While the name “Jackie Robinson” is more familiar to baby boomers than millennials, Robinson shared many of the same traits as young people entering the workforce today for the first time: confident, tolerant, and civic minded. Robinson is best known as the athlete who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball when the Brooklyn Dodgers started him at first base on April 15, 1947.
Robinson was a natural leader who understood the importance of working with others, being true to yourself, and balancing personal and professional commitments. As we approach the 70th anniversary of his groundbreaking accomplishment, this athlete from a past generation can teach today’s new workers a thing or two about hitting a home run in the workplace:
Focus on results. While racism and bigotry still exist today, it was worse in the United States of the 1940s. Robinson overcame the odds by focusing on results—scoring and winning games. Very few, if any, welcomed him as an equal when he joined the Dodgers, but he still succeeded because his fellow players couldn’t argue with success. He was an MVP for six consecutive years and played in six World Series, including the Dodger’s 1955 championship game. Eventually, his focus on results enabled him to break records and barriers. Focus on results, and don’t get distracted.
Accept challenges. Robinson knew he was changing the game; while he could have chosen to remain in the Negro League, he made the bold move to the majors. He wasn’t afraid of taking chances, and accepted the challenges that faced him. Robinson was ridiculed, and even physically abused by players from other teams. However, other players from both the Dodgers and competing teams eventually spoke up and defended him. Because Robinson received support, he was able to overcome the challenges confronting him, leading to the success of the entire team. It’s important to accept challenges and look for support mechanisms to help you achieve those challenges. It’s also a challenge to confront and fight against racism, sexism, or xenophobia when you see it although it’s easy enough to look the other way.
Don’t settle for less. Jackie Robinson didn’t stop when his baseball career ended. His commitment to lifelong learning and the entrepreneurial spirit led to many other firsts for him, including being the first African American to serve as an analyst for ABC's Major League Baseball Game of the Week, and the first African American to serve as vice president of a major American corporation (Chock full o’ Nuts) and the first black co-founder of a successful New York bank. Embrace curiosity and use it to move forward. Resist the temptation to settle for less (and complain) and instead channel your ideas into constructive change.
Balance work and life. Robinson knew that having a life outside of work was essential. He had a strong support system in his wife Rachel; she kept him grounded. It’s easy to get caught up in work, at the expense of life—don’t let that happen to you. Even if you are working long hours, be sure to find some kind of balance. Studies have shown that a break from work improves productivity—less can be more.
Support a community organization you care about even if it’s only a few hours a month. Your range of friends will be broadened, your horizons will be extended and your work-life balance will be enhanced. Turn off your smartphone and have a real dialogue with a friend, spouse or relative—you’ll be surprised at how energizing true conversation can be.
Robinson, the grandson of a slave and son of a sharecropper, was much more than a celebrated athlete who crossed the color barrier in pro sports generations ago. He remains a symbol of the human spirit and a true leader. He never let fear shut his mouth or close his mind. He understood the importance of results, challenges, goals, and balance. Seven decades and several generations later, those lessons in leadership from this giant in baseball remain relevant today.
Ritch K. Eich, founder of the management consulting firm of Eich Associated, designated the proceeds from the sale of his first book, Real Leaders Don’t Boss (Career Press, 2012), to The Jackie Robinson Foundation for scholarships to deserving minority students. Proceeds from the sale of his subsequent books Leadership Requires Extra Innings (2013); and Truth, Trust + Tenacity (2015) have also been donated to charitable organizations. Eich is a Captain in the U.S. Naval Reserve (ret).