As a newcomer to the Boston area I rejoiced on Friday night when the Red Sox clinched the division championship in the Eastern baseball league. I started reading about how the Red Sox evolved from worst to first in just a year. With many players upping their game this season, this turnaround could teach us lessons on organizations and leadership.
This team is without superstars, sports commentator Glenn Stout said. It exported its star players to the LA Dodgers last year. And without too much pressure at the season’s beginning, remaining players started improving. They became a cohesive team, partly also due to the marathon bombings in April. That Boston tragedy gave the Red Sox the extra purpose to support the city’s recovery. “We all love each other, and we play for each other”, said first baseman Mike Napoli during Friday night’s celebration. And the players grow beards together, which they tug in a sign of camaraderie.
One lesson from this is that taking some dominant personalities away can raise the effectiveness of a team in certain situations. This is counterintuitive, as organizations tend to focus on their vocal and authoritative voices in deciding on their direction.
Another management insight comes from the way in which Daniel Nava rediscovered the type of hitter he is. Nava had lost his way by trying to hit the ball out of the fields. “A lot of times, we want to change players,” assistant hitting coach Rodriguez said. “We want to make them do something they’re not, and that’s why they struggle. We have to allow them to be themselves”. In trying to improve performance of staff, boosting what they do well already is more efficient than focusing on unrealistic goals.
Before someone starts thinking that the Red Sox are a loving club of hippie beard growers nurturing their existing talents, let’s bring in the general manager John Farrell who joined the Red Sox in 2013. Farrell is a six-foot-four tall guy who commands attention when he enters a room, and is described as disciplined and outspoken.
Farrell gives space to development opportunities. He said that there have been “a couple of situations where you want to see a guy, how he responds to it. Not to say that you’re looking to sacrifice a game, but the opportunity for growth in a certain moment can far outweigh maybe some negative results”. Farrell clearly thinks beyond the short-term and is ready to sacrifice immediate benefits for longer term gains.
He uses candor and courageous conversations. Jim Donaldson writes that he would have scoffed back in April at the idea of John Lackey pitching brilliantly. But back in February, at a time when Lackey was taking a beating, Farrell said that the pitcher was “misunderstood”, and that they had a frank conversation about Lackey’s physical and other struggles.
Farrell is a naturally curious person who asks a lot of questions and wants to know how everything works, says his older brother. He gathers views. He uses his authority not just to decide but also to consult. And he searches for allies before deciding. The decision on the playoff rotation of players and on who will start in post-season Game 1 needs, in Farrell’s words, “a lot of internal discussion”.
When Farrell was still the pitching coach at the Red Sox a few years ago, star player Dustin Pedroia – who is not a pitcher – would talk to him every day about all aspects of the game. Farrell seems to have a natural tendency to break out of his formal role. And he surrounds himself with a diverse staff devoid of yes men. In picking collaborators for a team, decision-makers all too often shy away from hiring people who are different and who will contradict them. It is a losing strategy if you are interested in fleshing out the best solution to problems.
Farrell’s experience at the Toronto Blue Jays ended in failure last season, and he came to Boston clouded in Toronto controversy. He found a losing Red Sox team that sold its star players. Imagine we had been in that role and situation, what goal would we have set for ourselves? Farrell announced at the first Spring training that the Red Sox aimed to become champion of the Eastern league.