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George Steinbrenner's Split Personality Was Not So Split

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As anyone who is even remotely interested in sports knows, George Steinbrenner, larger than life owner of the New York Yankees, has passed away at age 80. We are inundated with interviews of those who knew him, specials on his network YES, major newspaper articles, and even commentaries on news and talk shows. His appeal has reached well beyond the world of sports. One theme that keeps appearing is what everyone refers to as a contradiction in his personality. Mr. Steinbrenner was famously tough, impulsive, and bombastic. He would fire employees at a whim, berate them, come close to harassing them with phone calls at all hours of the day and night, demand perfection, and ruled by fear. At the same time, he was involved in many charitable causes, would help out those he had cruelly fired, and remain interested in the lives of his ex-employees. So the question became, how could he be this cruel unfeeling person and, at the same time, this caring philanthropic person. He was a walking contradiction.

This so-called paradox is more apparent than real. The same personality characteristics that led to his angry, firing behavior led to his kindly, charitable acts. In fact, Mr. Steinbrenner was completely consistent in his behavior. Before I go on, let me state my biases up front. I am a rabid Yankee fan and I loved reading about Mr. Steinbrenner. I am absorbed in watching these tributes to him and would have loved to thank him personally for bringing the Yankees back to greatness. My bottom line feeling towards him is a very positive one. I also never did meet him so this is all based on known psychological principles but not on any personal knowledge of the man.

There are three characteristics that probably explain Mr. Steinbrenner's apparently inconsistent behavior. First, he was a passionately emotional person. Although highly intelligent and even calculating, he was often ruled by his emotions and easily emotionally aroused. Emotions came before reason for this man. Second, he was impulsive. He was a man of action and often acted without reflection. That means his actions were often emotionally based. Third, he was The Boss. He needed to be in charge and he was in charge. There was a paternalistic aspect to this. He could be a caring or an unforgiving father but he was always the father. That means the other person was always a subordinate, a son or a daughter. Now let's put this together.

As do all of us, Mr. Steinbrenner experienced a myriad of emotions that changed powerfully over time, sometimes over short periods of time. We all love and hate the important people in our lives at different times, sometimes at the same time. Unlike many of us, he was very comfortable having these emotions so that he did not question or deny them. They ruled to the point that his behavior was often more driven by these emotions than by his rational reason. Although this is generally true of people it was especially so for Mr. Steinbrenner. He didn't have the filters that most of us develop to consider what we should do when a thought occurs to us or an impulse to action is felt. Mr. Steinbrenner was impulsive. That meant that when an emotion hit him, he acted on it. And he often did so without thinking much about it. So when he felt angry, he acted angrily. He fired people -- he berated them. When he had a question or a thought or an idea, he didn't wait to think it through, he called the person at any hour and talked to him or her about it or he acted on it. He was impulsive. He was impulsive in what he said and impulsive in what he did. And he was comfortable being this way. This was behind his apparently uncaring and cruel actions. It was also behind some of the lame brained things he did like hire a con man to get dirt on a player. And it was behind some of his ill-considered quotes. But when Mr. Steinbrenner had a positive emotion or a charitable impulse, he acted on that too and did so just as comfortably and easily. So he rehired people. He heard of a cause that moved him and immediately acted to help that cause. He heard of an employee experiencing hard times and his feelings were stirred. He acted and reached out to help that person. As his emotions shifted and his impulses changed, he behaved differently. The behavior looked inconsistent but was always consistent with the emotion de jure. Look for emotional, not cognitive, triggers and you'll see the consistency.

Finally, George Steinbrenner was The Boss. No matter what he did, it had to reflect his status as the father figure, as the one in charge. When he berated, or fired, or demanded an answer to something that had occurred to him in the last few minutes, or reacted to an event and offered the quotes that made the back page so often, he did so as the one in charge. He was never a supplicant, a subordinate, or even an equal. He was The Boss -- the father. This was true of his kind behaviors as well. Whenever he helped someone, he did not have a back and forth. He came from on high and bestowed his largesse. He was still in charge. He offered advice; he gave help. Even when he took advice, it was from subordinates, not equals. He was always the father and he retained the right to override and to second-guess his people.

So again, how could he be cruel and caring? Because his emotions, like the emotions of all of us, shifted. He just acted on all of them and he did so quickly. He was impulsive. And he was comfortable with it all. How did he have the nerve to push people around, fire Yogi Berra (Yogi Berra!!), demand accounting from his subordinates at odd hours? He was The Boss, the father running the show as he saw fit. How could the same man treat these people so well? He was The Boss, the father, providing them with his largesse.

In his case, it all worked. Why? Because he was extraordinarily intelligent, he was a talented executive, and because he had the carrots people wanted as well as the sticks they feared. This style leads to mistakes and broken relationships but he was able to override those pitfalls because of his talent, charisma, and ultimately because winning was so important to him that he would back down if he saw that winning was in the offing. Winning settled all scores and forgave all transgressions. That is, whether you agree with it or not, he had a value that gave all of his actions meaning.

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