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  • Writer's pictureOliver Nowak

Jackie Robinson - Change Leader

To many of this generation, and particularly here in the UK, the name Jackie Robinson isn’t going to mean much. Personally, I only came across his legacy when I watched the 2013 sport drama film 42 immortalised by the late Chadwick Boseman. But ever since watching that film, his legacy and his achievements have stayed with me. Sport as a global industry churns out idols, icons and leaders almost on an annual basis. In fact, if you look across the majority of the major sports out there today, you could make a strong case that we are witnessing the ‘Greatest of All Time’ across all of them be it Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal in tennis, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in football, Lewis Hamilton in Formula 1, Tom Brady in American Football, Tiger Woods in golf, Lebron James or Steph Curry in Basketball, the list goes on…..

So what makes Jackie Robinson different to me, and why not just focus on one of those I’ve just listed?

Ultimately, the argument over the ‘Greatest of All Time is All Time’ is futile, it depends on the category you focus on. For me, what makes Jackie Robinson so special is that I categorise him as one of the greatest change leader’s of all time, he transcended his sport to shine a light on issues far greater and far more impactful than the results of the weekend’s Dodger’s results. He managed to lead the charge on issues of segregation, injustice and race, even well before heroes of that era like Martin Luther King Jr.

Fundamental to Robinson’s success, as it is for any change leader, was not just his baseball ability but his personality. He was a natural leader who had a unique drive to break down barriers to play the sport he loved by working with others, remaining true to himself, and remaining resilient to outside pressures, regardless of their magnitude. He could easily have remained content playing in the ‘negro leagues’ as they were called at the time, but he wanted to play at the pinnacle of the sport, regardless of the change required to achieve it.

In fact, it was the power of his personality that was the ultimate key to his success. Since the 1880s there had been an unwritten rule amongst baseball owners that they do not sign African-American players. However, in 1943, Branch Rickey, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, gained approval from the team’s board of directors to begin the search for the first black player in the National League. However, one of Rickey’s key conditions for signing was that they had the ability to turn the other cheek when antagonised on issues of race, a particularly powerful scene in the 2013 biopic. He specifically wanted a player who had the ability to not fight back, not one that did. This is because he understood that the only way to win the war was to let the individual battles slide.

As a result, in the sporting arena, Jackie Robinson wasn’t just inspiring baseball fans with his athletic talent, but he was also inspiring people, black or white, on how they should conduct themselves as people. As I mentioned before, in many ways this approach shaped the civil rights movement that followed inspiring the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. in the way that he stayed true to his values during his peaceful protests. This is what marked him out as a person beyond everything else, the ability to withstand ridicule and physical abuse from all angles be it the fans, his opponents and even his own teammates. Death threats poured in from discontented fans, opponents threatened to strike, but still Robinson was unmoved in his belief that his baseball ability alone should do the talking.

Why then?

In many ways the timing of this inspiration was clear to see. World War II had had a profound impact on the world and more specifically on America, and the appetite for change had never been higher. Suddenly, we lived in a world where women were working, rationing of key living amenities prevailed and politics was breaking new ground. Slowly but surely black activists felt empowered and started to raise their voices, wanting to be heard. If a world war was fought to protect American ideals, namely the right to freedom, why shouldn’t everyone be afforded the same opportunity, black or white? Ultimately, this overburdening of economic, political, and social turmoil meant that sports and, more specifically, baseball, provided the only relief and distraction from reality. There’s an argument to say the reason Robinson faced such a forceful backlash was that now even this last source of relief was being forced through a period of change and uncertainty.

Why not now?

This shows that sport has the power to galvanise and inspire the global community in a way that nothing else can. But the question remains, there are still so many issues that sport and communities face, so where has the fight gone? There are still no openly gay top-flight professional footballers and a BBC Insights survey found that 8% of fans would stop watching their team if it contained a gay player. But is it a surprise when we openly ignore this? The last Football World Cup was held in Russia where it is still illegal to be gay, and the next World Cup is in Qatar where they still have the death penalty for being gay. This year Formula 1 raced in Qatar and Saudi Arabia for the first time which are 2 countries that still don’t fully recognise Human Rights. The list goes on. So are we doing enough? What Jackie Robinson ultimately demonstrated is that as a sporting community all we care about is winning. That’s why it was essential that Robinson was not only a great person, but a great baseball player, otherwise, unfortunately, the fans would have had no reason to look past the colour of his skin. Ultimately, sport brings people together these days in ways that arguably religion used to, just think about how during WW1 football had the power to bring both sides together on Christmas Day. So, could we be doing more?

So what do you need to think about to be this generation’s change leader?

What was Jackie’s transformational purpose? - Jackie wanted to live in a world where baseball was fully integrated and a player was purely judged on their ability to play the sport. He wanted to prove that the colour of your skin had no bearing on his sporting abilities. It’s safe to say he was more than successful at proving this, he didn’t politicise this mission, he simply went about achieving it culminating in accolades like rookie of the year award, most valuable player and six World Titles with the Dodgers. He was the first ever African-American to be inducted in the hall of fame.

How did Jackie Communicate his mission? - He didn’t at all, he just got on with it. The most powerful stance was to simply not fight at all. His presence alone and his gentleman qualities did all the talking he needed to do.

What were Jackie’s non-negotiable Values? - Jackie believed in Justice and Citizenship, he believed everyone had the right to be treated equally, regardless of their race, or even their behaviour. He treated his biggest advocates in the same way as his biggest abusers. In the words of Branch Rickey “We can win only if we can convince the world that I am doing this because you’re a great ballplayer, and a fine gentleman”.

What were his defining personality traits? - Courage and Determination: the courage not to fight back and the determination to stay the course regardless of death threats or anything else they could throw at him. Integrity: an unwavering belief that he was fighting for the right cause, in the right way. There was an incredible humanity to his fight that brought people onside by sympathising with his cause.

Bringing it back around to the ultimate purpose of this blog, digital transformation. In my opinion, in the same way we’re missing those revolutionary change leaders in the sporting arena, I feel like similar can be said for the business arena. Much like the post-war economy, digital is going to bring change and disruption on a breadth and depth never seen before. Can we humanise this change? Can we put human beings at the centre of it by realising true transformation comes through the people buying-in, recognising the value and understanding the greater mission? But most importantly, who’s going to take responsibility, who’s going to be the change leader that puts this complex puzzle together?

As always, time will be judge, jury and, where necessary, executioner, and I passionately believe that those who have clear-cut answers to the questions above will still be around to tell their story in the decades to come.

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