Leadership Sets the Tone

By David Robertson, Leadership Team & Cohort 7 Mentor, Warsaw Community Schools

It’s hard to believe that it was 19 years ago that the attacks of September 11, 2001, took place. If you’re like me, you probably remember exactly where you were when you heard about the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Today we remember those who fell that day and celebrate all the brave men and women who have given themselves in the fight against terrorism.

When the 9/11 attacks occurred, everything stopped. Economic functions, international and domestic travel, and many of the normal functions of our society just stopped temporarily. In the wake of the attacks, things slowly began to return to normal.

One exceptional thing that happened shortly after the attacks was the MLB postseason. As fate would have it, the NY Yankees made it to the World Series that year. One of my favorite moments in history happened before game 3 of that series. President Bush was slated to throw out the first pitch prior to game three. Only Eisenhower had ever thrown out a pitch at a World Series game. What made this first pitch so special was that it happened just 49 days after the attack that had rocked the city.

There’s a great story about President Bush and Derek Jeter. As the president was warming up, Derek Jeter visited with the president. He joked that President Bush needed to pitch from the pitching rubber instead of in front of the mound for his first pitch, or he would be booed by the crowd. It’s pretty customary for dignitaries throwing out ceremonial first pitches to stand in front of the pitcher’s mound rather than the full 66’ distance from the rubber. Jeter allegedly told President Bush, “just don’t bounce it.”

When President Bush emerged from the clubhouse, he was wearing a NYFD pullover, and the crowd went nuts! Chants of “USA USA” erupted. President Bush waved to the crowd, marched out to the mound, and threw an absolutely perfect strike from the full distance of 66’. Yankee Stadium erupted! Here’s the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NjGcCI9ByWw

All politics aside, President Bush’s first pitch is an incredible example of courageous leadership for us! A guiding principle that we must all remember is that leaders set the tone for the people they lead. Our country had been attacked. Loved ones had been killed. Many of the normal functions of life had been changed forever, and for many of us, we lived in fear for the first time in our lives. President Bush’s first pitch was more than just a perfect strike thrown from the pitcher’s rubber at Yankee Stadium. It was a statement of firm confidence in the efficacy of the American people to overcome tragedy.

The situation we’re facing as leaders right now isn’t that dissimilar from what we faced in 2001. In many ways, it may be more dire. We’ve felt the “attack” of the coronavirus. Many of our loved ones have lost their lives. The normal functions of our lives have been disrupted or stopped altogether. And for many of us, we’re living in fear. These things are true of us, and they’re true of the families and students who walk into our schools every single day.

So what can President Bush’s first pitch teach us about how to lead right now? Leaders set the tone for those they lead! You see, it’s not just enough to do all the technical aspects of leadership correctly. Leaders must be aware that the tone they set impacts the mindset of those they lead. As leaders, we can “do everything right” and still be wrong. We must remember that the confidence we exude speaks into the lives of others. One of the major ways people develop efficacy, or the belief that they can accomplish the goals they set out to accomplish, is the way others speak to them about their abilities, in both words and actions. So as leaders, we need to watch our tone! Here are three reflection questions to consider:

  1. What are your words and actions communicating to those around you right now? Two different leaders can say the exact same words, and two different messages can be communicated. Remember, only 7% of what we communicate are the words we use. The other 93% are the facial expressions, cadence, and tone we use. Do your words communicate confidence, transparency, authenticity, and hope? Or do your words communicate compliance, oversight, discouragement, and hopelessness? What about your actions? Do those you lead feel alignment between your words and actions, or is there a disconnect?
  2. Who are you developing? We all have leaders who have greatly impacted our lives. One of the most influential leaders in my life was my youth pastor in high school, Pastor Ben. Pastor Ben was the first leader in my life who reminded me that “leaders set the tone.” I served on the leadership team for our youth group and he had high expectations for me. He expected me to set a positive tone and reminded me of that often. He keenly understood the exponential effect of leadership tone on a group. So who are you developing as a leader? Leadership is a gigantic task. You can’t do it alone. Make sure you’re developing leaders around you. Maintain high expectations for them and communicate those expectations regularly.
  3. What if I don’t feel it? What happens if I’m supposed to communicate confidence and hope, yet I don’t feel it personally? This is tough. On the one hand, we never want to be inauthentic as leaders, yet on the other hand we understand that the mindset we choose to adopt not only impacts our followers, but it also impacts our own actions! Please note, I said the mindset we “choose.” Our attitude and tone is a choice. So, if you’re not feeling it, I encourage you to choose to believe the best and communicate that tone to others.

The reality is the leadership can be lonely. It’s a challenge. We can’t go it alone. Yet the great burden and privilege of leadership is that we have INFLUENCE! We have the gift of influence with others and it’s our responsibility to use that influence to do good for others. One of the greatest ways we can do that is by setting the tone for those we lead!