There’s so much that we can all learn from the iconic Hank Aaron – who sadly passed away last month at the age of 86. When I discovered my favorite sport of baseball as a young boy, Hank Aaron was one of the first baseball stars that I looked up to, I proudly collected his baseball cards (and the picture above is my 1956 baseball card of Mr. Aaron) and in my opinion he is the greatest baseball player ever.
As this month is Black History Month, it is an appropriate time to reflect upon the legacy of Hank Aaron. Since his nickname was “The Hammer,” here’s six H-A-M-M-E-R leadership lessons that all legal and business professionals can learn from Mr. Aaron.
H = Humility: As a high school kid I remember meeting Mr. Aaron at a baseball card show at the Westchester County Center in the 1980s shortly after his Baseball Hall of Fame induction so that I could obtain his autograph. Although I only had a very brief interaction with him, he was very gracious and welcoming. Every since his passing so many people have also expressed similar stories about Mr. Aaron as he was universally humble and nice to everyone he met whether it be a “VIP,” the baseball clubhouse attendant or an ordinary fan like me.
In Corporate America it’s important for everyone to treat others with respect and decency – regardless of your title or position. This is especially important for leaders as we all need to set the proverbial “tone at the top” about embracing inclusivity in our respective workplace cultures. In my experience, the very best leaders are the ones who are highly approachable, humble, down to earth and are genuinely interested in the views of their teammates, customers and partners. If a legend like Mr. Aaron can treat a then high school sophomore like me with respect, then there’s no excuses for you not doing the same with others in the workplace – and in our personal lives.
A = Authenticity: As a baseball player Mr. Aaron was not considered as “flashy” as some of the other baseball stars of his era like Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Roberto Clemente. Nor was he as “flamboyant” as another baseball legend named Babe Ruth – the highly popular player he surpassed in 1974 as the all-time Major League Baseball home run king. Since Mr. Aaron played his entire career in the “smaller-market” cities of Milwaukee and Atlanta and he only won one World Series early in his career in 1957 (where he was the Most Valuable Player that year and led the Milwaukee Braves to a world championship with a high batting average of .393 and 11 hits, including a triple, three home runs and seven runs batter in), he did not receive the same notoriety and appreciation in the media as some of his peers. However, Mr. Aaron always remained his true and authentic self – both on and off the baseball field. As a result, he gained universal admiration from his fellow players.
It’s important for leaders in the workplace to be real and authentic so they can command the necessary respect from their teammates. The best leaders are hard-working, transparent, lead by example and avoid being fake. Transformational leaders are highly credible because they are true and legitimate just like Mr. Aaron.
M = Mentorship: Mr. Aaron had a long reputation for taking his baseball teammates under his wing, mentoring them and making them better players – and most importantly better people. One example is the current and highly successful Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker who played with Mr. Aaron as a member of the Atlanta Braves for six seasons from 1968-1974. After Mr. Aaron’s passing, Mr. Baker released the following statement about his relationship with Mr. Aaron: “Hank Aaron was the most important influence on my life, next to my Dad. He was the best person that I ever knew and the truest and most honest person that I ever knew. He taught me how to be a man and how to be a proud African-American. He taught me how important it was to give back to the community and he inspired me to become an entrepreneur. Hank impacted my life, my family and my world, both on and off the field. He was a great man.”
Always be a “Hank Aaron” with your teammates – especially during these challenging times where most of us are working remotely and need help more than ever before. Look for opportunities to coach, train, advise and mentor your work colleagues and to serve as a “big brother” or “big sister” to them. As Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “”Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?””
M = Model: At a private party in 2014 in Washington, DC to celebrate Mr. Aaron’s 80th birthday at a hotel overlooking the White House, then Attorney General Eric Holder gestured toward a window and offered this giant compliment to Mr. Aaron: “The young man who lives right over there (referencing President Barack Obama), his path was made easier by this man.” Mr. Aaron was the quintessential role model and inspired others to reach their goals.
As leaders in the workplace we have the responsibilities of serving as great role models. Our teams, our customers and our partners are all watching us and our actions will speak louder than our words. Mr. Aaron exemplified the ultimate in class, dignity, integrity and grace. Be sure to model the same values in your workplace.
E = Excellence: My Aaron’s accomplishments on the baseball field are truly incredibly as he relentlessly performed at an extremely high level for such a long period of time. His baseball statistics are eye-popping and here’s a sampling of them: he owns Major League Baseball (MLB) records for 2,297 career runs batted in, 6,856 career total bases, 1,477 career extra base hits and 25 all-star appearances. From 1955-1970 Mr. Aaron played in 145 games or more in every single season (the number of games per season was 154 until 1962 when it then changed to 162 games). Finally, in my opinion he is the “true” MLB home runs leader with 755 as the player who surpassed him in this category in 2007 – Barry Bonds – has long been tainted as using Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs)
Always aspire to be consistently excellent like Mr. Aaron – both as a leader and in your craft. Of course, maintaining such a high level of excellence year in and year out in the workplace like Mr. Aaron did on the baseball field is an extremely difficult thing to do. It requires you to have a growth mindset, to be a lifelong learner and to embrace change as needed. Mr. Aaron once said, “Failure will never stand in the way of success if you learn from it.”
R = Resilience: Unfortunately, Mr. Aaron faced a tremendous amount of racism throughout his life. He initially experienced discrimination as a young boy growing up in Mobile, Alabama. As a minor league player for the Jacksonville Braves in the South Atlantic League, he was often separated from his team while traveling due to racial segregation and Jim Crow Laws. Towards the end of career as he was nearing Babe Ruth’s career home runs record, he received lots of hate mail and was subject to death threats. Despite all of the ugly and pervasive racism that he faced, Mr. Aaron still persevered and thrived both on and off the baseball field.
Mr. Aaron’s resiliency during the most difficult of times is truly remarkable. We can all learn from his tremendous strength as we face challenges both in the workplace and in our personal lives. Mr. Aaron’s grit and courage are an inspiration to all of us and here is one of my favorite quotes from Mr. Aaron: “My motto was always to keep swinging. Whether I was in a slump or feeling badly or having trouble off the field, the only thing to do was keep swinging.”
Hank Aaron was much more than a legendary baseball player. He was also an American hero. Let’s all continue to learn from his incredible legacy.