Mike Lange has given me a million memories, but then he went one better.
Lange is revered in my hometown of Pittsburgh, and many fans across the country agree he was one of the greatest hockey announcers of all time. He retired earlier this year after serving as the play-by-play announcer for the Pittsburgh Penguins since 1974, so he won’t be behind the mic when the season begins this week. But he called some of the most iconic games in the history of the franchise, including all five seasons when the Pens won the NHL’s Stanley Cup.
Even though I was moving about the country for many of the Pens’ best seasons, I still followed the team and I’ve always been one of Lange’s biggest fans. But as memorable as his descriptions of the games were, it’s something he wrote that just might stay with me even longer.
In 2017, Lange penned an essay about his time in Pittsburgh. He described some of his most meaningful moments and relationships, while also sharing the story behind the one-liners he became famous for saying – lines like “He smoked him like a bad cigar!” or my all-time favorite, “Ohhh, he beat him like a rented mule!”
The essay was beautifully written and meaningful to all Pittsburgh fans, but it also was filled with gems of leadership lessons. I’m going to share some of those with you over the next few weeks, starting with this summary of my top 10.
- Watching and listening leads to learning.
In the early 1990s, Lange typically sat next to Jaromir Jagr on team bus rides. Jags, as he is known, was a teenager from Czechoslovakia who didn’t speak much English. “Most people don’t think about smarts when they think of Jags,” Lange wrote, “but almost right away I realized that he was a very, very bright kid. He was a master of watching people, and listening, and then learning from what he saw.” How did Lange learn this? Because he, too, was a master of watching people, listening, and learning from what he saw.
- Give new things a chance to grow on you.
Lange came to Pittsburgh from California, and the first thing he noticed – right when he stepped off the airplane – was the smell of sulfur from the steel mills. It hit him “like a right hook,” he wrote, but added, “I wasn’t about to hightail it back to California over some funky smell.” It was the first of many things Lange found different about living in Pittsburgh. “Everything about Pittsburgh, really, was new to me,” he said. “But ultimately, it was the people who got me hooked on the city.”
- Pay attention to the world around you.
Many announcers mix one-liners into their broadcasts. Lange’s unique approach to it, however, began simply because he was alert to the world around him. “One night I happened to be sitting at a bar, minding my own business, when everything changed,” he said. A guy walked in, pointed to another man at the bar, and called out to the bartender, “Buy Sam a drink … and get his dog one, too.” Lange wrote it down on a napkin and used the line at the next game. Leaders who observe, listen, and take notes can always decide later if something is worth acting on. Self-absorbed leaders who lack curiosity, however, never know what they’re missing.
- Allow weird roots to grow into interesting fruit.
The line about the drink and the dog fell flat the first time he used it in a broadcast, Lange said. No one knew what to make of it. But he didn’t give up on what he believed was a good idea. “I kept my ears open,” he said, “and I kept absorbing these sayings.”
- Some things don’t have to make sense to have meaning.
Lange’s famous one-liners were just sayings he had heard from people in Pittsburgh that he threw into his description, usually when he was so overjoyed that he didn’t know what else to say. “They’re expressions of disbelief,” he said. “It was almost like your brain couldn’t process what your eyes had just seen, so sometimes you’d blurt out whatever popped into your head at that moment. Those guys were so good they kind of brought the joy out of you. They had us all speaking in tongues.” Leaders, of course, need to communicate clear, consistent messages, but some heartfelt, purposeful nonsense from time to time sure can make work more enjoyable.
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- Sincere optimism is a superpower.
The Penguins needed talent to win games, but they also needed to believe in themselves and in each other. The leader who provided that for several key years was their coach, “Badger” Bob Johnson. He was so optimistic and supportive, in fact, that players initially thought it was an act. But to him, every day really was “a great day for hockey,” and the consistency of his actions proved he was sincere when he said it. “He got every last one of those guys behind him,” Lange wrote. “Every single one. They would’ve run through a wall for the Badger. No questions asked.”
- The best never stop learning.
Players who don’t work daily to improve don’t last long in the NHL, and Lange found that the players who excelled the most were those who combined their considerable talents with a thirst to get better. Jags, he said, was the perfect example of a player who was willing to learn – adding new shots to his arsenal, for instance, and learning how to use his body to move other players out of his way so he could skate through traffic. “And my God, did that kid watch (Mario) Lemieux like a hawk,” Lange said. “To this day he’ll tell you, without any hesitation, that 66 was the best player who ever played the game. Jags just wanted to do all he could to learn from Mario early on, and without both those guys firing on all cylinders that year, you probably don’t win that first Cup.”
- Create boundaries so you don’t overpromise and underdeliver.
When Lange’s one-liners caught on with fans, fans began sharing new ones for him to use. To help him manage them, he created one core rule: “It’s gotta be written down, or else I can’t consider it.” This created an initial filter to limit the suggestions, took the pressure off him to remember something someone had said, and allowed him to review them later without any pressure. He didn’t promise he would use them, just that he would consider them if they were written.
- Show gratitude to those who help you succeed.
Lange was perfectly willing to credit the people of Pittsburgh with his one-liners. When a security guard at an office building handed him “Scratch my back with a hacksaw,” for instance, Lange paused for a few seconds and then asked the man to step to the other side of the desk. “And when he got to me,” Lange said, “I put my arms around that guy and gave him a big, huge bear hug. ‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘Thank you so much.’” Gratitude, by the way, is an organizational value of the Penguins, who gave championships rings to ushers, custodians, security guards, cooks, and Zamboni drivers the last time they won the Cup.
- Be nice.
Lange’s advice to young broadcasters is always the same: Be nice to people. “It sounds ridiculous,” he said, “but when it’s all said and done, your greatest legacy is going to be based on how you treated other people.” I don’t think he would have gotten those great one-liners if he hadn’t been nice to people. But it’s not just great advice for a broadcaster. Being a genuinely nice person, he said, was a characteristic of all of Pittsburgh’s greatest players, not to mention the late Coach Johnson. It didn’t prevent them from being competitive or holding each other accountable. It just meant, as a rule, they weren’t jerks. And as a leader of any organization, being genuinely nice, especially when you have to make tough decisions, will earn you support and respect.
It’s interesting to me that Lange, as a broadcaster, didn’t hold a position you would traditionally associate with organizational leadership. He was part of a team, but he wasn’t the head coach or the CEO. Yet, he led with his actions. And over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to look a little deeper at a few of these lessons I saw in that leadership – lessons all of us can put to use no matter what form our leadership takes.
Good stuff, Walt. Lange is one of a kind, and it’s great to hear how he interacted with the community. One of my favorite Lange-isms kind of fits as a compliment about your thoughts today: “Shame on you for six months if you missed this one!”
Ha! that’s a great
Thanks as always. Leadership lessons can be found in unique situations.
Unique, weird, unexpected: those are the goldmines for learning
Stephen (Fergie) Ferguson
Great article, Walt. Can’t wait for the next one.