win consistently.
o Both of these are important points for any leader. No matter what our position is, acting properly, with class, elevates your ability to lead. Secondly, a team without talent cannot be an effective team. Finding the right people to put on your team is critical to building and leading a successful team.
- Miklasz describes Dick Vermeil as “the most optimistic and upbeat team leader I’ve encountered. A source of brightness and positive energy, DV was a refreshing alternative to the standard NFL-coach profile at the time. Unlike just about every other coach in the league, Vermeil wasn’t a brooder, wasn’t cold, wasn’t paranoid and didn’t think anyone outside his inner circle was an enemy, never to be trusted. DV is a happy warrior who truly loves people, and he showed that every day at work at Rams Park.”
o My admiration for Dick Vermeil started long before he came to St. Louis as their coach in the late 1990s. I had followed him since he burned out as coach of the Philadelphia Eagles after leading them to the Super Bowl in 1981. During his intervening career as a Sportscaster for CBS doing college and pro football, Vermeil’s optimism and belief in people stood out. For many years I hoped he would coach again. I never thought we would ever see him coach a St. Louis football team. I surely didn’t expect him to bring St. Louis a Super Bowl championship.
o Vermeil’s gift was that he fully invested in his players. Miklasz recalls that “when he won the Super Bowl as coach of the unforgettable 1999 Rams, DV was genuinely more happy for others than he was for himself. What I learned: good guys can finish first, and thank God for that. And when you make it a priority to see the best in people – instead of obsessing on their worst traits – you give them confidence, inspire them, and draw out their finest qualities. And that will help them succeed. And your team will be better for it.”
o I totally relate to this. Being nice to people and caring about them is not incompatible with success. Deeply caring about people on your team on a personal basis shows that you believe in them. I am driven by a desire to help others achieve their goals. I get great satisfaction when helping a client, friend or a relative achieve balanced success. Dick Vermeil has been an example of this for me.
- Bernie comments on Gary Pinkel apply to anyone in any walk of life. “One of Pinkel’s greatest strengths is his ability to adapt and adjust. He’s smart enough to know that he doesn’t know everything. Instead of just saying, ‘What the heck, I’m close to retiring, I’m just going to keep doing what I do, and I don’t care if people like it or not,’ — Pinkel’s pride won’t permit complacency. His self-awareness leads to him making positive corrections and changes, and MU keeps going. It’s a good lesson: don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’re all set. Adapt and adjust.“
o This may be the most important lesson of all those in this article. In the rapidly changing world of today, adapting to change is not an option. To be successful, we must constantly assess the world around us, the competition, and our strengths and weaknesses and adapt and adjust. If you cannot adjust, your success is likely to be fleeting as the world changes again and again.
- Finally, Bernie’s comments on Ken Hitchcock, coach of the St. Louis Blues: “A truly compelling individual. What I learned: No matter what you do for a career, no matter how long you’ve been at it, and no matter how old you are … there’s always something to learn, and there are ways to improve, and it’s important to renew your energy. Don’t settle or get too comfortable. Keep stretching.”
o Ken Hitchcock is a lifelong learner. He is an example of an individual who embraces the idea that education does not stop when you get out of school. To be successful, you must continue to learn. Brian Tracy was fond of saying that if you read one book a month on the same subject each month for two years, you would gain knowledge the equivalent of a Master’s degree in your area of interest.
o I personally have done this, and more, in the areas of stock and option trading and personal development. The knowledge learned from the investment in learning these areas has amazed me. Lack of knowledge or lack of education is not a valid excuse for lack of success. Get the knowledge you need to succeed either by going to school or reading.
Bernie Miklasz also mentions several other leaders in his article including Norm Stewart, Joel Quenneville, Charlie Spoonhour, Mike Martz, and Rick Majerus. His comment on each of these leaders are powerful as well and can be found in the Post article at the web address listed above.
I am often asked by people what they can do to become a better leader. The list above is a menu of successful approaches to leadership. Read through it and then pick two or three traits to work on. You will be amazed at how quickly you can incorporate the techniques that you learn into your management style to increase your effectiveness.
As a final note, I owe a great deal of thanks to Bernie. His excellent writing, honest approach, and ability to communicate in a way that has caused me to think has been one of the inspirations that has led me to write these weekly insights for the last eight years. Through his writing I personally learned years ago the power of words to inform, educate, teach and inspire the reader. That vision is why I sit down each week and try to do my best for you, my readers. I hope it helps!