Above Their Paygrade

As Opening Day approaches for major league baseball ( MLB ), starting lineups are coming together and “hope springs eternal” applies to all squads.  Opening Day is becoming a must-attend ritual for my brother and me; this year our Houston Astros open up against our boyhood favorites, the Cleveland Indians on Monday night, April 6.

The “eternal” part for the Astros centers around the fact that the team’s ownership fired last year’s manager, Bo Porter, and hired AJ Hinch, so he’s about to complete his first spring training for Houston.  It’s interesting that at work a manager’s success is measured principally by the team’s W-L record; that measure, I think, is the outcome of player skill and team chemistry. A former Astros manager, Art Howe ( 1989 – 1993 ), was amused by Drayton McLane’s pep talks to the team about teamwork.  Art’s comeback was “when a 120 mile-per-hour screamer through the infield to the shortstop is fielded and the runner is thrown out at first, not much teamwork was involved”.

So the headline above got my attention.   Culture in baseball?

One constant in baseball is the linear relationship between a player’s skill and his contract salary. Free agency makes it so because players can sign with the highest bidder.   So did the teams with the highest payrolls win?  True, they win, but team championships are dictated by aggregate skills.  In 2014 six teams had larger payrolls than the World Series winning Giants. In 2013 the Red Sox (#4 behind the Dodgers, Yankees and Phillies) beat the St. Louis Cardinals ( #13 ).

There’s an expression about leadership success in sports (managing) the goes something like “the team just did not respond”.   In the article cited above A. J.  ( a 1996 Stanford psychology major ), introduced a couple of “off the field” practices to bond players (although he did not call it that).  He had two rookies, both #1 league draft choices, share the responsibility of interviewing all players and then presenting the findings to the team.  The team learned, for example, that Roberto Pena’s father (a class A-ball catcher in his first big-league camp) was his idol. Roberto’s dad had played shortstop for the Astros (1981– 87).   Important for the team to know?  He just shared his passion for the game and that his dad is the source of that inspiration.

The point? “Clubhouse culture is created on trust,” Hinch said. “It’s created on comfort that the person sitting next to you has your back and you have their back. We all come from different backgrounds. Just building a team that relies on each other, the trust each other, that plays well, is important.”

True bonding comes from permission by leadership to risk trusting … in sports or in business, it is the role of leadership to forge a culture that people love.  It allows everyone to understand how their unique skills are contributing to the leader’s convictions … in this case, about the power of a unified squad ( refreshed by a group of guys understanding that their unified love of the game got them “here” ).   A leader worth following inspires extra effort … now there’s more to play for than just your own batting average and paygrade.

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