Saturday’s rally to celebrate the Washington Nationals World Series Championship was—intended or not—a masters class in leadership and team building.
The lessons were outlined by speaker after speaker from the stage, and they began with a facing of reality.
Before he passed away in 2017, Max DePree was the retired CEO of the furniture and design pacesetter Herman Miller. Through the years I’ve come to appreciate his definition of leadership, and especially his thoughts on the responsibilities of leaders. DePree said that the first duty of a leader is to define reality.
On May 24th, with almost a third of their season over, the Nationals record stood at 19-31. Twelve games under .500. Their chance of winning the World Series on that date was a miniscule 1.5%. From the outside, it appeared that the reality wasn’t good.
But there were reasons—primarily but not exclusively a rash of injuries to key players—that led to the bad start, and the reality was that those injured players were beginning to return. It was also clear that some elements of the team—for example the relief pitching—were not working as planned and changes were needed to fix those particular problems. The team’s management, understanding this reality, didn’t panic, although the fan base and most pundits were writing them off. Those injured players returned, changes were made to the pitching staff, and the level of play immediately improved.
The second lesson we heard on Saturday was to address the things you can address, and don’t get caught up in the overwhelming nature of the task ahead.
Manager Dave Martinez began telling his players, “Let’s go 1-0 today.” That was the thing over which they had some measure of control: they could work hard to win that day’s game. If the team had focused on what they had to overcome to win the World Series, there would have been no rally on Saturday. Instead, as Martinez explained, they focused on winning the day. And he made the point to the crowd that we should all wake up tomorrow with the same thought: Let’s go win the day.
The third lesson came from General Manager Mike Rizzo, who noted that everyone was on the same page.
While others were shoveling dirt on their figurative graves and counting them out, the team itself was focused. “Not one person pointed a finger, no anonymous quotes, no clubhouse lawyers, no backbiting,” Rizzo told the crowd. The longest-tenured National and face-of-the-franchise player Ryan Zimmerman put Rizzo’s role this way: “He’s huge on chemistry and clubhouse stuff, not bringing in bad teammates, not bringing in bad guys. Before he makes, really, any sorts of moves, he will reach out to us and ask if we’ve heard anything about this player or that player.”
In an age awash in data, the Nationals cared about chemistry as much as what’s quantifiable. It was never about one person, but it was about the team. Max DePree was famous for his support of inclusive corporations, and that’s what the Nationals were building.
The fourth lesson was simple. Have some fun. This isn’t brain surgery.
When Gerardo “Baby Shark“ Parra was added to the team in May, coming off the baseball scrap heap, he looked around and asked, “Why’s everyone so tight?” So he proceeded to choose a silly children’s song that his 2-year-old likes as the walk-up tune to be played when he came to bat, leading to an entire stadium making shark-like chomping motions with their hands and a huge boost in sales of shark costumes in the Washington region. He found some funny looking rose-colored sunglasses while the team was in Detroit and began wearing them every day and every night in the dugout. With other Nationals, Parra instituted a dugout dance party, where every player who hit a home run had to come into the dugout and dance while his teammates clapped hands and beat the water coolers like a drum. He even instituted a group hug for famous pitcher—and famous introvert—Stephen Strasburg after an especially meaningful Game 3 outing in the League Championship Series.
Some things are very serious. But for much of work and life, adults who feel the need to always be “mature” take away the joy that is there just below the surface.
The final lesson: not every destination will be reached by traveling the superhighways of life.
When the Nationals won the League Championship round to gain their first World Series berth in franchise history, Manager Dave Martinez was asked about the journey from 19-31 to the game’s top showcase. He said he was reminded of something his mother told him.
“Bumpy roads often lead to beautiful places.”
Simple, but true.
Baseball is loved by so many people because of how it uses a game to showcase life lessons. At a rally attracting tens of thousands of people on Saturday, we learned several lessons on leadership and team-building:
- Understand your reality.
- Go and win the day.
- Build an inclusive team chemistry.
- Have fun, this isn’t brain surgery.
- And remember, bumpy roads do lead to beautiful places.
More to come…