Topic: Sports & Entertainment
Frank Robinson, Leadership, and the Golden Rule Rationalization
The Golden Rule is obviously an invaluable tool for ethical analysis. Not so obviously, it also can be a serious impediment to ethical conduct. This contradiction explains why Frank Robinson, the notoriously hard-nosed Hall of Fame slugger now managing the Washington Nationals baseball team, was openly weeping during a press conference last week. He had just done the right thing for his team, but had violated the Golden Rule to do it.
Long before Tom Hanks proclaimed that there was no crying in baseball, another far more sacred unwritten rule had become law in major league baseball dugouts, a rule that was simply a baseball application of the Golden Rule itself. A manager must never embarrass a position player who is making an honest effort by pulling him off the field mid-inning. Thus while pitchers are routinely sent to the showers when their best pitches keep ending up in the outfield stands, no amount of bungling on the field or ineptitude at bat will normally prompt a manager to replace a player while he’s standing in the field or at the plate. It is considered a blatant act of personal disrespect and professional humiliation that no game situation can justify.
But there are always exceptions, and Robinson encountered one. With his team struggling and needing a win badly to bolster its sagging morale, and his catching staff riddled with injuries and inexperience, he had started third-string catcher Matt LaCroy in a game against the Houston Astros, a team without speed or base-stealing threats that seemed unlikely to be able to exploit LaCroy’s weak arm and general shakiness afield. It looked like a good gamble when the Nationals leaped to a large lead in the game, but then the Astros decided to test Leroy’s skills. They stole seven bases and provoked the overwhelmed catcher to make a throwing error, bringing them close to tying the score. When LaCroy made his second throwing error of the game in the seventh inning, allowing the Astros to put the go-ahead runs in scoring position, Robinson felt he had to choose between a devastating loss for his team and a devastated player. Correctly, he chose the team, and replaced his struggling catcher mid-inning, violating the ancient baseball taboo. The stolen bases stopped and the game was saved.
After the game, Robinson faced the reporters with his face streaming with tears. All of his internal ethical alarms had gone off at a painful volume, telling the manager that what he had done to LaCroy was wrong. Frank Robinson, in his playing days one of the fiercest and proudest competitors the game has ever known, would never tolerate a manager treating him in this way. But although at a gut level his decision to take out his catcher felt wrong, Robinson had the courage to withstand the psychic pain because his ethical analytical skills told him that his decision was not wrong, but right. His highest duty was not to individual, the player, but to the organization he led, the team. An ethical leader must know when a Golden Rule-dictated treatment of one individual will forfeit his obligations to the group. He must understand that an uncritical following of the Golden Rule will end up sacrificing the many for the few, just as surely as an uncritical application of utilitarian principles will inflict unnecessary harm on the few for the benefit of the many.
Frank Robinson, courageous leader and ethical man, knew when not to apply the Golden Rule, just like the military commander who must order a soldier on a crucial and deadly mission, just like the Governor who refuses to pardon a condemned murderer who has been fairly tried, and just like the lawyer, doctor, accountant or corporate executive who reports a colleague for misconduct. But every day, all over the world, far more leaders in every segment of society and at every level of responsibility fail to see what Robinson saw. Such leaders will not terminate loyal though incompetent appointees in important jobs, no matter how badly they perform them. Such leaders refuse to remove disruptive students from classrooms, though the education of the students who want to learn sufferers as a result. Leaders like this refuse to insist that illegal immigrants accept responsibility for the laws they have broken, because “they just want a better life.” Leaders like thus cannot overcome their revulsion at being responsible for innocent deaths, so they oppose using all force in international conflicts even though they can offer no genuine alternative.
And leaders like this lose baseball games sticking with catchers who can neither catch nor throw, because it’s easier to lose by following the Golden Rule.
The Golden Rule is indeed an invaluable ethical principle. But in leadership situations, and others as well, it can become just another useful rationalization to avoid making the right decision.