I have a confession to make.

For more than eight years I had torrid and wonderfully fulfilling love affair — with the game of baseball as an umpire, working my way up from dad’s pitch games at the YMCA to high school and the community college conferences. 

As I lovingly recall my days in baseball, I have come to realize that umpiring taught me a lot about people, decision-making and leadership.

The first and hardest lesson for me to learn was that playing the game versus umpiring the game are very different activities.  I had to lose the “I know the rules” mentality quickly.  The difference between knowing the rules and applying those rules on a close play or some whacky situation is like night and day.  As I worked my way up the ladder, I made more than my share of butchered calls.  That was the second lesson:  you will make mistakes and people will get upset.  Stay focused.

Anorther lesson I learned was that there is a similarity between umpiring and working as an executive recruiter in that we both see people at their very best and their very worst. 

As I worked my way through the various leagues and levels, I met more than a few coaches who knew the game inside and out and were always more than a little gracious while I mastered the ins and outs of becoming a good official.  They could be a little testy when my slip-up was not in their favor, but after the game most offered an encouraging word, praise for being professional or for hustling to be in the right position to make a call.

I found that many parents frequently cared more about winning than their son. They were always right even when they weren’t.  I learned that the more emotional they became in pointing out the errors the more likely it was that they did not have a clue about what happened, the rule or how that rule should be applied.  Most parents thought there was the rule book and that was the end of what an good official should know.  That there was something called a casebook that explained how rules should be interpreted was not something most parents cared about unless, of course, it benefited their child’s team.

Then there were baseball’s leadership lessons, the most important of all:

  1. Be prepared. 
  2. Be professional, including appearance (pants and jersey freshly pressed, shoes shined). Appearance fosters confidence.  If you look professional, if you act professional, usually you will be treated appropriately, even given the benefit of the doubt on a close call.
  3. Sell your decision.  In a close call, be demonstrative to reinforce the certainty of the decision.  A feeble signal for a called third strike, or a half-hearted out call on a bam-bam play at first base is an invitation for a robust, dirt-kicking argument, or a discussion in which your mother’s sexual heritage might be called into question.  High school coaches were usually more circumspect in their characterizations of their analysis of your call.  They also know there is a lower threshold for an ejection.
  4. Treat people with respect.  Listen to their complaint(s).  Do not make them look bad, especially in front of the home crowd. Be professional in all your interactions with players and coaches, which means do not lose your cool even when you know you are absolutely right in your decision. 
  5. Be confident.  Do not allow yourself to be intimidated. Unless there is an issue with the actual role ­– versus a judgment call ­– do not change your mind.  It is OK to ask your colleague if they had a better view, but if you allow an aggrieved coach to appear as though he has influenced you to change your mind, you will lose respect from both dugouts, numbers 2,3, and 4 notwithstanding.  The best rule of thumb is to make the call, and move on.  If you start second-guessing yourself because of a reaction from a player, a coach or the crowd, you will surely miss the next call and make matters worse.   

The truth is that the coaches and ballplayers want to win, but they really want professional umpires who will instill confidence and demonstrate that there is integrity on the field and in how the game is played.  After all, that is what leaders do.

© 2012 John Gregory Self