Of course a leader expects his or her people to win—to perform at their best, to accomplish their goals. But subtle differences in how that leader demonstrates their belief in that expectation often makes the difference between a winning performance and falling a little short. This week’s podcast takes an object lesson from the American League Division Series.
After a September slump, the Toronto Blue Jays under the leadership of Manager John Gibbons made an incredible turnaround coming into October. They won the winner-take-all wild card game against Buck Showalter’s Baltimore Orioles. And, they swept the Texas Rangers in three straight games in the division series. Texas – the best team in the American League throughout the regular season with an impressive .586 winning percentage – had home field advantage.
Sportswriter Cathal Kelly, writing in the Globe and Mail, observed that the Jays showed up and played like they “expected to win.” In baseball, which has been called a game of inches, that expecting-to-win mindset seems to have made the difference between continuing on to face Cleveland in the Championship Series, and doing whatever ballplayers do in the off season.
In each of the do-or-die games – the wild card against Baltimore, and the elimination game against Texas at Toronto’s Rogers Centre – the difference between winning and losing may well have come down to a final pitching choice made by each manager. Their respective choices demonstrate their in-use belief of that “expecting-to-win” mindset. Both games were tied after the ninth and went into extra innings. In this case, the manager has to make a decision whether to use their “closer” – a one or two-inning pitcher typically used to end a game. The other choice is to hold the closer in reserve in case the game remained tied into the 10th, 11th, or subsequent innings. Buck Showalter chose to leave his closer, Zach Britton, on the bench. Similarly, Texas Rangers’ manager, Jeff Banister, held back his closer, Sam Dyson, even though he was warmed up and ready to go.
Contrast this with Toronto’s John Gibbons. In a post-game interview after advancing to the ALCS, Gibbons said that he decided to “roll the dice” with his star closer, Roberto Osuna, for the 9th and 10th innings, knowing that if the game went to 11, Osuna would no longer be available. In doing so, rather than capriciously playing dice with the Blue Jays’ post-season aspirations, Gibbons demonstrated one of the most powerful, confidence-building leadership principles: He effectively said to his team: “I trust that you will do your jobs exceptionally, so I can take a calculated risk and give up control in favour of your autonomy.” Contrast that with the other two managers who effectively, if subtly, said to their teams, “Just in case you guys don’t come through, I’ll hold a little something in reserve. I have to be in control.”
Leaders often have systems of “checking up,” from weekly status meetings through to goal-accomplishment performance reviews. All of these essentially say, “I don’t completely trust that you’ll do what we need you to do, so I have to remain in control.” On the other hand, leaders who are truly in tune with growing Scalable Capability among their workforce act as John Gibbons did: they check-in, provide what might be necessary to support success, and let their team play with autonomy and agency, getting on with the job of winning.