George Steinbrenner: Remembering the Ultimate Demanding, Bullying Boss

Today, we should all pause a moment and salute the ultimate demanding, bullying, kick-in-the-rear boss: George Steinbrenner, the owner of the New York Yankees, who died today (July 13) in Tampa at the age of 80.

Steinbrenner is best known as the longtime leader of the Yankees, arguably the greatest American sports franchise. He’s the man who brought the team back to prominence (New Yorkers would say back to glory) when he bought them in 1973.

But in my mind, George Steinbrenner will always be known as “The Boss,” the kick-in-the-ass, demanding, bullying boss everyone hates because, well, because they demand excellence and the very best every day in every way no matter what.

The pursuit of excellence is generally a good thing (there’s even a book about it), as most HR professionals and managers would agree. But Steinbrenner embodied the old school style that wanted excellence regardless of the cost in dollars and cents, or, in the stress and anguish he caused in the people below him he bullied and browbeat to get it.

A great guy, unless …

In George Steinbrenner’s black-and-white world, it was about winning and winning big all the time. Nothing else was ever acceptable to him, certainly not the pragmatic and reasonable notion that it just isn’t possible for anyone or anything to win ALL the time.

“George is a great guy, unless you have to work for him,” Lou Piniella, who managed the Yankees twice in the 1980s, told Sports Illustrated in 2004, and truer words were never spoken.

Want to wax philosophic about “win some, lose some,” or how it’s about “how you play the game?” Not in Steinbrenner’s world. People like that got his boot on their backside as he sent them packing.

He spent whatever it took to win – and as owner of the most popular American sports franchise in the largest and most lucrative media market, he had a lot to spend — and when he didn’t, he got in the face of those responsible. He pushed hard for results, and if he didn’t get them, he canned your ass and got someone else who would.

Outside of New York, people generally loathed Steinbrenner and his style, because they hated his ability to throw money at a problem and “buy” a championship. This approach didn’t always work, however, because championships are won by teams and not by a collection of high-priced mercenaries. Still, Steinbrenner won more than most with this approach, and it rubbed everyone else the wrong way because they all wished THEIR team and THEIR owner could do it the way George Steinbrenner did.

Hiring and firing the Steinbrenner way

As Will Herman put it in a marvelous blog post from 2007 (one that all managers and HR pros should read) titled “Hiring and Firing the George Steinbrenner Way:”

“Steinbrenner isn’t shy about broadcasting that he pays the best and expects the best. Thus, he has no qualms about firing anyone who isn’t an elite performer. In his first 23 seasons, Steinbrenner fired 20 managers (including one, Billy Martin, five times). There’s a well-known Seinfeld episode in which the character George Costanza, who works for the Yankees says, referring to Steinbrenner: ‘He fires people like it’s a bodily function.’

“Personally, I can’t condone Steinbrenner’s antics nor his public airing of his displeasure with his team or its players, but he has a long track record with proof that his hiring and firing methodology works within the culture of his team. Foster a winning environment and legacy that naturally attracts the best; pay whatever it takes to make them a member of the team; and cut poor performers as quickly as possible. It’s hard to argue with the results.”

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I don’t agree with Steinbrenner’s style either, but one thing is for certain – it really does get results. And nowhere is that more evident than in Steinbrenner’s work with the U.S. Olympic Committee after the debacle that was the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. The U.S. team had its worst showing ever in Calgary – six medals total, and none outside speed and figure skating – and Steinbrenner didn’t like it one bit.

Steinbrenner’s Olympic leadership

Steinbrenner, a member of the USOC leadership, fumed, griped and pushed the USOC to do something about it. They did, by appointing him as head of a committee to figure out what was wrong and how to fix it

And as Mike Vaccaro recalled earlier this year in the New York Post, “Steinbrenner took the job seriously. His committee issued a 21-page report, and wound up raising the ante for Olympic athletes significantly, a good sum of the money coming out of Steinbrenner’s own checkbook…it was Steinbrenner and his blustery vision that started it, who forced many Americans to believe that the Winter Games were just as essential to American athletic pride as the Summer Games. The strides were slow at first: 11 medals in 1992 at Albertville, France; 13 apiece in Lillehammer in ’94 and Nagano in ’98 to an all-time high of 34 in Salt Lake City in 2002.”

Well, the U.S. Olympic team set a new record for medals at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver last February with 37 total , and a lot of people give credit for a lot of that to the demanding, win-at-all-costs actions of George Steinbrenner. He pushed the USOC to change so America’s Olympic athletes could win – and they did.

I hate bosses like George Steinbrenner (and I have worked for some pretty unreasonable, demanding ones) because I don’t see the world in black-and-white, win-at-all-costs terms like he did. Pushing for excellence is what it’s all about, of course, but winning all the time just isn’t possible. Life is a series of ups and downs, and learning from the downs helps you to create a lot more ups over the long run.

Steinbrenner knew this as well, I’m sure, but he would never, ever admit it. His lack of patience and his volatile nature got the best of him on many occasions, but like all of us, “The Boss” was a collection of his parts – some good, some bad, some dreadful. There was a lot more good in him than bad, a lot more positive than negative.

We should remember George Steinbrenner today for what he taught us about winning, about dealing with losing, and about life. I think he would want us to think about all of that when we think about him, and to remember that leaders come in all styles. Like him or not, he left a mark that will live on for a long time to come.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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