Good leaders understand and play by the written rules of their organization. Yet, a company’s unwritten rules are the ones that most influence employee behavior. How leaders choose to deal with the unwritten rules often determines how leaders are most remembered. Legendary baseball team owner Branch Rickey is an innovator who designed the blueprint for the modern day minor league farm system and introduced the batting helmet. He is best known, however, for his challenge of an unwritten rule in baseball – excluding players of black African descent from playing on major league baseball teams.
As featured in 42, the popular film released this spring, Rickey signed Jackie Robinson as the first African-American player to break the color barrier in major league baseball. Set during the 1946 season with the Montreal Royals and 1947 season with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the film tells the story of the obstacles both men faced as they toiled to break this unwritten segregation rule. While Rickey anticipated resistance to his decision and attempted to prepare Robinson for what he would encounter, he hadn’t imagined open hostility among team members, bean-ball pitches from the mound or dozens of death threats. Robinson’s athletic abilities and both men’s persistent courage prevailed despite the intense pressures caused by crossing the “color line.”
Rickey’s defining moment, and legacy as a leader, was choosing to go against a strongly adhered-to unwritten rule. In his case, it was a good business decision as well as a moral one. As an astute businessman, Rickey was well aware of the value of being the first to recruit and sign African-American star athletes. He wanted to build a winning team. And, his Christian faith, as Rickey acknowledged, provided a firm belief in equal rights and strong motive to challenge the status quo. He was quoted as saying, “Ethnic prejudice has no place in sports, and baseball must recognize that truth if it is to maintain stature as a national game.”
Each leader faces numerous defining moments in his or her career. When leaders equip themselves to overcome barriers, discomfort and fear, they enhance their chances to build healthy, positive work climates. Cultures of inclusion, a good business decision, lead to increased respect, productivity, profitability, higher job satisfaction and lower turnover. What leaders choose to do when opportunities arise determines their legacy. To enhance chances for building positive legacies, leaders can ACT by:
- Acknowledging and looking for unwritten rules that reinforce non-inclusive practices and inappropriate behavior.
- Creating messages that build a culture for appreciating differences (give and receive feedback non-defensively).
- Taking action and following through on commitments (coach to and reinforce key messages).
“It is not the honor that you take with you, but the heritage you leave behind.” – Branch Rickey
“Baseball people, and that includes myself, are slow to change and accept new ideas. I remember that it took years to persuade them to put numbers on uniforms.” – Branch Rickey
Courage, an Innolect value, challenges us to test assumptions and push beyond our own comfort zones with each other.
Download our Courage to A.C.T. Steps.