Leading like La Russa


Tony La Russa leads the St. Louis Cardinals to another World Series.
October 19, 2011

This piece is part of an On Leadership roundtable on the best managers in baseball today.

Having won eight division titles and one World Series in his time in St. Louis, Tony La Russa’s team once again finds itself on the cusp of greatness. For many, this is a surprise given the team was far from contention with just a month left in the regular season. For the Cardinals, however, winning is expected—and not just because of La Russa’s baseball know-how.

It has to do with environment. As a St. Louis Cardinals fan for some 25 years, I’m keenly aware of the history of this storied franchise (second only to the New York Yankees in World Series titles) and its manager, Tony La Russa. I’m also aware of the shoes La Russa filled when he took the helm in 1996, having succeeded the likes of Whitey Herzog and Joe Torre. Like those two wildly successful managers, La Russa possesses dual talents that make a leader great: adaptability and durability. And he uses them to nurture and sustain a winning atmosphere for the Cardinals.

This is what the most successful leaders today know how to do, whether they manage baseball teams or workforces of thousands. They establish the conditions for their teams to succeed and achieve shared goals, and they are able to harness the collective power of their organizations. This is why, in my work with Deloitte on the practice of collective leadership, we referred to one of the eight different management models as “Captain and Sports Team.”

What makes the “Captains and Sports Team” model different—and very relevant to both baseball and business – is that though a playbook exists, strategy isn’t wholly defined at the outset of the game. Instead, strategy emerges over time based on what happens on the field of play. It takes a uniquely capable leader to approach the game this way, with the confidence and agility needed to adapt.

The business world spends much time these days talking about how the magnitude and velocity of change are making the current leadership environment particularly challenging. For help, I’d say we should look to baseball. The game is a prime example of a dynamic environment requiring a high degree of adaptability to ever-changing circumstances.

Much of the success of one team versus another hinges on the ability of players to predict each other’s actions on the field. A strong team finds itself functioning quite often on instinct. While the goal is always to win the game by outscoring the opponent, strategy emerges over time through reactions to situations that arise during the game.

A great manager like La Russa is a catalyst on the field who interprets the actions of the competition, disseminates valuable intelligence about those actions and coordinates the team’s responses. He is essentially a member of the team, very closely connected to what’s happening on the field. He is there with the team during the game, in the clubhouse and at practice. And he is an ever-present, real-time communicator with the players, but not overwhelming in the “command-and-control” sense that we see in other forms of leadership.

Consistently successful baseball teams—those like the Cardinals that seem to be in contention nearly every season—have a high degree of shared identity. The best managers have a unique ability to get extremely talented (and very well-paid) stars to trust each other and play together. With big-game talent and sometimes even bigger egos to deal with, the manager’s ongoing challenge often centers on how to create and keep a sense of belonging.

A manager like La Russa makes an effort to understand the players, bring them together and sustain an environment that balances freedom with accountability, control with discipline. And the key factor in all of this? Pride.

Players (and employees) have pride. While the downside of pride can be big egos, or bruised egos, the wonderful upside is the opportunity it represents to create strong camaraderie and trust among the team, two ingredients that can substantially affect success on the field. A proud team will play harder and will fight to the very end, even when it finds itself 10 games out of a playoff spot during the last week of August as the Cardinals did this year.

So will La Russa’s Cardinals beat Ron Washington’s Texas Rangers in the World Series? The coaches, players and fans of only one team will have their dreams realized. But given La Russa’s intangibles – short-term adaptability and long-term durability—“Cards” fans like me can rest assured that the conditions exist for our team to be winners year in and year out.

James H. Quigley is the former CEO of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited and currently a senior partner in its U.S. member firm. He is also co-author of As One: Individual Action, Collective Power (2011).

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Read More:

Tom Peters: There’s no such thing as the best manager in baseball

John Baldoni: How Jim Leyland came to manage the Detroit Tigers

Michael Haupert: Why the Brewers have the best manager in the game

Henry Olsen: How Tony La Russa rewrote the book

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