Yogi Berra’s malapropisms still hold grains of truth

08/15/2013 5:57 AM

08/08/2014 10:18 AM

Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra began his storied baseball career as a catcher with the New York Yankees in 1946. By the time he retired as a player in 1965, he had won the American League Most Valuable Player award three times, led the Yankees to 10 World Series championships and competed in 18 All-Star Games.

Despite his prowess on the field, though, Berra was as much a cultural icon as he was a baseball hero. He is still known by many for his inclination to unwittingly distort words and phrases. Some people believe that his misuse of language was the result of subpar intelligence, yet Berra successfully played one of the most mentally and physically challenging positions in the sport.

In many ways, the catcher is an on-field manager, constantly doling out strategy by controlling the pitching game and defense. A catcher even acts as a psychologist, understanding the capabilities and mental well-being of multiple pitchers and looking to exploit any weakness he might observe in batters. This doesn’t sound like a role for a simpleton.

While we may never know if Berra’s tendency to misspeak was truly accidental, some so-called “Yogisms” actually offer valuable food for thought – and not just for baseball fans. Business leaders can gain valuable insights from some of Berra’s seemingly obtuse words of wisdom.

“We made too many wrong mistakes.”

In business, there are good mistakes and bad ones, and many will argue that the “wrong” mistakes are only those risks that weren’t worth taking or those errors from which the company, its employees or its leadership didn’t learn.

“You can observe a lot just by watching.”

It sounds obvious, but might Berra have been calling out the difference between watching and really paying attention? For instance, if you’re observing employees, a cursory glance might reveal reasonably happy, productive individuals, especially if that’s what you hope or expect to see. But further examination of employees could give you valuable insight about the true state of your workforce, and it may not match your original perception.

“If the world was perfect, it wouldn’t be.”

As anywhere else, the workplace can’t be without its imperfections. A “perfect” workplace – like a “perfect” world – might be without conflict, but it would also be without the improvements that often come when conflict is addressed. Challenges may be frustrating, but they provide an opportunity to improve and develop your employees, yourself and your company.

“You better cut the pizza in four pieces, because I’m not hungry enough to eat six.”

Managers must understand the importance of perception to their employees. That’s not to say you should lie to employees, but don’t overlook the importance of careful delivery.

“If you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

While this phrase may seem to give little by way of decision-making advice, it could be interpreted as encouragement to take a chance and appreciate any opportunity you come across. It’s almost as if Berra is saying, “Whatever you do, don’t do nothing.”

It’s possible that Berra simply had his wires crossed some of the time, and it’s likely he did when he said things like “The future ain’t what it used to be.” But if there’s a larger lesson to be learned, it’s that wisdom may be found where you least expect it, and there may be insight even in statements that, superficially, seem obvious.

If there’s one thing we can all learn from Yogi Berra, it’s to resist the temptation to oversimplify seemingly simple statements and even people themselves. There is always more to learn, and there’s always another perspective to consider.

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