Jackie Robinson: A Diamond Approach for Leadership

Jackie Robinson was an American hero. The acclaim he received was rooted in a duality between his exploits on the baseball field and his efforts to impact social change. At multiple moments in time, Robinson displayed a myriad of leadership competencies, some of which are just now being properly defined today by experts and scholars. It is my belief that the fascination with Robinson comes from his command of four necessary leadership competencies that affect all servant leaders when the face tribulation. Similar to the physical makeup of a baseball field, the Leadership Diamond theory has four cornerstones. I will prove that Jackie Robinson was an affiliative leader who mastered this unique diamond which consists of four elements; answering God’s call, displaying Christ-like decorum in all that you do, being a shepherd to your followers and using your daily work to advance God’s kingdom agenda.

In order to fully understand the impact of Robinson’s leadership it is important to provide background that gives context about this unique trailblazer who once professed, “There’s not an American in this country free until every one of us is free.” Robinson was a remarkable individual who overcame great odds. Born during the era of sharecropping his mother moved the family to Pasadena, California looking to break the family cycle of underachieving. She wanted to give her children a better life and the chance to make something of themselves. His mother’s actions proved to be pivotal, Robinson spent the majority of his childhood on the west coast eluding pitfalls. The fact that he was black and poor did not stop him from taking advantage of opportunities as a young man.

Though financially impoverished, Robinson went on to attend Muir High School where he played five sports. He then continued on to college and was one of the first African-Americans at UCLA to receive a full athletic scholarship. He found balance in his academic life through sports. Although baseball was where he found his acclaim, Robinson was also an All-American football player, ran track and competed in basketball. While Robinson’s most notable accomplishment was that he became the first African American player to be signed to a major league baseball when Branch Rickey, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, added him to his roster, his life was so much bigger. His leadership on and off the field truly defined his legacy.

Robinson embodied a spirit of winning that was contagious. He helped an unseeing America, blind to racial collaboration, realize that athletes and true competitors come in all shades, not just white. Robinson “led the Dodgers to six NL pennants in ten years. By 1960, the Negro leagues had collapsed, and every major-league club had black players on its roster, including Willie Mays, the brilliant New York Giants centerfielder, and Hank Aaron of the Milwaukee (Wisconsin) Braves, who hit more career homers than Babe Ruth.” (Joan Shelly Rubin, 2013)

Robinson also exercised his influence in several areas off the field, “Robinson was a leading symbol of and spokesperson for the postwar civil rights movement. Upon retirement he became a newspaper columnist and fundraiser for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. A believer in “black capitalism,” Robinson engaged in many business ventures in the black community, including Harlem’s Freedom National Bank.” (Joan Shelly Rubin, 2013) He was well known in both the sports and professional community. He enjoyed healthy debate and still found time to be a remarkable husband, father and friend.

Through his interviews with the press and published writings with the Pittsburgh Courier, one of a handful of Negro Press collectives, Robinson used his voice in a similar fashion to William Wilberforce during the slave abolition efforts. Robinson’s views would shine a spotlight on his difficult experiences to the world. For a period, he was the face and scribe for racial mistreatment and suffering, “His column read like an intimate diary of his thoughts as he made this huge civil rights and sports transition. Readers were able to follow his first-person thoughts as his first season progressed.” (The Weekly Challenger, 2016) Establishing this unique voice was critical for his time. Doing so in written form was the perfect vehicle as Negro newspapers “by the mid-1940s, had become, with the exception of the black church, the most powerful institution in black America. The Courier, the Afro-American and the Chicago Defender were de facto “national” newspapers, available weekly in any city with a sizable black population.” (The Weekly Challenger, 2016)

Historically, there have been several opposing viewpoints. Some would argue that Robinson was not a tangible role model. They would contend that he was merely an athlete and that he was wishy-washy in his convictions as he frequently supported what many felt were the wrong battles. After all, he worked for Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign, he left the Negro Leagues after only one season citing that an all-black league was counterproductive and Robinson testified against singer and activist Paul Robeson during the HUAC hearings. He was later “proclaimed a hero in the white press, while the black media was split.” (Harlem Times, 2013) Other critics would say that Robinson was an overblown, overrated spectacle who received too much special treatment. Rush Limbaugh,  even stated, “opposing pitchers were so fearful of being branded bigots that they didn’t throw the hard, inside stuff to Robinson they hurled at his Dodger teammates, making Robinson the first beneficiary of the ugly reverse discrimination we euphemistically call “Affirmative Action.” ” (Limbaugh, 2003)

Nonetheless, Robinson was a remarkable leader. He was revered by his teammates and adored in multiple communities. Robinson displayed several leadership traits that indicate he was a servant leader that also possessed a Christian worldview. He used his gifts and influence to argue for the black community along with several other constituencies.  In the so aptly named leadership diamond theory, first base, the starting point is understanding our calling and the mission God has for our lives. Jackie Robinson was called, by God, during that specific time to be who he was. If he was placed in any other period his accomplishments would not have been appreciated. Callings are important because they give us purpose for our lives, “Our primary calling as followers of Christ is by him, to him, and for him. First and foremost we are called.” (Guinness, 1998, p. 31) Yet, there is a difference between our calling and being called.  “Our secondary calling, considering who God is as sovereign, is that everyone, everywhere, and in everything should think, speak, live, and act entirely for him.” (Guinness, 1998, p. 31)

Robinson’s calling was sports, he was an extraordinary athlete but he was called to a higher purpose. Once he mastered his skill set, baseball, he understood that he needed to establish a trinity between his faith, values and purpose. “Core purpose is the high performance intersection where our talents and our values come together. It id the value-creating, catalytic moment when our gifts make a difference. When we split off our values from our talents, or vice versa, we compromise purpose and enduring performance.” (Cashman, 2008, p. 61) Robinson used his play and his voice to exact change.

Robinson ushered in change by acting, not in the thespian allegorical sense but in the form of taking action. He was also successful at getting others to do the same. Exceptional leaders must know how to persuade others and give compelling reasons for their constituencies to do more than just ponder their revelations. They must know what it takes to get them to act, to do. This was achieved in various ways, at times it was with his play on the baseball field, at other times it was through his written word, determination, and political collaboration. “Given that speech that is ins intended to persuade – to move to belief or action- is directed to a specific audience at a specific time, with specific circumstances and priorities already established, human beings are not to be separated from that context, nor are likely to be persuaded solely by rational discourse or logic.” (Soder, 2001, p. 65)


Next, I’d argue that Robinson possessed an unusually graceful calm amidst the storm, he was forthright and displayed control when chaos was commonplace. This is second base, control. “If a leader shows strong discipline, others will see it and cooperate with the expectations placed on them. At this point, leadership by example is crucial.” (Sanders, 1967, p. 55) Similar to a pitchers ability to create a marriage between speed and accuracy, a servant leader must link self-control with their calling. Although Robinson exercised this concept regularly that doesn’t mean he wasn’t angry about what he saw. The best leaders are infuriated by injustice. He could not sit idly by and watch prejudice root itself in the fabric of America. He felt a personal charge to combat the enemies of his time which were racism, segregation and bigotry. “Great leaders-People who turn the tide and change the direction of events-have been angry at injustice and abuse that dishonors God and enslaves the weak. William Wilberforce moved heaven and earth to emancipate slaves in England and eliminate the slave trade-and he was angry!” (Sanders, 1967, p. 67)

Jackie Robinson also thoroughly understood the concept of time. He knew the value of time. Most sports fans understand that time is a crucial element of major league play. In the game of baseball there are certain “right-now” situations where players need to show up, not later but right now. Examples of this include L.A Dodger Kirk Gibson’s classic walk-off home run in the 1988 World Series. It was the bottom of the ninth inning, with two outs and a man on second base when he slammed his bat against the ball. Or the Babe Ruth’s infamous “called shot” in game three of the 1932 World Series. The key idea is that exceptional leader’s value time and can make the distinction between actions that can wait and those that must be done immediately. In fact, prioritizing by the order of importance becomes second nature, no matter what the distraction is. Cashman asserts, “Increasingly, most people would say life is a raging stream of “have-to-dos” vs. “want-to-dos.” Each new convenience like cell phones, Blackberries, e-mail, and text messaging simultaneously delivers some “free time” with ten new things to do. Is it possible that doing more and more is not the answer?” (Cashman, 2008, p. 130) Today, leaders struggle with prioritization and fail to capitalize on right-now moments. A contemporary example of this was when President George Bush Jr. was humiliated by the media when he failed to respond quickly enough to the devastation of hurricane Katrina. Who can forget the iconic images of Air Force One doing flyovers? There he sat, the President of the United States, staring down at victims as he flew over the state of Louisiana.

The third trait that Robinson displayed was his love for people. Third base in the diamond theory is an adoration for humanity. Robinson was an affiliative leader who was consumed by his adulation for people. “If the authoritative leader urges, “Come with me,” the affiliative leader says, “People come first.” This leadership style revolves around people – Its proponents value individuals and their emotions more than tasks and goals. The affiliative leader strives to keep employees happy and to create harmony among them. He manages by building strong emotional bonds and reaping the benefits of such an approach, namely fierce loyalty.” (Goleman, 2011, p. 48)  Robinson wanted accord for the group. He used the experiences he had on the road and in stadiums to appeal to the emotional ethos of America. He believed that everyone should feel like they belonged and were a part of a unit, whether in the dugout or in segregated streets across the rural South. Robinson’s hope was to gel the vision of leaders like Dr. King to the collective, “affiliative leaders are masters at building a sense of belonging.” (Goleman, 2011, p. 49)

Achieving harmony is a dance in many respects, a tango between leader and follower where on the surface, dominance lies with the leader but truthfully is in equilibrium amid both parties. The follower serves the leader and likewise for the leader in service to the follower. “The Argentinian tango embodies power relationships. The relationship between leader and follower in the dance is not one of equals in terms of precise roles, but is one of near equals in terms of responsibilities and obligations.” (Lois Ruskai Melina, 2013, p. 179) We see this best in Robinson’s interviews with the media, particularly in his eloquence about a plethora of issues in his April 14, 1957 Meet the Press interview with Lawrence Spivak “Meet the Press” interview.

Lastly, the final point I’d like to make about Robinson’s leadership, home base, is Robinson’s use of the national stage to do God’s work. When you consider how a typical baseball season consists of 162 games, played over roughly six months, this gave Robinson several opportunities that the clergy didn’t have. He had a regular national audience each day. He could work for God during these times. Jackie Robinson could be effective on every calendar day, not just on Sundays. Pastors, reverends and preachers were relocated to affecting change in their congregations or through their weekly sermons on the Sabbath. They had fewer chances to affect change. In every inning, Robinson could be used by God to prick hearts. Unfortunately there is “a radical disconnection between Sunday services and Monday morning activities” we are “living in two worlds that never touch each other.” (Whelchel, 2012, p. 70) Robinson understood that he needed to use every opportunity to do God’s will.

We saw, through Robinson, that all work is God’s work. All professions, occupations and vocations are of colossal importance in Gods Kingdom. Our Lord values work. Whelchel asserts, “Work in different forms is mentioned over 800 times in the Bible, more than all terms used for worship, music, praise, and singing combined.” (Whelchel, 2012, p. 8)  His work took boldness. Showing boldness and courage in times of tribulation separates good leaders from the great ones as it is a rarity that doesn’t reveal itself until it is absolutely needed. “True courage is a relatively rare human trait. We all wish that we possessed more of it, yet achieving this goal often proves elusive. It is also difficult to determine who among us actually is courageous.” (Jeffrey Cohn, 2011, p. 166)

Further, Robinson had passion. It also helped that he was passionate. The first trait I mention, passion, has to do with a God granted endurance that is undying and reminiscent of the final march of Christ to His crucifixion on Mount Calvary. Jesus believed so deeply in his purpose of saving humanity that he continued on his path, though egregious. Despite His pain, fear and suffering he pressed forward. The second trait, being passionate, describes the degree to which you are willing to pursue the first trait. “A lot of people equate passion with charisma, but the meaning goes much deeper. Passion describes something fundamental about an individual, about his or her underlying needs. By contrast, charisma is a rather superficial quality; it doesn’t necessarily reflect what a person holds inside.” (Jeffrey Cohn, 2011, p. 176)


Naturally, there were other Negro baseball greats such as phenom pitcher Satchel Paige who used also affected change using baseball. Paige drew unprecedented crowds and was the oldest rookie to ever play in a major league game. He had an unhittable fastball and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. His name is frequently mentioned whenever the discussion about the greatest players in baseball history is held. However, he was no Jackie Robinson. They were like night and day. Despite Paige’s showmanship, he lacked steadiness, humility and off the field character to influence human rights groups and lawmakers living their lives outside of the baseball diamond. “Paige lived the sort of life in which myth became difficult to separate from reality. According to the stories, he was once served divorce papers by a wife as he walked out to the mound at Wrigley Field, and another time pitched for Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo’s team to decide the outcome of an election.” (Biography.com Editors, 2017)Freedom cannot be won in just nine innings, it is secured after a lifetime seasons, through unyielding fortitude. Leaders must be humble but some confuse humility with understating yourself, your purpose and your mission.  “Humility is not demeaning yourself, shrugging off your accomplishments, or downplaying yourself in any way. Humility means that you know who you are, where you’ve been, and what you’ve accomplished to get where you are.” (Burnison, 2012, p. 3)

Another argument that we hear about Robinson was that he was a flawed man. Who of us isn’t? A few years into his professional career there were moments when Robinson broke down emotionally. He displayed his anger in a number of ways, in the locker room, with reporters, and at home. He drifted away from the player so many could look to and use as a beacon. “He gave his word to Rickey not to openly show anger for at least two seasons. The end of that time period, my father was bubbling over with pent-up frustration of not expressing himself. [Then] Branch Rickey said he was on his own, and he could be who he wants to be. My father then started being who he is — the real him, the one who hated injustice.” (Hallman, 2012)

It took great discernment, knowing when to act and when to be still. Interpreting situations and looking at them through the appropriate lens is necessary to good leadership. “An accurate interpretation of the world situation is necessary for effective execution.” (Lois Ruskai Melina, 2013, p. 69) It truly is a skill, seeing situational nuances is an art in itself, leaders must understand what they see in order to implement action. Just as artists create masterpieces, Stravinsky writes “it is the conflict of these two principles – execution and interpretation – that is at the root of all errors, all the sins, all the misunderstandings that interpose themselves” (Stravinsky, 1942, p. 122)

Great leaders have a unique set of core principles that they lead by. Winston Churchill identified the significance of arguing from principle rather than circumstance, “Those who are possessed of a definite doctrine and of deeply rooted convictions upon it will be in a much better position to deal with the shifts and surprises of daily affairs than those who are merely taking short views, indulging their natural impulses as they are evoked by what they read from day to day.” (Soder, 2001, p. 67) Unlike the agitated pendulum that swings to and fro, influenced by outside forces such as gravity or the elements, the best leaders devote themselves to an ideal. They define what the norm should be and ignore social more.

On a personal level, I also used Jackie Robinson’s story as a motivation in my life. While I was never truly good at playing baseball, at age fifteen I was asked to teach Sunday school. This ninety minute bible class became the highlight of my week. The class was filled with troubled youth who were frequently rowdy and disruptive to learning. I regarded teaching the gospel as a sacred post, one of colossal importance. This was especially the case given that the majority of the kids in the classroom came from hard circumstances. I honestly believed that I was the wrong person for the post. My reluctance was rooted in my marginal proficiency in theology. I knew the story of Jesus but understood very little about education theory. Also, few adolescents truly grasp the underpinnings of bible in the manner needed to teach concepts to others. However, I was up for the challenge.

Rather than talking at the students, I spent the first few sessions pouring out my heart to them and telling them about my own life. The discussion was uncomfortable. We talked about parts of my life that were very hard for me to discuss, and nonetheless I trusted them. Soon, they realized that I wasn’t a holier-than-thou, goody two shoes detached from the struggles of life, I was an older version of themselves that made it. My only desire was to share the good news and encourage them on their faith journey.

Each week I took time to thoroughly plan out each message. After a few short weeks I gained my footing and began to connect with the students. Church leadership met with me after class one afternoon and asked, “How did you establish trust with the kids so quickly, we’ve changed instructors three times since the spring?” I answered, “I didn’t get them to trust me, they showed me how to trust them.” Great leaders plan but more importantly, they become masters of empowerment by helping others enable themselves to complete any task, “The bridge from planning to action is empowerment – of others, not yourself. Empowerment, however, is not something that you can give or do to someone else. It cannot be dispensed like some magic pill or miracle serum. People must empower themselves. As a leader, your job is to inspire them to do so.” (Burnison, 2012, p. 85)

In conclusion, Jackie Robinson was an American hero who was a prominent servant leader. Throughout his life and career he displayed numerous leadership competencies which include affiliative leadership. He recognized God’s calling on his life, displayed Christ-like endurance, he was a shepherd to those that followed him. Further, he used his daily work to advance God’s agenda. These four cornerstones of his leadership prove that Jackie Robinson was a fascinating and effective man who just happened to be really good at baseball.


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Burnison, G. (2012). The Twelve Absolutes of Leadership. New York: McGraw Hill.

Cashman, K. (2008). Leadership from the Inside Out. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

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Guinness, O. (1998). The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life. Nashville, TN: W Publishing Group, a division of Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Hallman, C. (2012, August 29). Jackie Robinson’s fight against racism: the untold story. Retrieved from Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder: http://spokesman-recorder.com/2012/08/29/jackie-robinsons-fight-against-racism-the-untold-story/

Harlem Times. (2013). Jackie Robinson: 10 Things You Didn’t Know. Retrieved from http://www.theharlemtimes.com: http://theharlemtimes.com/sports/jackie-robinson-10-things-you-didnt-know

Jeffrey Cohn, J. M. (2011). Why Are We BAd at Picking Good Leaders? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Joan Shelly Rubin, S. E. (2013). The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Cultural and Intellectual History. New York: Oxford University Press.

Limbaugh, R. (2003, October 17). Limbaugh’s Top-Ten Overrated Athletes of All Time. Retrieved from Scoop Independent News: http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0310/S00152.htm

Lois Ruskai Melina, G. J. (2013). The Embodiment of Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sanders, J. O. (1967). Spiritual Leadership: Principles of Excellence for Every Believer. Chicago: Moody Publishers.

Soder, R. (2001). The Language of Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Stravinsky, I. (1942). Poetics of Music: In the form of six lessons. Cambridge,MA: Harvard University Press.

The Weekly Challenger. (2016, April 14). That Time Jackie Robinson Was a Columnist for the Pittsburgh Courier. Retrieved from http://www.theweeklychallenger.com: http://theweeklychallenger.com/that-time-jackie-robinson-was-a-columnist-for-the-pittsburgh-courier/

Whelchel, H. (2012). How Then Should We Work?: Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work. Bloomington: West Bow Press.



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