George Steinbrenner: How Was the Boss?

Jul 19, 2010
Tom Ryan

By Tom Ryan

A string of obituaries over the past week have praised the late
George Steinbrenner’s will to win and willingness to spend money to improve
the Yankees. But a few also touched on his caricatured-yet-oppressive management

With a role model in General George Patton, Mr. Steinbrenner managed
by fear. He belittled players in the press and temper tantrums became regular
fodder for the back pages of the New York tabloids. He second-guessed, micro-managed
and eventually fired his managers 20 times in his first 23 years as owner.
Other lower-level employees were likewise continually berated or fired for
miscues as small as not getting a lunch order correct. He demanded perfection.

is the most charming guy in the world, a real Mr. Nice," Campbell
Elliott, former president of American Ship Building Company, which Mr. Steinbrenner
owned, told CNN. "But to work for him? George’s attitude is that
they’re damn lucky to have a job — and if they don’t like the way he treats
them, they can just get the hell out."

Alaina Love, the co-author of The
Purpose Linked Organization, believes Mr. Steinbrenner’s tirades, fear, intimidation
and humiliation "robbed the game
of its fun" for the players and likely resulted in many players not
living up to their potential.

"In today’s terminology, we might have
labeled Steinbrenner a workplace bully," wrote Ms. Love in the On Leadership
column in The Washington
. "A primary foundational aspect of leadership is respect
for those under your direction, a quality sorely absent in the Steinbrenner

Apologists point to Mr. Steinbrenner’s winning drive and
said that although he expected a lot, he also paid players excessively.
Players also knew their owner would invest to put the team in a position
to win.

"Steinbrenner bet big. He never spent small," Robert Boland,
a professor of sports management at New York University, told Voice of America. "He
always reinvested in the Yankee brand."

At the same time, countless tales
of his generosity and impulsive charitable acts have come out over the last
several days. Joel Weinberger, a professor of Psychology at Adelphi University,
said it made Mr. Steinbrenner "a walking paradox." He
eventually mended fences and helped many of those he fired or publicly berated,
gave second or third chances to struggling players, and would take care of
many of his former players long after their playing careers were over.

in Huffington Post, Prof. Weinberger said the same
personality characteristics that led to his oafish "Boss" behavior
also fed those charitable acts. Fueled by his emotions, he acting impulsively
— good and bad — without reflection. With a need to "be in charge," he
demanded perfection from employees but also had a paternalistic, caring side.
Ultimately, Prof. Weinberger said, winning conquered all.

"This style leads
to mistakes and broken relationships but he was able to override those pitfalls
because of his talent, charisma, and ultimately because winning was so important
to him that he would back down if he saw that winning was in the offing," wrote
Prof. Weinberger. "Winning settled
all scores and forgave all transgressions. That is, whether you agree with
it or not, he had a value that gave all of his actions meaning."

Questions: What do you see as the pros and cons of the management style personified
by former Yankee’s owner George Steinbrenner? How effective, generally speaking,
is this style in motivating employees?

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16 Comments on "George Steinbrenner: How Was the Boss?"

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Paula Rosenblum
10 years 9 months ago

Steinbrenner clearly wasn’t ALL bad (like one or two of the people I’ve worked for in my career), but he was a very bad boss, and I believe, bad for baseball overall.

We do ourselves and our industries a disservice by condoning and even finding good in managers who behave so badly.

Hypercompetitiveness (or what we are calling ‘the will to win’) does not excuse the inexcusable, and the concept that ‘the end justifies the means’ has long been consigned to the dustbin of history.

There should be no place for workplace bullies, regardless how much money they might have.

Dick Seesel
10 years 9 months ago

From the perspective of Yankees fans (count me out), I’m sure Steinbrenner achieved his most important goal as a team owner: Provide a winner on the field in order to drive the rest of the business model. And looking at it purely in terms of wins and losses, TV ratings, the growth in his franchise’s value and the construction of a new stadium, you have to rate Steinbrenner as a towering success.

As other panelists have noted, however, it’s clear from much of the frank reporting and commentary last week that Steinbrenner was a workplace bully of the first order. Is it possible to run a consistently winning, profitable sports franchise while behaving like a “class act”? I’m sure fans of the Steelers, the Celtics and other teams would argue that point. It’s worth pointing out that baseball–the only major sport without a meaningful salary cap–allows a “win at any cost” owner with a personality disorder to dominate the game for decades.

Bill Emerson
Bill Emerson
10 years 9 months ago
The one thing that you can absolutely say about George Steinbrenner’s style was that there was clarity of mission–you win or you go. Attached to this passion was the commitment to provide the funding, resources, and the best talent in the field to accomplish this mission. From George’s standpoint, if you lost, it was a matter of will. You either wanted the pennant or you didn’t. Like I said, clarity of mission. The largest pro of this approach is that, well, it worked. The Yankees have the best record in modern baseball. As a proud member of the Red Sox Nation, you have no idea how hard that is to admit. The flip side of this coin is that the passion to succeed led to emotional decisions that, in retrospect, could be viewed as harmful to the mission by needlessly driving talented players and coaches from the team. Having said that, however, take a look at the players that have hung in – Pettitte, Posada, Rivera, Jeter. These guys represent the very best in baseball.… Read more »
David Biernbaum
10 years 9 months ago

George Steinbrenner was an example of a chief executive that for both better and worse was hands-on. He worked “in” the business as much as he worked “on” the business. In many ways he was actually a classic entrepreneur, again for better and worse that used his organization more in a support role for his own dominating leadership, rather than for tapping other people’s areas of expertise and utilizing them in a managing mode.

Bill Robinson
Bill Robinson
10 years 9 months ago

George Steinbrenner is emblematic of what is wrong with American business. His values center on bullying, bigness, and bombast. He bought his way into competitive domination by bullying the cable TV industry, local governments, his spineless fellow team owners, and baseball’s commissioner.

As a result baseball is segmented like much of America into “haves” and “have nots’. All but a privileged few are constantly rebuilding around a few young home-grown players before the Yankees lure away their talent in mid-career. In this system, innovation and long term organic growth is stifled by the bullies and bombasters who prey upon the smaller players.

Nice work, George. Your crowd seizes market forces and manipulates laissez faire government to destroy so much of what has defined America’s greatness: Wal-Mart has fundamentally destroyed Main Street, AIG and Goldman Sachs has chased away the small investor and customer focused brokers and counselors, Enron and BP have stifled innovation in energy, Rupert Murdoch and Worldcom have killed off the entrepreneurs in telecom and media.

David Zahn
10 years 9 months ago
Sure he was a walking contradiction–blustering, bullying, berating (and that was just when he ordered his morning coffee), and then helping out those in need far outside the glare of the spotlight. However, he was not in the make nice business. He was in the business of winning championships. Even at times, being accused of committing criminal acts to accomplish his objectives. The “pros” to his approach–he got results. He won championships. He increased the value of his team multifold. He “owned” the sports sections, talk radio station, and newscasts in the NY area and at times did so, nationally (maybe even occasionally, internationally). The “cons” to his approach–fear works for a short time, then it grows old and people do not want to work in that environment (and many failed under his and NY’s withering rebukes, others refused to play for him and signed contracts to play elsewhere). He was not “fun” to play for (but he never intended to run a playground or a camp–he wanted to win). He very much viewed employees… Read more »
Joel Rubinson
10 years 9 months ago

Steinbrenner was not successful from 1979 until 1996. that is a long dry spell during which he was just mean and not really successful. However, when he came back after his suspension, his style seemed to change. He micro-managed less, was less mean-spirited in the media, and stopped firing managers. somehow, that new style (not typically associated with George) was what led to the Yankee resurgence.

Micro-managing and treating people like pinatas is never a good thing. Investing to win and a commitment to that as a culture, then letting your team drive to the finish line is.

George Anderson
10 years 9 months ago

Speaking as a Yankees fan (please hold your boos since I started rooting for them when they were cellar dwellers), the greatest success the team experienced during Mr. Steinbrenner’s years of ownership began while he was banned from baseball. His tenure shows that hiring the talented people and giving them the resources to do their job is much more effective than the meddling, hyper-reactive approach pre-ban. Just count the championships for proof.

Dan Berthiaume
Dan Berthiaume
10 years 9 months ago

I write this as a confirmed Red Sox fan who will try to be as objective as possible. At the end of the day, Steinbrenner produced numerous championships, not to mention the many playoff appearances that didn’t end with a World Series victory. Sports are about winning, and he won. In addition, Steinbrenner was a master of media manipulation and helped revive the Sox-Yankees rivalry which had grown dormant in the early 70s with both teams doing poorly.

Cons – Bully, ruled by fear, fired too many people too quickly, upset baseball’s payscale. I’m sure Yankees fans are happy to take these in exchange for the rings, and while I’m glad the Red Sox have achieved their recent success with a “kinder,gentler” 21st century management approach, if an old school hardass like Steinbrenner came in and won, I’d accept that, too.

Bob Houk
Bob Houk
10 years 9 months ago

I have had one employer who used the style that I referred to as ‘management by temper tantrum’. He was, like Steinbrenner, a great guy–except when anything went wrong.

The result was that employees learned not to let anything go wrong. Which meant they never tried anything new. Not the path to success.

Given baseball’s structure, Steinbrenner was able to buy championships and ‘succeed’ in spite of his management style, though he could have succeeded much less expensively had he been a better boss.

Craig Sundstrom
10 years 9 months ago

Looking at this from the perspective of an A’s fan, my thoughts were drawn to a comparison with Charley Finley, another egocentric owner who, in a addition to being a meddlesome, PITA to work for, also produced a long run of champions; but unlike Mr. Steinbrenner, whose oversized market allowed for a trial-and-error approach to winning, Finley’s success was mostly due to genius (OK, and probably a little luck now and then). But once the rules of the game were changed, the formula no longer worked.

In short, both were products of their time and place; neither would have achieved success in the world that the other lived in. And the same can be said to the question of applying Steinbrenner’s “style” to the real world: what can we learn? Nothing, really. RIP George.

Michael L. Howatt
Michael L. Howatt
10 years 9 months ago

Steinbrenner was one of those people who lived and thrived in controversy. He loved to stir up the pot and since MLB had no rules to curve this behavior he was left to do whatever he wanted. Yes he was successful. Yes he was an ass. However, how did the mild mannered Joe Torre work with him successfully for all those years? A good lesson taken from that relationship is that if you blow your horn too often maybe no one will be listening after a while.

Gene Hoffman
Gene Hoffman
10 years 9 months ago

Steinbrenner bought the Yankees for $8.5 million. Today they are worth $1.6 billion. His highlighted goal was to restore the Yankees to their former greatness–and he did–by using money, generosity and harsh personality traits.

He was like General Patton. He did what it he felt it took to win his stated objective. But winning a war or a World Series may require a more unyielding personality than most business targets.

So let’s applaud Steinbrenner for his achievements, his generosity and continue to wish that he could have restored the Yankees by being less abusive and intrusive. That would have made him more like beloved Connie Mack who passed on without winning any World Series after his early successes.

Mark Johnson
Mark Johnson
10 years 9 months ago

I think they had a clear mission, he was passionate about it and they executed. We have become too touchy feely on certain aspects of management. Loyalty 360 deals with engagement on a daily basis, and it is a very complex idea that not all have mastered. Having engagement does not always mean execution. The Yankee’s are the epicenter of the baseball world (being a Dodger fan this pains me), they have the ability to attract and sometimes retain the best of the best, and winning is their obsession. Isn’t that what America is all about; defining you goals and being obsessive in your quest to achieve them?

Ed Rosenbaum
10 years 9 months ago

George Steinbrenner, like him or not, was a winner. He made all those around him successful if they chose to play by his rules. There was no doubt about it. It was his “ball & bat. If you wanted to play; his rules were the ones to be followed. You knew that when you accepted to play or work for him.

While I do not agree with or profess his management style; there is no arguing about his success. He was a follower of General Patton, a winner in a field where complete adherence to orders was the only rule you followed.

Baseball is a game played by millionaires. The only decisions a player makes during the course of a game or a season is based solely on winning. Mr. Steinbrenner believed this and would only have people around him who would adhere to those rules. I applaud him for his contributions to the sport, his business life outside of baseball and his philanthropic desire to help others unable to help themselves.

Mark Burr
10 years 9 months ago
Love him or hate him, if you ask any major league player if they would like to wear the pinstripes, I think we all know the answer. That’s not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing. It’s just reality. Is that a legacy? Maybe. Maybe not. It maybe ironic or a contradiction. Figuring out a guy like this is like putting together a puzzle and being quite sure that you don’t have all the pieces. Certainly some of the pieces don’t seem to fit. Did he change baseball? Likely. Did it change for the good? I’m not so sure. Either way, there are way too many other factors that have changed baseball. I’m not so sure it’s all his fault or if one guy really did impact it any more than another. Some did. Mr. Steinbrenner? Maybe he impacted New York. Baseball? Maybe. I don’t live in New York. I have never been a fan of the Yankees. One thing is clear, you have to respect them as a force in baseball even in… Read more »

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