Lessons from Sparky: 5 leadership tips for success and happiness

Sparky

Sparky Anderson holds court with the media during spring training in Lakeland, Florida in the 1990s.

Four years ago this coming November, we lost Sparky Anderson, the winningest manager in Detroit Tigers’ history.

But Sparky was more than just a baseball manager, he was a teacher, a mentor, a friend, and a leader.

His legacy still lives on in Detroit through CATCH (Caring Athletes Team for Children’s and Henry Ford Hospitals), and in the hearts of those lives he touched.

Kirk Gibson, Alan Trammell, Jack Morris, Rod Allen, Dave Bergman, Bob Melvin, Rusty Kuntz, Chet Lemon…the list can go on and on of the men who were impacted by Sparky Anderson and went on to have careers in baseball and elsewhere.

Here are five lessons from the career and life of Sparky Anderson to help all of us be better leaders and people.

1. Treat everyone you meet with respect
Sparky wasn’t always Sparky, in fact he was Sparky “part-time,” and “George” the rest of the time. He was fond of reminding people that when he was “Little Georgie Anderson” growing up in southern California, his father gave him advice that he always tried to live up to. “It doesn’t cost a dime to be nice to people,” the elder Anderson told his son.

During his career as a leader in baseball, Sparky lived by that rule. He treated the man opening the door, the person driving the cab or bus, serving him food, or the individual cleaning the bathrooms with as much dignity and respect as he did his star ballplayers. When a leader does that, he gets respect, but more importantly, he spreads a positive message and makes the world a better place.

2. Set goals and work tirelessly to attain them
When he was hired by Detroit Tigers’ general manager and president Jim Campbell in June of 1979, Sparky Anderson came to a team that hadn’t been in the postseason in seven years and hadn’t won a championship in more than a decade. Just a few years earlier the team had suffered the worst season in franchise history, losing 19 games in a row at one point. The team had aged rapidly in the mid-1970s and was turning to young, unproven talent. Sparky was stepping into an uncertain situation. The Tigers were also in the toughest division in baseball, facing stiff competition: the Yankees, Red Sox, and Orioles.

But Sparky didn’t flinch. He immediately set lofty goals for the Tigers. In true Sparky fashion, he dove right in. In his first press conference with Detroit media, Anderson set the bar high.

“If I don’t win a World Series with this team in Detroit within five years, I ought to be fired,” Sparky said. The gauntlet had been set down, his new players got the message: we plan to win. Sparky challenged not only himself, but those around him to work hard toward that goal. Five years later, the Detroit Tigers rolled to the World Series where they defeated the Padres easily.

3. Use all of the tools you’ve been given
When he managed the Cincinnati Reds, Sparky Anderson had tremendous success. In his nine years at the helm, the Reds finished in first place five times, captured the pennant four times, and won World Series titles twice. They were considered to be one of the greatest teams of all-time, especially due to their starting lineup of position players, which was known as “The Great Eight” featuring such luminaries as Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, and Pete Rose. Anderson relied heavily on his superstars to succeed in Cincinnati.

When Sparky arrived in Detroit he didn’t have that sort of firepower in his lineups and his team was much younger. As a result, Anderson developed new strategies and used more of his roster, often giving playing time to key role players off his bench. Tom Brookens, Champ Summers, Enos Cabell, Dave Bergman, and Johnny Grubb were a few of the players he utilized brilliantly while in Detroit. In 1984 his utility players had one of the best seasons of any bench in the last 40 years, helping the Tigers to their championship run.

Sparky realized that every man on his 25-man roster had a role and that as the team leader it was his job to find a way to put that player in the best situation to succeed. Many of his former players praise Sparky for his ability to relate to them and to give them a chance to be successful both on the field and in life.

4. When you’re the boss, trust your decisions and be decisive
Flashback again to the first few weeks after Anderson was hired by the Tigers in 1979. After spending some time with his new club, Sparky had seen some things that troubled him: players laughing and playing loud music in the clubhouse after defeats; players concerned more with their own stats than the success of the club; teammates not helping other teammates; and “big shot” attitudes from some players. Sparky reacted quickly and promised to wipe the clubhouse clean of those who weren’t on his program.

“It’s my way or the highway,” Sparky declared (a headline in the Detroit newspapers reinforced that quote in case his players didn’t get the message). Shortly, several players were gone, either traded or released, and Sparky molded the club to his own design.

The lesson? Have a plan, make a decision to implement that plan, don’t waver, and be decisive. Some criticized Sparky for getting rid of a few of his better players, but he didn’t flinch and was vindicated when the team jelled into a winner.

5.Enjoy what you’re doing and have fun
One of the most enduring legacies of Sparky Anderson is his warm smile and his great heart. Sparky loved baseball, he loved people, and he loved to promote the game. He had fun doing it, regaling sportswriters and fans with stories and laughter. To Sparky, being able to make a living by playing a game “was like stealing.” He never lost sight of the fact that baseball was first of all for the fans. Sparky’s exuberance was infectious and it helped make the time when he led the Tigers the most interesting and enjoyable in team history.

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He was formerly the Web Producer for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @twebman or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.