Ernie Harwell, A True Servant Leader

The death of famed announcer Ernie
creates an interesting paradox for somebody like me who writes about leadership.
On the one hand, there are many people who are better suited to write about the
contributions made by Harwell over the years in terms of not only his skill as
an announcer, but his ability to inspire and influence others in the audience
he reached in the sports world. On the other hand, because he was such a great
and unique example for all of us, it is hard to pass up the opportunity to at
least reflect a moment on what we can learn from him.

So I’ve decided that I won’t try to
do a biographical piece…there is a great one by Mitch Albom and another by Ron Dzwonkowski,
both in the Detroit Free Press. But living here in the Detroit area, it is hard to simply ignore one of the leadership qualities that Harwell exhibited more than anybody else of whom I have been aware; he was totally and consistently a humble man. 

Ernie Harwell had a lot to be proud
of and one would have had to excuse his ego…if he had one. In 1948, Brooklyn
announcer Red Barber was hospitalized for a bleeding ulcer and the Dodgers traded
catcher Cliff Dapper to Atlanta in order to get Harwell
. That’s right…the only
time in baseball history that a player has been traded for an announcer! In
1991, Harwell’s contract with the Tigers was allowed to expire as president Bo
Schembechler decided new blood was needed. Such a fit was pitched in Motor City
that in 1993, new owner Mike Illitch, made it a top priority to get Ernie back.
He was named Michigan Sportscaster of the Year 19 times and inducted into the
National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame in 1981. The
list goes on and on.

And yet, every season during the
first spring training broadcast, Ernie’s voice could be heard reading from the
Book of Solomon, “For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers
appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of
the turtle is heard in our land.” For many, this would be an appropriate quote
to simply herald the coming of Spring. But for Ernie, the source of his quote
was significant. Ernie was a man of unapologetic faith. He never believed his
own press clippings because he believed he was just one small part of a bigger
picture. As a devout Christian, Ernie based his dealings with others on the
immovable foundation of his beliefs.

That, I think, is the lesson of
humility shared by Ernie Harwell. Leaders with values that supersede their own
view of themselves are the types of leaders that truly inspire. They see
themselves, not as a point high in some grand hierarchy of influence, but as an
equal participant along with everybody else in figuring out how best to make
life work. They are the true “servant leaders,” and in so being, provide a
humbling lesson for the rest of us.   

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