Friday, October 12, 2012

How a great leader handles failure

The US sportswriter Joe Posnanski wrote a great piece on Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson. Posnanski points out that Johnson has won everywhere he's been (New York Mets, LA, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and now in Washington) and that, almost without exception, the teams got worse after he left.

One episode stood out as instructive for leaders wanting to learn how to manage their teams through failure:

I asked a close Nationals observer what Johnson has done so well this year, and he told a little story that has a lot more to do with presence than anything else. In July, the Nationals were a huge surprise … but there were plenty of people who did not expect the winning to last. Washington started a four-game series against the Braves, the team in second place at the time, and promptly blew a 9-0 lead, eventually losing 11-10 in extra innings.

How did Johnson respond? He told the press that he had managed the worst game of his life. He could not believe how bad he had been as a manager. "Obviously, when they score 10 runs, that's my fault," he said. And "I've got to live with it."

"It was genius," the observer said. "He took every bit of the responsibility. He didn't say a single word about the players. He didn't say a single word about how they had to move on and forget it. He took all the blame. He talked about how he had let the guys down. And they split the series, and took off from there."

When Posnanski uses the word "presence" he means composure, self-awareness, and perspective. A loss, even a devastating loss, was merely one game out of 162. Johnson's team is young. If he lost his composure - if he overreacted to this one game - it would send the wrong message to this team, that an embarrassing loss is somehow more meaningful than any old loss. By taking the blame, he opened space for the players to forgive themselves and move on.

Johnson's motto, keep yourself "not too high, not too low," can help every leader.

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