Leadership

Leadership Lessons for Firefighters from a Baseball Legend

David Lewis and Cal Ripken Jr.
David Lewis and Cal Ripken Jr. Photo courtesy of David Lewis.

By David Lewis

Photo courtesy of the author

Writing for National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC)

It is often said that baseball is the national pastime in the U.S., and it was certainly ingrained in my childhood days. Whether it was a game of catch in our backyard, an impromptu game of baseball played at a nearby schoolyard, or playing competitively on a little league team, baseball was part of growing up for me and my four brothers. My father was our coach and he taught us how to play the game right, be fair to everyone else playing, and to do our best at playing our position. These would prove later to not be just good baseball coaching moments, but valuable life lessons as well.

Our enthusiasm for the game resulted in great admiration for the major league players – the Baltimore Orioles in my home – whom we looked up to. Our heroes were Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Boog Powell, and Jim Palmer. However, just like in any occupation, these heroes would soon reach an age where their talents and skills were reduced and new players would take their place.

In 1981, a new hero took the field for the Orioles – Cal “Iron Man” Ripken Jr. Ripken would play for the Orioles for 21 seasons, during which he was named to the American League All-Star team 19 times and helped the Orioles win the 1983 World Series. He played 2,632 consecutive games, breaking the previous record held by the legendary Lou Gehrig of 2,130 consecutive games. At the end of the 1998 season, he voluntarily stepped out of a game to end the streak, recognizing that it was time to transition a new league of heroes. He would continue playing through 2001, exhibiting the same perseverance, endurance, and everyday work ethic that made him famous.

So what’s this have to do with the fire and emergency services? Just think about the physical and mental stresses of playing 162 games every year and playing every day for 17 years. Isn’t that the type of dedication many of us have in the fire and emergency services? What can we learn from the career of Cal Ripken that can help us endure a 20-year or more career as a volunteer or paid firefighter or EMS provider?

In his 2019 book, Just Show Up, Ripken provides some valuable lessons that we can use to improve our performance as individuals and as leaders. He explains that each of us has our own 2,131 and we can achieve that goal by just “showing up.” Our obligation is to be there when others need us and the more reliable, consistent, and dependable we are, the better we will become as individuals and leaders. As we seek to achieve our own 2,131, we should not be setting out to break a record; rather we are there because it is what we do, and others depend on us being there. As firefighters and EMS providers, our crew and the public depend on us to show up, so our own 2,131 should be to answer the call when help is needed.

Win Fairly and Support the Team

Ripken teaches us to play fair and to win fair. We all love to win, and sometimes it is tempting to cheat or take shortcuts. When you do so, however, you only become good at cheating and not good at the game. If we want to be good at what we are doing, we must practice and follow the rules. Initially, you may find that by following the rules and playing fairly that you are not a winner, but eventually hard work and playing fair will pay off and you will become successful. In the end, we need to develop a set of values to do what is fair all the time, even when nobody is watching. Your consistency and dependability will become your values and ones that people recognize when looking at you as an individual and as a leader.

It is also important to recognize that winning is about the team, not the individual. The Orioles were successful not just because of Ripken but because of the combined efforts of all the players and managers. As fire and EMS leaders, we also must learn the value of teamwork and help develop the people around us so that the entire team is successful, not just individuals.

Perform Consistently

To be successful, we must be consistent in our performance on the job. Baseball is a game of averages, and so is life. In baseball, your career is measured by batting percentages, pitching percentages, fielding percentages, or earned run averages. In life, our success is measured by skill on the job and our relationships with family, friends, and co-workers. When we slump in our performance, we must recognize it. Get back out on the field and practice until you perfect the skill that caused the decrease in performance.

Ripken’s father, Cal Ripken Sr., taught him valuable lessons as his father and as his coach. When he saw his son make a mistake, Ripken Sr. never scolded or confronted him in front of others. Rather he would quietly pull him aside later and explain what he was doing wrong and offer him the opportunities to refine the skills where the deficiency occurred. As fire and EMS leaders, we must do the same when managing our people. It is often said that we should praise in public and criticize in private. Just as Ripken Sr. did, we should take members of the crew aside and explain his or her errors and offer an action plan to correct the errant skills.

When people want to be good at what they do, they will practice and practice until their performance at a skill is second nature and they don’t have to pause and think about their actions. But it is important to realize that practice isn’t about doing the same thing repeatedly. If you want to be good at a skill, you must look closely at the results and determine if you are achieving the desired outcome. Adjustments may be necessary to refine the skill and improve the results. You must also recognize that the environment around you changes and that the skills that you perfected before may sometimes require adjustments.

Share Knowledge

As individuals and as leaders, we are surrounded by good people – our parents, friends, coworkers, supervisors. We need to pay attention to what they do and learn from observing their actions. Each of us needs a good mentor to be successful, someone who can coach us and help direct our energies towards success. Likewise, each of us must strive to be a good mentor – as a parent, an expert in our field, a coach, a role model. We should not keep our experiences and wisdom to ourselves but be willing to share it with others so that they may learn from us, just like we learned from others. Mentoring is not easy, and it takes a lot of effort to be successful. Sometimes you must separate the responsibilities of being an individual’s manager from being their mentor. Flexibility is key and adjustments must be made according to the situation and the person.

We have heard many times that we should do more listening than talking. By listening to others, we learn new ideas and have the opportunity to confront our own biases with other points of view. Listening to and observing others are important elements of success. The key to being better at what we are doing is to listen, watch, and learn. Ripken says that he didn’t become a successful shortstop just by stepping on the field and taking the position. He learned by watching other shortstops and what they did and did not do, and then adjusting their techniques to his own style. Similarly, no one has ever become a successful fire chief by just walking into the office and claiming, “I am the chief and I am in charge!” While some have tried that, they certainly have not been successful or recognized as a true leader. To be successful in any position, we must take the time to observe what others have done and learn the skills needed to mirror their actions or adapt them to our own style.

The Four Pillars

Ripken ended his playing career in 2001, but he continued in the sport by starting Ripken Baseball, putting to work all the leadership lessons that he learned throughout his career. He started by gathering a group of successful businesspeople as advisors, accepting that he knew a lot about baseball but not much about running a business. He then built a team to lead the business, selecting individuals with not just good credentials, but with the right credentials to lead and manage this type of business. The business now has four locations along the eastern United States.

Ripken Baseball builds youth baseball programs and offers opportunities for young players to develop the skills to become successful baseball players. The business is built upon four core pillars (www.ripkenbaseball/ripken-way):

  1. Keep it Simple: Simplicity empowers the message.
  2. Explain the Why: Purpose drives the human spirit.
  3. Celebrate the Individual: Fuel their willpower to succeed.
  4. Have Fun: Joy shatters the limits of what we can achieve – the game is supposed to be fun.

These leadership principles are valuable lessons for us in the fire and EMS services as well. Our job is well known but can be complex; by understanding the basic tasks to be performed for any situation, the job becomes simple. It is important to explain the “why” to our people so that they understand the reasoning for what we do, how we do it, and most importantly, why we do it. Celebrate the accomplishments of each individual and of the team; recognizing success and a good job is one of the strongest motivators that we can deliver. And as the last principle states, have fun doing the job. If you enjoy what you are doing, you will never have to work another day in your life.

As a baseball fan, I learned to admire Cal Ripken Jr. for his baseball ethic coupled with his determination and consistency at the game. While traveling across the country in 2013, I had an opportunity to meet Ripken during an airport layover and had the pleasure of discussing his career with him. As I started to develop my own leadership style in the fire and emergency services, looking to Ripken was one of the areas where I knew that I could learn and grow. I never was good at baseball, but hopefully I’ve become better at being a fire and emergency services leader thanks to observing good people like Ripken. I also had good mentors to coach me along my career path. As Ripken noted, having a mentor and being a mentor are our responsibilities in life. Learning to be successful as an individual and as a leader sometimes can be as simple as “Just Show Up.”

REFERENCES

Ripken, Jr., Cal and Dale, James. Just Show Up, and Other Enduring Values from Baseball’s Iron Man. HarperCollins Publishers. 2019.

David Lewis is an active member of the Odenton (MD) Volunteer Fire Company, previously serving as assistant chief and as president. He is the Maryland director for the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) and serves as the vice chair of the NVFC Homeland Security Committee. He is a past president of the Anne Arundel County Volunteer Firefighters Association and the Maryland State Firemen’s Association, a director with the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen’s Association, and an instructor for the National Fire Academy, the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, and University of Maryland Global Campus.

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