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Leadership lessons from baseball

(Photo courtesy of Howard Fero)

The principles of managing a baseball team can apply to leaders in all sorts of fields. That's the conclusion, at least, drawn by Howard C. Fero, the co-author of “Lead Me Out to the Ballgame: Stories and Strategies to Develop Major League Leadership” and an executive coach and director of graduate leadership programs at Albertus Magnus College in Connecticut.

Fero spoke with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up their Center for Government Leadership. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q. Tell me about the leadership model described in your book.

A. We came up with 10 dimensions (or bases) of leadership after interviewing more than 100 Major League Baseball managers, players and executives. The first base is find your passion. As a leader, you need to show everybody else how excited and enthusiastic you are about whatever it is that you’re trying to accomplish. The second base is leading by example. The next base deals with respect and trust. You have to generate trust and respect from the people on your team and also you have to be able to give it back. The fourth base is know your people, whether it’s the utility player, the person who works in the back office or the star salesperson — and know what it is that drives each one of them. The other bases are cultivating relationships, supporting your people, communication, knowing your game, fostering teamwork and creating a winning culture.

Q. Which baseball managers exemplify this model?

A. We spoke with 17 Major League Baseball managers, each of them sharing great stories and strategies with us. Joe Maddon of the Tampa Bay Rays, Bob Melvin of the Oakland A's and the now retired Davey Johnson talked a lot about the importance of having a positive attitude.

Maddon has this great quote. He says, “I walk in the door and I’m the same person every day regardless, win or lose, good or bad.” That really sets the tone. In baseball there are at least 162 games to every season. You’re going to have bad losses. And you can relate that to industry and government. There are going to be bad days at the office. There’s going to be a day where everything goes wrong. How you respond to that really sets the tone of the upcoming days, weeks and months.

Q. What makes for an effective communicator and how can that translate for federal leaders?

A. Melvin talked quite a bit about making sure everyone on the team knows how they factor in to the overall goal and mission. He makes sure that everyone knows what their role is. He’ll look down the line a week from now and see the team will be playing the Yankees, and he knows that one of his backup players does very well against the pitcher they’ll be facing.

So he goes up to that player way in advance and says, "You know what? You’re probably not going to start for the next three days, but a week from now, when we play against this pitcher, you’re going to be our guy. You’re going to go out there and hit the ball like you always do. That’s your day and I want you to prepare yourself for that.” By doing that, he’s empowering his players, letting them know that they’re important to the team and getting them motivated to get ready for their day to shine.

Q. Do you have other examples of managers who communicate effectively?

A. We interviewed Ron Washington, the former Texas Rangers manager. When one of his players made a great play, you would see him shuffling around the dugout dancing. They called it the Washington shuffle, and that’s communicating to his players that he’s happy, he’s excited.

I know we can’t do that in the boardroom, but we can find other ways to share our enthusiasm. That’s going to be individual to whatever organization you’re a part of, and the kind of personality you have, and the relationship you have to your team. But it is important to find a way to bond with players, teammates or employees, and let them know you are there for them.

Q. Were there other ways that baseball managers have motivated players?

A. The first thing that effective managers need to do is to get to know their people. They need to know which workers they have to push in different ways. One example that I heard involved Adam LaRoche of the Washington Nationals. LaRoche told me that when he was in the minor leagues and having a slow day, he would sometimes get to the locker room and see that a manager left an energy drink in his locker. For LaRoche, that inspired him and got him going. Though if the manager did that to somebody else, it might actually have a negative effect.

Read also:

How to show leadership, even if you aren’t the leader

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