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Joe Maddon’s Lessons In Authentic Leadership

by Rand Golletz

Note From Rand

A month left before Labor Day. I’m at a point in my life at which it feels like I have breakfast every fifteen minutes. I look in the mirror, and I still feel like I look as I did when I was thirty … until I look at a photo of myself at that age. My birthday is in four weeks. Someone PLEASE send me some spackle for my face. But I digress …

This month’s column is about Joe Maddon. Joe is the low-key and cerebral manager of MLB’s Chicago Cubs. Among baseball people, he is known to march to his own drummer. When I was a corporate executive, people said that about me. I like quirky rule-breakers. Joe certainly is one. You’ll enjoy learning how his approach to his job and his life can be instructive for you.

Until next month and as always: Get real, get tough, and get going!

Joe Maddon’s Lessons In Authentic Leadership

Joe Maddon looks like Clark Kent with white hair. He’s played tambourine and sung backup with Jimmy Buffet. Joe didn’t become a major league manager until he had been a minor league manager and major league position and bench coach for decades. When he interviewed for the Boston Red Sox job over a decade ago, he was passed over by Sox GM Theo Epstein, who selected Terry Francona. It proved to be a wise decision by Epstein. Francona led the Red Sox to two World Series championships in 2004 and 2007. They hadn’t previously won one since 1918

Maddon went on to become the Manager of the Tampa Bay Rays in 2006. During the next eight years, the Rays became and remained a serious contender, despite having a payroll that was among the lowest in baseball and fan support in the Tampa/St. Petersburg region that was tepid, at best.

Fast forward to 2014. Theo Epstein had gone on to become the General Manager of the Chicago Cubs. They hadn’t gone to the World Series since 1945 and hadn’t won one since 1908. He vividly remembered his discussion with Maddon over a decade earlier: his self-confidence, his humility, his belief that players win ball games, not managers, and his quirky sense of humor. Per Epstein: “Comparing Joe now (2014) to when I interviewed him a decade ago, his confidence has reached a new level because he has done it, and it has worked.” Epstein continued: “He knows he can connect. He knows that all he has to do is be himself and he can lead and he can win. That’s why we feel he’s our long-term fit as a leader.”

The prior three paragraphs are the “what.” Here’s the “so what:”

• The Cubs are in a position to win their Division and are recognized as one of the best-led teams in baseball.

• When he took over Tampa Bay, Joe had to have a lot of tough conversations with players who were not as good as they thought they were. He delivered those messages in a very direct but modulated way. His tone never overwhelmed his message. He demonstrated that you can be tough-minded without being a jerk. Many leaders only deliver difficult messages with an accompaniment of yelling, threatening, and fist-pounding. Those leaders are either unaware that their message gets lost, or they are less concerned with effective impact than they are about being perceived as “the man.”

• Continuing with the last point, when Joe delivered those messages, the receiver would often whine to teammates. Virtually always, those teammates turned a deaf ear, instead supporting their manager. Joe had built credibility that enabled his PERFORMERS to manage the locker room. His words: ” … when the fans are looking for a definition as to why I let the players handle it, why the clubhouse is so important, why you have to have leadership within the clubhouse (among the players), it’s because when you do, these little pockets looking for allies in a negative sense, they get blown up immediately by the guys. I’m pretty sure that we have that now where the negative component cannot prosper because the guys in the clubhouse get it.”

• One of Maddon’s mantras is “don’t let the pressure exceed the pleasure.” He understands that baseball is a boy’s game played by men for LOTS OF MONEY. Often times, their inclination is to forget that it should be fun. As the manager in Tampa Bay, he famously brought in dogs, penguins and snakes to lighten the clubhouse mood. As skipper of the Cubs, he had players take a night flight in their pajamas. Those stories only scratch the surface. The best business leaders know when to take their feet off of the gas. They frequently lighten things up during tough times and put the pedal to the metal harder when things are going well.

• This point is more easily understood if you saw the movie “Moneyball,” or read the book. We’re now in an era when teams often either slavishly embrace “Moneyball” type statistical analysis or completely repudiate it – favoring an old-school, more instinctive approach to managing. Maddon embraces detailed statistical analysis combined with his intuition and instincts. Effective leaders never blindly embrace new approaches, nor do they desperately cling to tradition. They “pick the best and leave the rest.”

• Joe remains positive without being a Pollyanna. Amid a tough streak or when a young player makes an obvious bone-headed play, Maddon always remains positive and extracts life and baseball lessons that he discusses with his players later. He neither beats up (figuratively) his players in face-to-face meetings nor embarrasses them in post game press conferences. He literally views life and baseball as opportunities to learn and CHANGE. He doesn’t ignore negative lessons. Rather he uses them in a productive way. When it’s “hitting the fan” in your business, do you do likewise?

• He tries hard not to be the center of attention. He will occasionally do charity events or a TV spot, but most of the time he remains low key. During games, he stands passively in a space at the end of the dugout carefully assessing what’s going on and planning his next moves. He always has an “if this, then that” plan(s) A, B, and C. He never takes undue credit. I’ve seen corporate managers who employ a “zero sum game” perspective when it comes to getting and to giving credit. They operate as if there’s a finite amount of credit for a job well done and that if their players get credit, there’s none left for them. Just plain bulls*&t. How about you?

Even though I’m a fan, I used to roll my eyes into the back of my head when someone talked about sports as a metaphor for life. I no longer do that. Management is about getting people to DO what needs to be done. Leadership, in any arena, is about getting people to WANT TO DO what needs to be done.

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