Take Your Team From Worst To First: Leadership Lessons From The Boston Red Sox

John Farrell took his team from the bottom of their division last year to the 2013 World Series with a set of tactics every manager should learn.
October 23, 2013

In one of the biggest sports comeback stories this year, the Boston Red Sox made it to the 2013 World Series, after losing more than 90 games and finishing dead last in the American League East in 2012. Many believe a key to this quick turnaround is the new team manager, John Farrell. 

How did Farrell revive a losing team so quickly? He created a culture that took the Red Sox from "worst to first" by applying some simple management techniques that any business leader can learn from.

Use Influence, Not Authority

Farrell opened the season with a less rigid, more supportive management style. He made sure all his athletes understood what he wanted, then expected them to succeed in meeting those standards while providing whatever support individual athletes needed. Farrell said at the beginning of his tenure that he aimed to "earn their trust, earn their respect, and create an environment in that clubhouse that is a trusting one."

Boston Red Sox John Farrell

"He was more like a father to us than a boss. He let us know from the first day of spring training that he had our backs," slugger David Ortiz said after the team won the American League Championship Series on Saturday.

Takeaway: Any boss can use the threat of their authority to enforce compliance. Great bosses get the job done by creating an environment in which employees want to make them happy.

Celebrate Talent

"We're not going to run from our strengths," Farrell said in an interview with Sporting News. Although any new manager will naturally want to mold a new team into the image of groups that worked for him in the past, Farrell identified the team's consistency and bench strength as key advantages and developed a training program to turn them into an effective weapon. Through his own history as a pitcher and coaching pitchers, he looked outside his expertise to find leaders in other parts of the game.

Takeaway: Yes, it's important to remove weakness from your team. A bloated company is a dying company. But always remember to look for, celebrate and leverage the things your team does well.

Be Ready For Luck

More than one commentator has cited luck as a major reason for the amazing 2013 Red Sox season. That includes, for example, the unlikely set of circumstances that led to the trade of prospect Jose Iglesias for pitcher Jake Peavy, a Cy Young Award winning pitcher with 12 years of major league experience. Peavy anchored the Sox's pitching squad and helped Farrell turn them into into the hit-preventing machine that got them a shot at this year's pennant.

But over the course of a season, breaks, whether lucky or unlucky, even out. The successful teams are those that know a lucky break when they see it—and know how to leverage that luck.

Takeaway: Never blame bad luck or good luck for your results. Sometimes that's true, but it gives you nothing to develop for success in the future. Instead, foster a spirit of opportunity and initiative in your team, so they can take advantage of lucky breaks when they happen.

Know When to Take Chances

Farrell hates intentional walks—a conservative move where a pitcher intentionally throws four balls to prevent giving a powerful hitter a chance at a home run. It trades the chance for a strike out for eliminating the other team's chance of a scoring hit. With such a strong pitching team, Farrell was willing to make the more risky decision time and time again, with clear results. 

Takeaway: There's a point in almost every process where you have to choose between safe mediocrity and risky excellence. Build up your team so they feel comfortable taking the chance.

What famous coaches do you look for when you want leadership inspiration? Let us know in the comments below.

Jason has contributed over 2,000 blog and magazine articles to local, regional and national publications. He speaks regularly at writing and business conferences. 

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