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Oct 27, 2022
Unexpected Leadership Lessons From the Drunk Guy at the Ballpark


This summer, I attended a Major League Baseball game in Milwaukee, where the hometown Brewers were playing the Toronto Blue Jays. I was excited to take another step on my lifetime bucket list of MLB stadiums, this being my 15th stadium among the existing 30. Traveling always brings surprises. In this case, the foremost surprise was getting a real lesson in leadership from a drunk guy who just wanted to start the wave.

Our seats were in the bleachers in fair territory beyond the left field fence. Behind us were four rows or so of people who appeared to be friends and family members. They had arrived at the stadium on a bus. On this bus, alcohol had been offered, and the offer had been generously accepted. Their conversation was loud and unrelated to baseball. Mostly they ranged from topics including how drunk they were to how much drunker they were going to get when they got back on the bus.

For a while, the conversation that I was most invested in was the one behind me. Here, a group of people was trying to get the man directly behind me to eat more so he would vomit. I turned around and quietly offered him my support for his restraint.  If they did not offer decent company, the seats did provide a decent view of the full field of play. That was until the top of the second inning when Drunk Guy arrived with his brother (sober) and a friend (sober, comparatively.) Drunk Guy brought energy, and his arms seemed constantly in movement, quite often above his head. We slid a few seats to the left to watch the game.

Drunk Guy almost immediately stood up, turned around, and engaged with the drunk rows behind us. They discussed Drunk Things for an inning, with Drunk Guy periodically sitting down and enthusiastically checking his phone and catching his breath. At the end of one of these breaks, in the middle of the third inning, Drunk Guy stood up, again turned his back to the field, and announced “WE ARE GOING TO DO THE WAVE!” Then, to his brother, “I think we can do this. You wait here.” He then stepped up onto his seat, but sadly didn’t leave. However, he did proceed to put on a pretty good leadership seminar, one that eventually engaged a couple of thousand people across roughly one-third of the stadium. 

Here’s what he did right.

Set audacious goals in public

Good leaders know that setting ambitious goals can inspire people. Setting them loudly and in public inspires even more people. And he was going to need people. After all, he had a big goal. He placed his hand on his brother’s shoulder for balance, then shouted again, “WE ARE GOING TO DO THE WAVE!” His brother was shaking his head “No.” 

We are reminded that prophets are often rejected in their hometown. “It’s the 3rd inning,” his comparatively sober friend reminded him. The rows behind us offered profane versions of this same observation. Drunk Guy looked at his doubters and stroked his chin in a pantomime of deep thought. He then looked to the crowd around us and made an expansive gesture with his arms. Even louder, he shouted “WE ARE GOING TO DO THE WAVE!”

Leaders have faith in their vision.

Deflect criticism with humor

If you’re not a fan of sports, you might not know that the wave is usually started by bored crowds late in games where the outcome appears to have already been decided. They can happen at any sporting event where those key conditions were met: crowd, late in the game, outcome decided. Doing the wave at the start of the game was, well, if not exactly drunk, we can call it unconventional. 

Among the many insults coming from the rows behind us, one particular voice stood out, pointing out the flawed timing of this wave. “Is this your first baseball game?” Drunk Guy looked around, eyes wide, seemingly shocked by this feedback. He looked at his critic and moved his right hand under his left arm. “No, noooo.” With a flourish his hand re-emerged with two fingers showing. “It’s my second game.” This got a laugh.

Folks who laugh with you are more willing to work with you.

Choose your enemies wisely

Drunk Guy employed a related lesson throughout this entire effort. One of the drunk detractors from the rows behind us got special attention from our leadership guru. The man he singled out was wearing a Toronto Blue Jays hat and jersey. So when multiple people criticized his wave, or his timing, Drunk Guy chose only to respond to the Blue Jays fan. “I suppose you’re here to root for the BLUE JAYS?” he asked incredulously. “Is that why you don’t want us to do the WAVE?”

And later, he said. “We are rooting for Milwaukee. We’re Milwaukeeans. We don’t care about Canadians.” And then the intentional mispronunciation: “Why don’t you go back to Canadia?” Brilliant leadership move. In addition to earning more laughter, he triangulated the larger group of fans against a single common enemy. Brewers fans were opposed to the wave, sure, but they were really here today to beat the Blue Jays.

So by singling out a Blue Jays fan, and only responding to his criticism, the other fans were forced to feel some sense of camaraderie with our leader. He was, after all, rooting for the home team.  Now, we were more inclined to root against the team from “Canadia” and by extension, more inclined to root for the wave.

Be Persistent

“NOW. WE ARE GOING TO TRY THIS AGAIN!” He said, to everyone. He then counted, loudly and theatrically, and this time others in the area were counting with him. “ONE! TWO! THREE!” and then he yelled, “WAIT!” 

Give clear directions

“I ALMOST FORGOT.” He wiped his face downward with one hand, as if mopping sweat. “I’M SORRY. THIS WAS MY FAULT. WE ARE GOING TO GO …” he pointed both arms to his left, “THAT WAY!” “OKAY! ONE! TWO! THREE!” He folded his body over and paused. Then he rose dramatically, extended his arms, and stood briefly on his toes, fully embodying wave participation. He WAS the wave. We all watched as 50-60 people from this section and the two to his left participated … and then the wave died.

Give encouragement

There were more jeers from the rows behind. “What happened to your wave?” “Boo!” Blue Jays Fan asked, “What, is this your second game?” Even drunk guy had to laugh at that. “IT’S OKAY!” Drunk Guy shouted to the people in the sections to his left. 

He was clearly wrong. It was terrible. Wave? It was barely a ripple. A drop. But he had more to teach. 

He inhaled dramatically, then offered, “YOU DID BETTER THAN I THOUGHT YOU WOULD!” Brilliant, really. Just like that he characterized this poor showing as not only NOT poor, but BETTER than he thought it would be. By suggesting the crowd was ahead of some unseen performance metric, in a goal that our leader believed we could achieve, he earned even more buy-in.

“WE GOT THIS!” He clapped his hands once, then started counting. “ONE! TWO! THREE!” Again he bowed with his whole body then rose again, as if conducting the stadium’s participation. This time the wave was bigger and it fizzled, but not before engaging people as far as three sections over.

Not every goal is met

The final leadership lesson was simply an observation on how things work in real life. Not every goal is met. Not every great leader wins every contest. He did not start the wave – at least not the traditional vision of the wave, with people participating across the entire stadium. He did, however, engage thousands of people in several sections of the stadium in a miniature wave that came from a kernel of an idea. And all before security escorted him out, in the 7th inning. And that is a leadership lesson in itself. 

How can you apply Drunk Guy’s lessons in your life?

Originally published at https://thebestwordsllc.com. 

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