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.