This piece is part of an On Leadership roundtable on the best managers in baseball today.
“I suppose that it was an important part of McGraw’s great capacity for leadership that he would take kids out of the coal mines and out of the wheat fields and make them walk and talk and chatter and play ball with the look of eagles.”
In the New York World Telegraph in 1923, sportswriter Hayward Hale Broun wrote these words of famed New York Giants manager John McGraw. And 88 years later, as another baseball season draws to a close, the manager selected mid-season to lead the Washington Nationals shows something of the same leadership capacity.
An All-Star second baseman and well-respected manager, Davey Johnson has done outstanding work this season to mold the Nationals into a true team, whose dramatic third-place finish bodes well for their future as a playoff competitor in the National League.
Leadership in a baseball organization is no less challenging, and may be even more critical, than it is in your typical business organization. The employees here are not only skilled but elite, highly paid and, at times, temperamental professional athletes. The ability to motivate, train, counsel, cajole and shape individual players into a team is a challenge that only a few great managers have really achieved.
There are a few key hallmarks of leadership in this world of baseball management, and Johnson is fast picking up on them. First, he has espoused the type of managerial optimism brought into fashion by former Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox, an optimism that says success is attributed to individuals—but failure is attributed to bad luck, external factors or short-term problems that will correct themselves. Veteran sportswriter Dave Shearon examined this phenomenon with a 1986 statistical analysis of National League teams, and found that teams with optimistic explanatory styles performed better under pressure (defined as hitting with runners in scoring position during the last three innings).
Davey Johnson took over a Nationals team that was plagued by early season injuries and somewhat demoralized. With a low-key approach, Johnson created a “can do” motivated clubhouse that led to a remarkable finish, and a strong expectation of future success.
According to a 1988 study of manager and player interactions, baseball managers behave more like mid-level management than upper-level executives, given their regular and direct contact with their teams. This means the manager’s communication skills provide critical leadership benchmarks, since they directly influence player motivation and effort, individually and collectively.
If we look to the current World Series contenders, we see St. Louis manager Tony La Russa’s effective communications with superstar Albert Pujols as a prime example of this. The spring training contract dispute could have easily turned into a season-long distraction, if not for La Russa’s communications skills. And Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington’s straight shooting approach to his players created unusual incentives that drove their commitment to winning baseball games.
Davey Johnson’s determination to know and understand his Nats players, and his willingness to have open communication on an individual and team basis, similarly played a strong role in leading the team to a third place finish in the National League East. The players publicly complimented Johnson for his leadership in making the clubhouse a hospitable place where discussion was valued. Moreover, Johnson’s ability to work effectively with General Manager Mike Rizzo on strategic personnel issues reflects credit on both the front office and the clubhouse leaders—and the results showed on the field.
In a professional sport like baseball, where player talent and organizational characteristics are very comparable among the many teams, innovation can make the deciding difference. Tony La Russa’s management of his bullpen, Charlie Manual’s starting rotation decisions for Philadelphia, and Ron Washington’s lineup shifts for the Rangers demonstrate how agility can control the outcome.
Johnson’s version of this was to make savvy adjustments in the outfield and at first base, and to develop new strategies in the set-up and closer positions for the Nationals. La Russa, Washington, Leland, Phillips—they’re all accomplished leaders and managers. Yet even with his young team, Davey Johnson has earned the right to join this elite club. His players, like McGraw’s, played with the look of eagles.
Mark Tuohey served as chair of the District of Columbia Sports and Entertainment Commission from 2004 to 2007, during which time he oversaw the return of major league baseball to D.C. He is currently a partner at the law firm Brown Rudnick.
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