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The art of leadership

Ask the person next to you to name a great manager, and chances are they’ll plump for someone from the world of sport. To prove my point, I asked Ruhi and she named Simon Fuller, the erstwhile manager of the erstwhile Spice Girls. (That reminds me why I never ask Ruhi when I want a point proved. But I digress.)

Anyhow, I saw a programme on Sky Sports the other day about the great Nottingham Forest team of the late 70s/early 80s, and the interview footage with Brian Clough reminded me what an incredible leader he was. To take two middling Midlands sides to the top of the league and then on to Europe was a sure sign that he was a managerial genius. Being able to deliver success after inheriting mediocrity in two different environments takes luck out of the equation, which is what separates Ferguson and Clough from Shankly, Nicholson, Wenger, Revie etc. in my mind.

As I watched Sunderland at Crystal Palace last night, the dreadful football on show didn’t manage to distract me from the still-bloody-incredible fact that Sir Alex managed to win several trophies with one of John O’Shea or Wes Brown in his side. If that’s not managerial genius, I don’t know what is.

I’m now a manager, of sorts. I have people to manage. I like to think I am able to motivate them, occasionally inspire them, possibly teach them. Invariably they achieve all of the above for me. So it’s natural that I should look to other great managers for inspiration. But Clough’s genius always seemed to stem from his charisma, and Ferguson’s from the peculiar combination of fear and affection he instilled in his charges. I’m not very scary.

In other words, their distinctive individual characters – characters that can’t just be replicated – seem to account for much of their success. Not much chance of copying those two.

So what of others? Duncan Fletcher? Andy Flower? Jose Mourinho? Pep Guardiola? I’m not convinced. The greatest living manager, as far as I can tell, has just embarked on the stage of his career which will reveal whether he is worth mentioning in the same breath as Clough and Ferguson, or whether he’s just another one-club wonder.

His name is Joe Maddon. You may or may not have heard of him.

maddon

In 2006, he landed his first proper managerial job when he was appointed to lead the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the worst team in Major League Baseball. The Devil Rays were terrible. They had only been in existence since 1998, and had never had a winning season (i.e. won more games than they lost). This wasn’t entirely their fault: they had been placed in the American League East with the Yankees, Red Sox, Orioles and Blue Jays. Which is a bit like sticking Bishop’s Stortford FC in the Premier League. They had a relatively tiny budget for players, and were forced to play almost half of their fixtures against some of the best teams in baseball. Every year.

Even worse, they drew most of their support from Tampa and St Petersburg, home to thousands (many thousands) of displaced Yankees fans (the Yankees have their training camp in Tampa and boast significant local support too).

It seemed like Maddon, who had never managed in the big leagues, was on a hiding to nothing. And this is where it gets interesting.

Making Tampa Bay better wasn’t necessarily impossible; the team had been so poor for so long it had acquired a pot of good young talent through the draft (US sport is fastidious about helping poorer teams strengthen, which is counter-intuitive, I know). But most judges thought they would only improve sufficiently to lose less embarrassingly. Indeed in the 2007 season Tampa Bay still had the worst record in baseball.

But in 2008, they won the American League East. They reached the World Series (where they lost to Philadelphia). In 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013, they had winning records, reaching the playoffs regularly (this is no mean feat in baseball). And they did all this with the lowest budget in the major leagues.

Joe Maddon’s management was quite probably the reason why they were so good. In a world full of David Brent-alikes, Maddon managed to come up with simple slogans that summarised his team’s goals, or find genuinely witty or insightful quotes that demanded attention rather than derision. He is most famous (in baseball circles) for the freedom his gives his players. While other teams’ managers micromanage every aspect of their players lives (and games), Maddon famously asks his players to “have fun and run hard to first base”. The latter part of that – insisting that all players run hard and fast to the base regardless of how likely they were to make it – is, ironically pretty much his only hard and fast rule. Players who didn’t were benched. By doing this, Maddon made it clear that he trusted these highly-skilled, highly-paid professionals. He let them do their thing. This, in turn, strengthened the team.

Joe Maddon

Another aspect of Maddon’s genius lay in his ability to relax his players. He “kept the clubhouse loose” and introduced themed fancy-dress away trips that became notorious across the States. Some more traditional baseball types couldn’t disguise their disdain for Maddon’s methods, but the results spoke for themselves.

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Meanwhile the players, to a man, speak with reverence about his personal skills; his ability to give them total and utter belief in themselves. This was no one-size-fits-all policy: Maddon was tough with some and tender with others. He was able to work out what worked for each individual and apply it as necessary. That’s some skill.

But what stands out for me is Maddon’s complete faith in his team and their talents, and his ability to treat success and failure in exactly the same way. In the season that’s just finished, Tampa Bay were tipped by some to win the World Series this year, but instead suffered a disastrous start to the season and endured their first losing season in seven years. Throughout the downturn, Maddon remained upbeat – to the extent that I wondered whether he would change the record as they fell further and futher behind. Ultimately a phenomenal midseason recovery catapulted them back into contention too late, but Maddon was right to trust his players; much of the fault for their early season woes lay in circumstances beyond his control.

Despite the losing season, Maddon had now achieved fairly universal admiration and was often called the best manager in baseball. Analytical, intelligent, relaxed, funny, level-headed…other teams’ fans coveted him. And then, just over a week ago, he left Tampa Bay.

This is already a long piece; do your own research if you want to find out why, or what happened next. But as managerial inspirations go, Joe’s my man. Taking a small, unheralded team that’s full of talent on to glory…

 

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