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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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Leading a Can-Do Culture: The Management Challenge of the Day

In today’s New York Times, David Brooks astutely points out that the challenge for GM is cultural, and not simply structural or financial. He notes:

On Jan. 21, 1988, a General Motors executive named Elmer Johnson wrote a brave and prophetic memo. Its main point was contained in this sentence: “We have vastly underestimated how deeply ingrained are the organizational and cultural rigidities that hamper our ability to execute.”

On Jan. 26, 2009, Rob Kleinbaum, a former G.M. employee and consultant, wrote his own memo. Kleinbaum’s argument was eerily similar: “It is apparent that unless G.M.’s culture is fundamentally changed, especially in North America, its true heart, G.M. will likely be back at the public trough again and again.”

In the final analysis, the challenge of leadership for our times is creating if not refocusing on our notion that we can accomplish things.  Leaders have to take the responsibility for communal and organizational culture.  Before anything else, they have to focus on the sense that we’ve regained our sense of cultural momentum, that we’ve overcome inertia and hesitation has been left behind.

Have you heard, “We have a can-do culture?” Or, “We have a culture that stays on top of things?” Sometimes momentum is a question of your ability to ingrain the culture of the group into the individual. In some organizations, you walk in and you immediately have the sense that they can run with the ball and go the distance. Such a culture is one of “drive.” Consider firefighters. Theirs is a culture full of tradition. They reinforce expected behavior through the stories of the heroic deeds of their brethren, by recounting pivotal events, important people and their actions. They tell and retell stories that subtly and not so subtly communicate how a firefighter is supposed to engage in that organization and that build a sense of belonging among its members. Firefighters take action and extraordinary risk because of their strong sense of mission.  As a result, their focused drive saves lives. The most effective leaders of firefighters are able to sustain momentum by using the firefighter culture to inspire and deliver outstanding commitment and superior performance.

Imagine two groups with comparable resources. One group shows results, while the other can’t seem to get anything done. They start a lot of projects, but they finish nothing. They don’t have the capacity to go the distance. Sure, they may listen to the same CEO give the same call to action. But when it comes to implementing an agenda or demonstrating superior results, even though the teams have similar talent, a similar organization, “the B team” somehow falls short. Their agenda goes unfulfilled. You’ve seen plenty of examples of this. The new product launch, which was so highly touted, turns into a money pit. The reorganization that was supposed to improve customer satisfaction results in customer confusion. The rollout of a performance management system gets stuck in meeting paralysis. The best-laid plans become some of the worst-laid eggs.

In many of these cases, the X factor is cultural momentum. Using value and purpose, the leader of the “A team” created a sense of belonging, commitment, and collaboration among the group’s members. People relate to others in the group. They relate to the group as a whole. In a real sense, they define themselves in relation to the group and/or the initiative. This is the foundation of cultural momentum that will get this team through adversity.