Thursday, July 15, 2010

So long, George. (Sure glad I never worked for you.)

I’m in the process or reading an advance copy of Bob Sutton’s forthcoming book, Good Boss, Bad Boss – more on this next week – and George Steinbrenner’s death this week makes this read particularly apposite. (Apposite: now there’s a word I’ve always wanted to use.)

Naturally, as a Red Sox fan, I had found Mr. Steinbrenner to be a loud mouthed jerk.  But, as they saying goes, you can’t argue with success.

Or can you?

Sure, he was an enormously successful businessman, and there’s no doubt that he was instrumental in (if not the pure, direct cause of) the rebuilding of the Evil Empire New York Yankees organization from a middling, shadow of their past club in the 1970’s to, well, the team they are today. (Hiss, boo.)

But as a manager?

The word “boor” comes to mind. (As does the key word contained in the title of Bob  Sutton’s last book, The No Asshole Rule. More on that next week, too.)

Steinbrenner was certainly not alone as an out there sports team owner. One has to look no further back than last week to find the wildly entertaining, but extremely unhinged, screed launched by Cleveland Cavaliers’ owner Dan Gilbert at LeBron James when James announced he was departing Cleveland for the sunnier climes of Miami. Without defending James here – he certainly came across as a narcissistic heel throughout the entire will-he-won’t-he process of declaring his next move – if the open letter that Gilbert wrote to Cavs’ fans is any indication of personality type…Well, Steinbrenner sure had some company.  (Talk about Fathead.*)

Anyway, Dave Anderson had an interesting column on Steinbrenner in The NY Times the other day that focused on Steinbrenner as a manager.

One of the central incidents cited in the column was the one in which Steinbrenner fired Yankees Manager Dick Howser when, after having a banner year in terms of wins, the Yanks were swept in the ALCS playoffs and never made it to the World Series.

… Steinbrenner invited 14 reporters and columnists to a rare news conference in his Stadium office. …

“Dick has decided,” Steinbrenner began, “that he will not be returning to the Yankees next year. I should say, not returning to the Yankees as manager.”

Dick has decided. Ostensibly, Howser had decided to go into the real estate business in Tallahassee, Fla., rather than continue as the Yankees manager. When Steinbrenner was asked if Howser could have returned as manager, he said yes. But when Howser was asked why he didn’t want to continue as manager, he said, “I have to be cautious here.” When he was asked if he had been fired, he said, “I’m not going to comment on that.”

“I didn’t fire the man,” Steinbrenner barked.

The principal owner even added, “I think it’s safe to say that Dick Howser wants to be a Florida resident year round, right, Dick?”

Dick Howser didn’t even answer that one.

This was an execution, not a news conference, and when it was over, as everybody was walking out of his office, the principal owner looked around and said, “Nobody ate any sandwiches [that had been offered earlier].” He didn’t seem to realize that nobody believed that “Dick had decided.”

Of course, one of the hazards of managing a big league sports team is that, when you get bounced, there’s a press conference or, at least, a press release, and everyone in the whole wide world gets to find out. Name o’ the game.

But what, Anderson seems to be asking still, a good 30 years after the “Dick has decided” farce, was what was the point of not just saying ‘we let the guy go’? Why humiliate Howser by setting up a kangaroo press conference? Was it because Steinbrenner wanted to position himself as a good guy. (“See, I’m not firing anybody.”) Or was it because – as is so often the reason with those in power –  he could.

Who knows what he held over Howser’s head to get him to go along with it.

But I don’t care if you’re firing the manager of the NY Yankees (someone used to being in the public eye), or laying off the manager of the accounting department at Acme Widget, there are ways to go about things that get the ugly deed done, while somehow allowing everyone involved to save face/keep their game face on.

Public humiliation is not one of them.

But for many of those in power roles, it’s not sufficient to just wield the knife – and, let’s face it, anyone who’s been a manager for more than a month has had to wield some knife or another, even if it’s a butter knife, rather than a shiv. No, mere wielding, a graceful jab,easy in/easy out, is not sufficient.  It’s just plain no fun when there are no witnesses to see the look on your face, the shock of recognition that this is it.You need to thrust it in and twist.

Having had this done to me – although less publicly and dramatically - I know whereof I speak.  Years ago, when working for the remnants of a little software company, I reported directly to the founder.  Not that there was much to run – we were a 20 person company by that point – but I ran marketing. I was sitting in the founder’s office, in a meeting with “S”, my opposite number in sales, when “E” announced that I was now reporting to “S.”

While “S” sat there Cheshire-catting, I composed myself.

This was a clear demotion, and not a move that I had anticipated. That I didn’t particularly like or respect “S” certainly factored in to my feelings.

After the meeting, I told “E” that he should have told me privately, ahead of time, rather than announcing it in front of “S”.

He just smirked and airily dismissed me. “I knew you wouldn’t mind.”  But the smirk – and knowing “E” as I did – told me everything I needed to know. And that was that “E” didn’t give a rat’s arse about whether I was going to “mind” or not.  No, it was all about his having the power to jerk me around in the same way that I had seen him jerk plenty of other people around during the years I’d worked for and around him.

Well, reporting to “S” turned out to be even more disastrous than I had thought it would be. But it didn’t last for long.  As it happened, “E” got himself bounced by a turnaround guy the investors brought in. (Hah, hah.) And the turnaround guy decided I no longer reported to “S”. (I had asked rather nicely, after all.) Plus I outlasted “S” by many years. So, there.

In a far worse incident, my cousin and his manager were both fired at a branch meeting, in front of the entire staff.

Nice, eh?

As for George Steinbrenner, there are other anecdotes in the Anderson column, including how The Boss fired Yogi Berra as manager by sending a minion to do the deed – a couple of weeks into the season, after Steinbrenner had guaranteed Yogi a full season. Come on, who’d be mean to Yogi Berra?

There’s no arguing that Steinbrenner did a lot for the Yankees. There’s no arguing that there’s not a free agent in baseball who shouldn’t be kissing his feet for driving up their prices. And by all reports he was extremely philanthropic. (Thank God for rich folks.)

But I’ll close with the final word from Dave Anderson:

I loved George Steinbrenner, too, but as somebody to write about, certainly not somebody to work for.


*A joke: Gilbert also owns Fatheads, which makes the life-sized, puffy wall hangings of athletes. After James announced he was moving on, Gilbert discounted the James’ fathead to the price of 1741 – the year Benedict Arnold was born.

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