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Tommy Lasorda and Cultural Momentum

Although it is politically correct to talk about teams and group efforts with gusto, if you take that rhetoric to the extreme, you end up denying individuals some of their basic needs at work. So, you need to make sure that you are giving individual group members some individual responsibility, which will enable each person to define their role, to tie their work to the broader agenda, and allow each individual to realize, and have some degree of control over, their successes and failures. Talk of teamwork is nice but it is by no means the only key to leading a successful group over the long-term.

Remember Tommy Lasorda, manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers (1976-1996). Lasorda is famous for saying, “My heart bleeds Dodger blue.” Put in a more academic context, Tommy Lasorda’s identity was intertwined with the Dodger organization. He didn’t simply identify with being a major league baseball manager. He was the manager of the L.A. Dodgers. Lasorda tried to create a community where the Dodger players also “bled Dodger blue.” It was that sense of community, in part, that pundits pointed to as a key to the Dodgers’ highly successful string of world championships and World Series appearances between 1976 and 1996. Lasorda was able to keep the players on his side by reinforcing their common affiliation with the organization.

Lasorda understood that free agency was flourishing in major league baseball in the 1970s and 1980s. New players would arrive each year and some well-liked and valuable players might leave. Lasorda didn’t try to create a collective in the sense that each person grew inextricably close to one another to the point that specific players might not be able to play well without each other. That would have been a disaster for the organization and for Lasorda’s ability to effectively lead the group over the long-term. Instead, Lasorda focused on the Dodger brand (uniform) as the unifying source of affiliation, where being part of the organization was, in effect, being a valuable part of the community and leaving the organization was unfortunate, but not crippling to the team’s sense of community. 

When establishing cultural momentum your best bet is to recognize the individual within the group.  Think of a jazz band. There is a pretty set protocol on stage.  The group gets up there and they play the melody or the “head” of any given tune. Then, in turn, each does their solo, first the bass, then the saxophone, then the piano, then the drums.  Then they come back together and play the head again.  There is something in this image that is a lesson in sustaining momentum.  The individual gets credit but the group doesn’t lose its identity. Within the parameter of the collective, there is opportunity for creative rejuvenation and breathing room.

In managing the organizational culture for momentum, you may want to pump up the collective. Talk about “we.”  Keep on heralding, “Together, we’re moving forward.”  The collective will spur them on and give them strength and courage. The collective is where momentum lives in its most mystical sense:  the sports team, the political party, the cutting-edge R & D group.  That sense of collective demands loyalty and adherence to norms and expected behaviors. Because of the danger of taking the group too seriously, the fear of criticism, and the inertia of groupthink, the collective may be the very place where momentum dies.  They won’t be on your side because it all became too much about the “we.”  In sustaining momentum, a managerially competent leader pumps up the collective but never forgets the individual.

(excerpt from my 2006 book KEEP THEM ON YOUR SIDE: Leading And Managing for Momentum)

 DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley
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6 Non-Yogi Berra Baseball Quotes That Will Teach You About Leadership

6. I don’t care how long you’ve been around, you’ll never see it all.  ~Bob Lemon, 1977

When we reach a position of leadership we like to think that we have learned a thing or two. But one of the ways to remain proactive is always remember that you don’t know it all. If you look at each day as a day you might just see, learn, or experience something new, you are ready to be a proactive and engaged leader.

5. You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.  ~Jim Bouton, Ball Four, 1970

Don’t forget that no matter how much you think you’re in control, no matter how much you think you can dictate the future, you must stay flexible. Every time you sit back and say “I’m in control of this situation” there is a good chance that it’s the other way around. There is always a new leadership challenge around the corner that will force you to re-evaluate every aspect of how you do business.

4. You don’t save a pitcher for tomorrow.  Tomorrow it may rain.  ~Leo Durocher, in New York Times, 16 May 1965

In leadership, you can get into a world of trouble if you don’t give each day 100% of your effort and focus. Being a proactive leader means that you must execute each task with your best tools and ideas. You can’t save your best for the next project because if you don’t get things done now there may not be a next project.

3. A game of great charm in the adoption of mathematical measurements to the timing of human movements, the exactitudes and adjustments of physical ability to hazardous chance.  The speed of the legs, the dexterity of the body, the grace of the swing, the elusiveness of the slide – these are the features that make Americans everywhere forget the last syllable of a man’s last name or the pigmentation of his skin.  ~Branch Rickey, May 1960

This isn’t your typical brain-dead baseball quote, but it does prove a point: Leadership, like baseball, isn’t about fancy clothes, Ivy League colleges, pretty faces, or skin color. It’s simply about getting things done. If you have all the skills necessary, if you have learned which tools are needed to execute, then you have the ability to become a proactive leader.

2. Baseball statistics are like a girl in a bikini.  They show a lot, but not everything.  ~Toby Harrah, 1983

Being a successful leader is more than just spreadsheets and bottom lines. If you don’t cultivate those you lead, if you don’t understand how their success is attained, you are heading towards trouble. When people in your team or organization stop achieving success, you need to know exactly how they got to where they are. Otherwise helping them recover will be close to impossible. Take the time to learn what motivates each employee. Learn about their strengths and weaknesses. This way if their numbers slip, you won’t just say “Work harder” or “Sell more or you’re fired”, you will be able to give constructive comments on how they can get things done again.

1. Always play a game with somebody, never against them. Always win a game, never beat an opponent. ~Andrew Bailey

It’s important as a leader to encourage those you lead to be competitive. But nothing good can come of playing people off one another. Don’t make groups fight each other for supremacy. These internecine battles might work in the short term to raise productivity, but in the end it will do nothing but build resentment and destroy any trust you have with your team.

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The Worth of Things

A lot of times things like baseball cards and stamps become worth a great deal of money, not because of their intrinsic value but because of accidental scarcity. Consider Mickey Mantle’s 1952 Topps baseball card that is estimated to be worth around $30,000 today.

There is a good chance that you’ve heard of Mickey Mantle even if you are a baseball novice. He was more than just an athlete; he was and still is a defining part of American culture. The reason this flimsy 2-3/4” x 3-5/8” piece of colored cardboard fetches 5 figures has less to do with his home run power and matinee idol looks and it has more to do with luck.

In 1952 The Topps Company (which, to this day, still makes sports cards) released a set of 407 baseball cards in installments over the course of the baseball season. Mantle’s card was in the last lot of cards released and by the time it came out late in the season, people were more focused on football and other fall sports. The higher-ups at Topps found themselves with tons of merchandise and no one to buy it. So what did they do with all the cards no one wanted? They dumped them into the Atlantic Ocean, thus accidentally creating an instant rarity.

Here’s the only problem with this story and those like it: collector’s items can rarely be consciously created, most of the time they have to emerge organically. Lots of companies try to sell us their junk by saying like “Only 100 made!” or “Available for a Limited Time Only!” but most of the time these “rare” items end up in dollar store discount bins and in neglected eBay auctions

It happened in the baseball card industry. Once greed set in, collecting cards went from a hobby to a business. Everyone was trying to find, or for that matter create, the next 1952 Mantle. By the late 1980’s the card companies realized that they could make a mint from what had previously been a children’s toy and flooded the market with pre-packaged, limited-run, “collectibles.” As more companies jumped into the business (Fleer, Donruss, Upper Deck, etc.) merchandise began to clog shelves. By the late 1990s the whole business went bust and many of us were left with closets filled with worthless memorabilia.

The moral to this story is two fold. First, things gain worth for more than just the obvious reasons. Mickey Mantle is an American legend and Hall of Fame baseball player, but his most expensive card got that way because of a twist of fate. Second, you can’t always create “worth” and if you actively try to it will often have the opposite effect. Things (and people) gain worth through an organic process that combines quality, need, patience, and, more often than not, a little bit of dumb luck.

Picture Credit: National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum

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When Tough Decisions Come Back to Haunt You: 2009 World Series

CC_SabathiaNew Yorkers are brimming with pride, joy, worry, gossip, and possibly some jealously as the Yankees continue to fight for the World Series title. The streets are flooded with Yankees caps, shirts, and bags making the odd Philly fan feel even more out of place.

It’s a great time of year.

Game 1, clinched by the Phillies in last night’s Bronx rain cloud, wasn’t fun for Yankee fans…but it might have been decidedly more gut-wrenching for Cleveland Indians fans.

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Even Great Leaders Can Drop the Ball

Assume nothing because things happen even when you’re sure you’ve won!