The leadership smarts of Cardinals manager Mike Matheny

October 25, 2013
St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny walks out to the mound during a baseball game against the New York Mets on May 15, 2013, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny walks out to the mound during a baseball game against the New York Mets on May 15, 2013, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

After an embarrassing Game 1 of the World Series, the St. Louis Cardinals evened the score Thursday night with a 4-2 win over the Boston Red Sox.

The win will be memorable one for veteran right fielder Carlos Beltran, who overcame a bruised rib cage to hit a single that brought in the final run. It will surely be a memorable one for a trio of hot young aces—Michael WachaCarlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal—who each played in their first World Series win.

And the win will certainly be a memorable one for another man: Mike Matheny, the Cardinals' manager, who also took home his first World Series win. Not only is this just his second season as the Cardinals' manager, but it's his second season ever as a major league coach of any kind.

Much has been made of the inexperience of Matheny, who played for the Cardinals from 2000 to 2004. That's partly because he stepped in for baseball great Tony LaRussa, whose career as a manager spanned 33 years, 16 of them with the Cardinals. It's also because, though he had served previously as an adviser for the Cardinals, he'd never been a full-time coach in a regular season major league game before he was chosen to succeed a legend. When he was hired, he became the youngest manager in major league baseball.

Matheny was hired for "organizational ties and intangibles" and had a "reputation for presence and leadership," the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote at the time. He's been hailed for his innate leadership ability. Though his tactical skills may need some development, he won't tear into players publicly during a slump and can relate to them, having played the game not that long ago. His 13 years behind the plate also gave him experience in a position that has a strong team leadership role.

He also prefers to play the role of supporter rather that dictator. Matheny is a professed student of the "servant leadership" theory, the idea that a leader's job is to help others rather than command and control them. According to MLB.com, before he even became the Cardinals' skipper, Matheny began reading a number of books on the topic and chatting with corporate leaders about the concept. After the Cardinals called, he began putting it into practice, staying accessible to his players, keeping in touch with their personal lives, and trying to inspire and encourage rather than scold and browbeat. He's also apparently a heavy chronicler of his life, keeping journals and copious notes to reflect on what he's learned.

The Cardinals' success is, without question, due to a number of important factors that go beyond Matheny's coaching. The franchise has a hugely talented roster with a consistent ability to win, a front office that believes in developing young homegrown players, and a legacy of baseball success that creates an ineffable environment for winning. And yes, there's plenty of baseball left to play in this World Series before we'll know if Matheny's intangible skills are enough to win out over experience.

But Matheny's success so far shows that when leaders approach the game right—making not only the correct strategy calls, but practicing the right leadership style with players—good things are likely to happen. For the best leaders, many of their most valuable skills are hard to fit on a resume.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa and the art of leaving when you're on top

Washington Nationals' Mike Rizzo takes the long view

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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Jena McGregor · October 24, 2013