Five Lessons in Leadership

As college umpires, we are all expected to be professional at all time – on and off the field.  We are also expected to be knowledgeable of the requirements for leadership – the exercise of authority, handling mistakes, teamwork, and human nature.  Let’s review these traits of leadership and how they relate to umpiring.
  1. Use your authority skillfully

Umpires, especially the plate umpire, are the heart-beats of the game.  They have almost unchallenged authority to manage the contest. Players, coaches and spectators expect the umpire to use that authority. The game cannot start, rule violations are not penalized, the flow of the game is unmanaged without umpires.
More frustrating than a poorly skilled umpire is one who is timid. “Make the call” can be heard at times. Sometimes it is people venting emotions. Other times it may be the justified protest of people looking for order, justice and the pleasure of watching skillful play. Certainly, any umpire can overreach his/her authority. But, to the degree authority is vested in the position, people expect and want that authority exercised.  Do not abuse, but skillfully use, the authority vested in your office.
  1. Handle your mistakes quickly

Mistakes happen. Be happy if you walk away with few and minor mistakes. Major mistakes haunt good umpires for weeks. Big or small, mistakes are the vehicles that can carry you to the next level. Be accountable, evaluate, decide and move on. Own up to your mistakes.
In the few seconds during a stoppage, evaluate the error quickly. Don’t become fixated on it and don’t allow it to contaminate the game. Answer the questions, “What happened?” and “Why did it happen?” Was it fatigue? Attitude? Lack of knowledge? Decide on a simple strategy to avoid repeating the same mistake and move on. Everyone else wants to put it behind them. Don’t be the one who keeps it alive. Whatever you do, don’t try to “even the score” by a misguided make-up call.
After the game, you can thoroughly evaluate the incident, often with input from your crew members (or, perhaps, an observer). Take positive action. Correct where needed. Do not dwell on any mistake. That leads to more, and greater, errors.  Focus on doing the right thing, not on mistakes committed or anticipated.
  1. Be a team player

Teamwork makes a good team. Pride takes two forms – one healthy because it is tempered with humility, the other destructive because it is dominated by vanity.
Every umpire is part of a crew. Resolve to be the best possible umpire for the position you are assigned for this game. If by my actions I can make the crew look good, then I am a success, too. A brilliant performance by the team enhances everybody’s reputation, too. To whichever position you are assigned, be prepared to do your job and perform to the best of your ability as a team player.
  1. Remember: It’s not about you

It is human nature to be self-centered. Few people enjoy being screamed at, cursed and verbally degraded. However, such is the fate of sports officials. Not to please everyone, or to make others happy, or to justify every decision, but to ensure safe, fair, enjoyable game is the umpire’s job. Enforcing the Laws of the Game is the best method available to that end. Just because people are screaming, criticizing or calling into question your native intelligence does not mean you are doing poorly. In fact, it may mean just the opposite.
Anger is a common reaction when, in life or in softball, things do not go our way. Sometimes an umpire’s best compliments are angry outbursts from people who, by attempting to circumvent the rules, sought to get their own way. Being at the center of a storm of human emotion can feel uncomfortable. We would all rather receive plaudits and praise.
  1. Develop goals beyond personal aggrandizement

Umpiring can be rewarding work. However, at times it can feel like an assignment delegated from the pit of hell. There comes a moment when the modest remuneration, fleeting recognition and fading hopes for international glory are eclipsed by demands on body, mind and spirit. Carrying the full weight of authority through tedious, poorly played games can tempt an umpire to walk away, unless it’s balanced by goals greater than personal glory.
Umpires who successfully negotiate the reefs of discouragement are those who find purposes beyond themselves. Love for the game, the virtues of mentoring younger umpires and the opportunities to advance the sport by one’s professionalism are examples of goals that inspire and sustain the spirit. When you embrace those and similar goals, every success in the world of softball feels like a personal victory.