George Steinbrenner, long-time owner of the New York Yankees, passed away at 80 in July 2010. Steinbrenner was well-known for his passion and drive and equally famous for his temper and impatience. He was also a leader, able to inspire and motivate people.
Like the anecdotes about the link between the tortured artist and creativity, is it possible that a great leader needs a great ego? Bill Gates is famous for saying, “That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” These are not the words of a man with a small ego.
It takes courage, a strong self-concept, or a heaping helping of hubris to step away from the crowd and say in effect, “I am the one. I am best qualified to find the way, to organize, to synthesize, to delegate, to guide, to direct, to be in front, to give orders, to bring us together. I can find the promised land, the pot of gold, the rainbow, the mountain top. I am the best one to lead.”
Undoubtedly leadership does require a strong ego, deep confidence, and emotional strength. However, effective leadership also takes patience, an understanding of human motivation, and the ability to build and sustain relationships.
Steinbrenner had a driving need to be on the top of the mountain and it had to be a huge one. He was over the top, full of bluster and brashness, at times a “baby Zeus.” He wanted what he wanted and he wanted it now, impatient and frustrated when reality would not shape itself to his wishes. Yet from that same volcanic personality also emanated a certain flawed greatness. There are those who say that Steinbrenner mellowed in his final decades and that it was his letting go, just a bit, that allowed the New York Yankees to flourish again.
“For all their professed suspicion of authority, people crave hierarchy and tend to cede authority precisely to those individuals who want to take the reins. In studies of group behavior, it is usually the overconfident, outspoken individuals who take on leadership roles.” — “Steinbrenner: The Boss Unbound,” by Benedict Carey, The New York Times, July 18, 2010
“When you’re in power, and want to stay there, you are not free to be yourself; you are expected to live up to your role as a dominant decisive, absolute authority——and to internalize it, to drink your own Kool-Aid. It’s very hard to have to act out that role and keep some part of yourself separate.” — Psychologist Jennifer Overbeck, University of Southern California
NOTE: I had a meeting with George Steinbrenner more than 18 years ago. I purchased a 265-unit apartment community from his 82-year-old father-in-law. Steinbrenner drove his father-in-law from Tampa to meet with me and we had a most pleasant lunch. Steinbrenner was quite the raconteur and I found him charming. He was very solicitous of his father-in-law, appearing to hold him in high regard. I feel privileged to have seen Steinbrenner in a private setting, far from the spotlight of the press.