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The Next Faithful Step

“Loud Wrong”: How Stories Instruct Without Insulting

Scott Cormode, Fuller Seminary

Stories allow leaders to instruct communities without being insulting or singling people out for blame. I heard a wonderful example of this subtle leadership style while watching a baseball game a few years ago. Most of what I know about baseball, I learned from listening to Vin Scully narrate Dodger games. He wants his listeners not only to enjoy the game but to come to appreciate the ways it was meant to played. There are habits or actions that good players do as a matter of routine. And he wants people to understand and appreciate when players do things like “hit behind the runner” (i.e. when a batter sacrifices his own success so that a teammate can get to third base) or when a leadoff hitter “takes a strike” (the point is to give a breather to the pitcher who just batted so that the pitcher does not go to the mound winded). Scully also would find ways to instruct listeners when a player was doing something foolish—that is, when a person violated the practices of good baseball. But it is the way that Scully taught about baseball that illustrates the power of meaning making leadership. He told stories that created a context for interpreting the action. Many years ago, the Dodgers had a manager named Tommy Lasorda who liked to draw attention to himself, especially on national television. One night he trudged out to argue with an umpire when the call had obviously been correct. What was Scully to do? He did not want to embarrass the manager of his own team by saying that he was parading in front of the camera, but he also did not want to encourage the behavior that Lasorda was modeling. In this way, Scully faced a situation not unlike the one a pastor faces when a member of the staff or a prominent lay person makes a very public mistake. How do you correct the mistake without embarrassing the person who made it (especially if the person is not ready to acknowledge that it was a mistake)? Scully solved the problem by telling a story.

While the television showed Lasorda screaming at the umpire, Scully said something like this, “I was just thinking of something that happened with Jackie Robinson, after he’d been in the league a few years. He tried to steal second base and he was out from me to you. But he leapt up and started arguing with the second base umpire. After awhile, the manager came out to collect Jackie before the ump tossed him from the game. But that was not the end of it. Even in the locker room after the game Jackie complained to any reporter who would listen about how he was safe at second. Back in those days, he used to dress near an old Negro League player, one whose best years came long before they broke the color line. Eventually the old veteran had had enough. He turned Jackie’s way and said in that gravelly voice of his, ‘Robinson, not only are you wrong, but you’re loud wrong.’” Then Scully paused for a moment as Tommy continued to argue for the sake of attention. “Isn’t that a great phrase?” he continued, “‘Loud wrong.’” Another pause while Lasorda’s corpulent form filled the television screen. “Oh look,” Scully finally said, “The argument’s over and Tommy’s jogging back to the dugout. And stepping into the batter’s box is” the next Dodger hitter.

Scully provided commentary on the event without directly criticizing the Dodger manager. His listeners were no doubt so entertained by the way that he told the story that most did not make a conscious connection to the events playing out on the screen in front of them. He couched it simply as a story about what happens when someone argues with an umpire. And the fact that he selected a story about the player who is easily the most revered Dodger in history cushioned whatever blow Lasorda might feel. After all, no one minds being put in the same story as Jackie Robinson. So there are lots of reasons why the story was gentle. But it nonetheless provided a context for interpreting the manager’s behavior. He was “loud wrong” and that was embarrassing. The fact that as wonderful a role model as Jackie Robinson had once been loud wrong put him in good company. But the fact remains that there was a lesson to learn. No matter who you are, you can make a fool of yourself by arguing when the umpire is obviously correct. Scully gave a label to such bad baseball. And every time that I see someone foolishly arguing a call, I think that person is “loud wrong.”

The usefulness of Scully’s example does not, however, end there. Stories often take on a life of their own. And, as often happens with a good story, it got repeated. I’ve told the story so many times that my wife knows it, even though she’s not a baseball fan. More than once, she has asked me, after I complained about some situation or another, about whether or not I’m just being loud wrong. Once a phrase like that is established (i.e. legitimated) it can move throughout the lexicon of an organization—or a family. Now, we use it to describe any moment when someone argues a point even though they are obviously wrong. Narratives have that kind of interpretative power.

And it is this interpretative power that is at the heart of meaning making leadership. Think, for example, of a pastor named Rev. Charlotte Robinson, who is writing a newsletter article in order to recruit Sunday School teachers. What options does she have for getting people to choose to act? She could indeed tell a poignant story that would motivate some congregants to volunteer. And she could expect to have some effect. But a more promising strategy would be to use a narrative form to intertwine a number of other cultural resources such as beliefs, values, and purposes. She might say something like this, “The other morning I was eating a bagel at the counter in Vargo’s Diner when the woman on the next stool starting talking with me. On the television in the corner, a segment of “Good Morning America” came on about white supremacists from The Divine American Church of God. That’s when she turned to me. ‘Where did they learn such hatred?,’ she asked sadly, ‘They weren’t born that way.’ I thought the question was rhetorical. So I just nodded in agreement. But that was not good enough for her. ‘You’re that new pastor in town, aren’t you?’ she said more strongly than I expected, ‘Isn’t the church teaching love anymore?’ I tried to explain that not everyone who uses God’s name is part of God’s church. I was more defensive than I wanted to be. And I realized in the end that I was a bit embarrassed. We have a wonderful responsibility to bring up our congregation’s children in the way of the Lord. But we have a problem—a pleasant problem, but a problem nonetheless. We now have too many children in Sunday School for our present structure to handle. So we are adding classes. And that means we need more teachers. Our congregation has always stepped up to fill the responsibilities entrusted to us. You did that long before I came as your pastor and you will continue to do it for years to come. That is part of what it means to be a member of this church. That’s why this woman’s questions are ringing in my ears, ‘Where did they learn to hate?’ and ‘Where will they learn to love?’ They can only learn if you are willing to teach them. Come and help our children learn the love of God.

Charlotte Robinson’s story ties together beliefs the church has about bringing children up to worship God and values about kindness and care. But it also harkens back implicitly to other stories. “You did that long before I can as your pastor.” And it casts the future as a the logical next step from the past. Her vision for her people, then, is a shared story of future hope.

I want to thank the publicity staff of the Los Angeles Dodgers for confirming the story with Mr. Scully.