Sunday, August 27, 2006

You go, Jim Leyland!

Long ago, when I used to live in Pittsburgh, I spent four years as a season ticket holder for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Those were great years to be a Pirates fan, with an all-star lineup that won their division three years in a row.

But ironically, my greatest pleasure wasn’t sitting in the stands taking in the game. It was driving to the stadium and listening to manager Jim Leyland’s pre-game show on my car radio. He was so refreshingly different from the in-your-face, win-at-all-costs types of sports coaches that I grew up with. Leyland, more than just about anyone I’ve ever heard in the sports world, seemed to understand that winning was a matter of doing the fundamentals well AND respecting and motivating your team.

This meant that when the Pirates lost a game, he could dispassionately talk about what went wrong in terms of mechanics, rather than criticizing people – and when they won, he could still see where the basics needed to improve. Never once did I ever hear this accessible, plain-spoken man say anything uncharitable about a player, even if he had just given up seven runs in an inning. More important, the way he talked about the interaction between him and his team, there was clearly a bond of respect on both sides – and he consistently got the best out of everyone, from nervous rookies to prima-donna All Stars.

Today, of course, Jim Leyland is the manager of the once-lowly Detroit Tigers, who have gone from nearly setting a modern-day loss record in 2003 to the best record in baseball today – and to listen to him talk following a recent losing streak, it’s clear that his approach hasn’t changed: “I haven't been ranting and raving. We're not going to panic. What's been happening to us is what happens to every team in baseball. … We're not going to have meetings or all this urgency. It doesn't work that way."

Even with the playoffs temptingly in sight over the next month, his perspective on winning is refreshing, "Either we're good enough or we're not. You have to keep playing. If it's good enough, we'll still be playing in October. If not, we'll go home. We'll find out."

A fitting postscript to the Tigers’ success story comes from Lloyd McClendon, one of Leyland’s players during the Pirates’ glory years who now serves as one of his coaches in Detroit. Recently, he was honored by Little League baseball for hitting a record five home runs in five at-bats as a youngster in the 1971 finals against Taiwan – but his speech focused on another situation, namely being on the mound as Taiwan scored seven runs in the 9th inning and beat his team. "It was a very defining moment in my life when I had my coach and my dad say, 'It's OK, you did the best that you could do and we're very proud of you,"' he said, and went on to say that moment "should be a model for all coaches, all parents and all communities."

So, if you manage people in business, how do you react when they mess something up – even very badly? How much time do you spend coaching them on the mechanics of what they do? And how much respect do they feel from you when they walk in the door each morning? If the attitude and morale in your workplace could be better, take a page from some of the best minds in baseball – currently to be found on the bench at Comerica Park in Detroit – and see what happens.

“Tigers Slam Four Homers in Rout of Indians”, AP Sports, 8/27/06
“Tigers' McClendon Honored for Homer Feat”, AP Sports, 8/26/06

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