There are times that being a Leader, means stepping down from the plate to put your whole team first. Don Yaeger, a contributor from Forbes, who studies high performers in sports for lessons in business leadership, sat down with John Smoltz to ask him about putting his team first.
Many of us have been asked to take on a new role on our professional teams in the past. Change is the nature of today’s workforce but, if we are being honest, is usually met with resistance on our part—especially if the move could be perceived as a demotion.
Former Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz—part of arguably one of the most dominant starting rotations in Major League Baseball history—volunteered for the ultimate job change. A few years after his team won the 1995 World Series, they were seeking another competitive advantage in order to find new success. Smoltz answered the call and moved from starting pitcher to closer, a move some might have considered a professional step backwards. But three years later, after settling in and becoming a dominant force in the bullpen, Smoltz moved back to starter again because that’s what the team needed at that point.
“The hardest thing I ever did was changing positions as a pitcher; it’s like playing right handed and learning how to play left handed,” Smoltz said to me recently in an interview. “But I wanted to win in the worst way, even if I had to sacrifice in order for our team to improve.”
This Sunday, Smoltz will be inducted into the MLB Hall of Fame, and he couldn’t have gotten there without having a “team-first” attitude. I got to know Smoltz while working on his book, and he shared three major lessons of selflessness with me—and how these characteristics run counter to society’s tendency to avoid discomfort:
1. Great Leaders Embrace Change. Smoltz is a rare, humble superstar in an era of “me-first” athletes. When he first made the move to the bullpen, he knew he’d be giving up personal stats and fanfare…but it was what the team needed from him.
“Embracing change is not easy, but I wasn’t afraid of failure,” Smoltz told me. “As people, the easiest thing to do is avoid anything that might be painful. I became very uncomfortable, but that caused growth—which taught me a lot.”
Smoltz had to make physical adjustments to be a successful closer, but he had to strengthen his mental toughness as well. “You have to be focused on the task at hand and love the challenge of being outside of your comfort zone,” he said. “The attitude in which you approach these changes in your life can directly result in success or failure.”
Smoltz is correct; it’s rare to find anyone in any industry who’ll risk failure by acting outside of their own self-interest. Yet the truly Great winners of our time know that role-shifting is sometimes necessary for a team to develop—and win. But how do we maintain steady growth and positive momentum in our new roles?
2. Find Mentors To Learn From. Once he became a closing pitcher, Smoltz desired to excel in his new role. And he had a veteran-laden bullpen from whom he could draw experience.
“Having people who have been there before me share their strategies was a big help,” Smoltz explained. “I created an environment to be successful, instead of allowing that environment—or self-interest—make me unsuccessful.”
Smoltz applied the advice he received to his game, and rapidly became one of the most dominant closers in the league.
If you are going through a job transition or change within your organization, take a look at your professional team and ask yourself, “Who has been in this situation before and what can I learn from them?” Like Smoltz, we should be in the constant practice of rubbing elbows with those who can make us better and wiser about our new position.
3. Be Willing To Continue Changing Roles. The most successful organizations enjoy regular success when teammates consistently transition to respond to current needs. After three seasons as the team’s closing pitcher, Smoltz moved back into the starting rotation for the Braves. He encountered many critics, but said his experience of having made one major change made a second much easier.
“If you are willing to do the best to help your organization, then you should also be willing to expose yourself to whatever it takes to win, and that’s the hardest thing to do,” said Smoltz. “For me, I never did anything to set a record or to have bragging rights, but I’ve always believed I could do whatever I set my mind to do. I’ve always wanted to do whatever it took to win.”
In the professional world, it’s become politically correct for employees to say that they would change for the team and adopt any role—but how many of us actually mean that? Ultimately, talk is cheap, and ego can cloud the bigger picture. Smoltz understood that selflessness could benefit his organization. His was a very unconventional path to the Hall of Fame, but he achieved the highest honor by being a Great team-first player.