Pittsburgh Penguins ice hockey sportscaster Mike Lange is a rare and humble figure who brought my hometown fans together for more than forty years. Lange’s retirement caused me to reflect on the many life lessons we can gather from his example, but one quality in particular speaks to why our community felt a greater connection to each other and to the team: others consider him a nice human being.
In a hockey town like Pittsburgh, Lange understood that nice didn’t have to mean that you’re a pushover. Some of the most competitive players and fierce fans he observed were also really good-natured people.
“You can achieve greatness and still be a decent human being at the same time. You want proof? Just look at the last ten years of Penguins hockey,” said Lange. He’s quick to rattle off players he admired because they were genuinely nice people, not to mention the coaches. Lange adds, “Your greatest legacy is going to be based on how you treat other people.”
That same understanding should be prevalent among leaders in the workplace. In fact, great leaders balance strength with warmth, according to a classic Harvard Business Review article by Amy Cuddy, Matthew Kohut and John Neffinger. Warmth breeds trust, they explained, but that warmth should come first. If leaders exert strength before showing their human side, it can undermine their ability to form trusting relationships and work cohesively in teams.
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From the top down, the Penguins organization has long understood that showing warmth first greases the wheels for cooperation. In fact, Lange recalls an empathic moment when former coach Bob “Badger” Johnson spoke with a young player he was going to scratch for the next game: “Bob put his arm around the kid and said, ‘Listen, I’m gonna need you. Don’t doubt that for a second. Before it’s all said and done, I’m gonna need you.’”
Not many coaches in the rough-and-tumble sport of hockey are worried about a soft landing for their players’ egos. But Johnson was known for the fierce loyalty he earned from players because he treated them so well.
Lange’s appreciation for people who shared his belief in treating each other well wasn’t limited to the Penguins organization. Lange’s pleasant demeanor was also a welcome influence with the fans and the reason he developed his unique announcing style of embedding his play-by-play with fan input. Lange saw himself as part of the crowd, loved his daily interactions that made his message more authentic, and was known for doling out bear hugs in appreciation.
From the moment Lange arrived in the City of Bridges, stepped onto the tarmac, and looked past that strange smell caused by the steel mills, he had an earnestness about embracing Pittsburghers. Lange said, “Everything about Pittsburgh, really, was new to me. But ultimately, it was the people who got me hooked on the city.”
Many of you are familiar with the saying, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Lange not only embodied this sentiment, but his approach to broadcasting was also a perfect reflection of the team and community he grew to love. It’s no doubt the reason he was the voice of the Penguins for four-plus decades.
Today, whenever young broadcasters ask Lange for advice about how to break into the business, the time-tested advice he always shares isn’t about the nuances of announcing and voice modulation or best practices for play-by-play highlights. Instead, he simply says what applies to everyone in a position of influence: “Be nice to people.”