October 11, 2015

Reflections on Mariano Rivera

On Thursday, May 3, Mariano Rivera, the New York Yankees closer suffered what appeared to be a season-ending injury, a torn anterior crucial ligament in his knee. The commentary on the effects of his absence on the team and the requirements for a closer was quite interesting. The New York Post article by columnist Joel Sherman in the Saturday, May 5 issue is a good example of this commentary:


The core message of all this commentary is that a successful closer, in addition to having the required athletic skills, must have the temperament to bounce back quickly and decisively from adversity. In reading this commentary, I am reminded that I believe this quality to be required for all great leaders and for business people who have important jobs. Adversity is a given; how people respond to it separates the successful people from those who will fail.

In fact, the ability to learn from, but emotionally distance oneself from, adversity is important in all competitive endeavors. My younger son James competed at a very high level in chess for many years. What astounded me about him and other high-level chess players was their ability to lose a long, grueling, and highly disappointing match, often because of an avoidable mistake, and to be ready to compete fully in a new match a few minutes later, as if the prior defeat had never happened.

I also saw this quality in my predecessor as Pitney Bowes CEO George Harvey. Whatever happened, good or bad, was put aside quickly so that he and the organization could focus on the challenges ahead of us. I also see this quality in abundance in the Eaton CEO Sandy Cutler, and saw it particularly during the horrific economic crisis in 2008 and early 2009, which hit the diversified industrial companies particularly hard. Decisions were made in terms of the best way to address adverse market conditions, and the organization methodically executed on them.

This is an underestimated and undervalued quality of great leadership, and it is why Mariano Rivera’s response to his injury is particularly noteworthy. He could have withdrawn quietly from the competitive arena and gone on to have his surgery and undergo his rehabilitation. However, he did not do that. He announced quickly that he would be back and quietly, but forcefully, communicated that he would continue to be a mentor to the other pitchers and to the rest of the team to help them through this transition.

The tone he set in his remarks was quite interesting. I heard several messages, in addition to the encouraging message that he would return:

  • He would influence the speed of his recovery, rather than leaving it to chance.
  • The organization and the team would be fine because no one, including him, is indispensable. His modesty over his entire career is uncharacteristic of many world-class athletes, who are often highly self-absorbed. This combination of incredible self-confidence and modesty was specifically described as a core capability of great business leaders in Jim Collins’ From Good to Great. Collins referred to such leaders as Level 5 leaders, individuals with ferocious competitiveness and self-confidence, but a strongly modest demeanor. If Mariano Rivera were a business leader, he would be a Level 5 leader.
  • He believes that the team will step up and that many people will perform better individually and collectively to take up the slack.
  • He was glad that he, rather than someone else, would have to bear this burden, because he believed himself fully capable of managing it.
  • He is a strongly religious and faith-driven individual who is confident that grace will be visited upon him if he submits to a higher power.

Great leaders articulate and live these kinds of values. Even those who are not fans of the New York Yankees admire Mariano Rivera, not only for what he has accomplished, but the task he has undertaken and will accomplish in helping himself and his team through this difficult process.

Many statisticians making the compelling case that closers are overvalued, and as a baseball statistical buff, I would agree with their conclusion. However, Mariano Rivera is more than a closer; he is a true leader and inspirational figure whose value cannot be captured in his on-field accomplishments. He has never won a Most Valuable Player award for a full season, but, oddly enough, the way he has handled this situation may make those who never voted for him think differently about the value he provides to his team.

He is the last player to wear uniform number 42, the number worn by Jackie Robinson and retired by Major League Baseball for all players in the future. When Rivera retires, no one else will ever wear number 42 on a Major League Baseball field, except as a temporary tribute to Jackie Robinson.

No one can compare with Jackie Robinson, in terms of the impact he had, not just on baseball, but on sports and society as a whole. However, Mariano Rivera has carved out his own niche as one of the most inspirational athletes of all time, with an impact far beyond baseball.

Like many people, I will eagerly anticipate his return.