What Baseball Teaches About Leading When Expectations Are High or Failure Is Certain

Leaders of teams of whom much is expected face a specific kind of personal pressure due to the immense talent at their disposal Photograph by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Taking a good company and making it great, counsels management guru Jim Collins, requires a leader to get the right people on the bus. The folksy metaphor is illusory, because in the real world leaders are handed a set of keys, pointed toward a bus full of people, and told, “Drive.” Such is the lot of Major League Baseball managers who (like many leaders) have some, but not complete, control over the composition of their teams. Budget constraints, contractual obligations, political considerations of higher-ups, etc., all play a role—along with more obvious considerations such as talent and motivation—in who ultimately gets on the bus.

As the 2013 baseball season dawns, each of the 30 managers is coming to terms with the level of talent on his bus. For at least half of the skippers, the season begins with very little chance of winning the World Series. Las Vegas oddsmakers—and an untold number of gamblers—have handicapped each team’s chances. We’ve sorted the teams into four groups based on their perceived likelihood of winning the Fall Classic. In the first group of teams, which we’ll call the Favorites (Vegas odds of 8:1 or better), are the Detroit Tigers, Washington Nationals, Toronto Blue Jays, and both of the Los Angeles teams, the Angels and Dodgers. The second group, which we call the Contenders, includes the Atlanta Braves and New York Yankees, among others. The Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs are among the next group, call them Long shots; members face odds up to 99:1. The final group of teams we’ll call Teams Without a Shot, as their odds currently are pegged at 100:1 or longer.

The four different forecasts—Favorites, Contenders, Long shots, and Teams Without a Shot—each present different management challenges for leaders. For example, the prospect of being on the bus for 162 games leading a team without a shot is daunting. Perhaps at some point in your career you’ve been on a team—or perhaps even led one—facing the very high expectations that Mike Scioscia’s Angels do this season. Or maybe you held a position that helps you identify with the challenges faced by Bo Porter, whose Houston Astros bus is filled with players given a 1-in-300 shot to win the World Series. Leadership commentary is rife with advice on how to lead from the middle of the pack to the forefront (e.g., Collins’ own Good to Great), so here we offer a few suggestions for leaders of teams with high expectations and those of whom very little is expected.

When Second Place Is Last Place

Distribute the expectations. Leaders of teams of whom much is expected face a specific kind of personal pressure due to the immense talent at their disposal and the opportunities—for great success and great failure—it presents. Some leaders unproductively accept all the responsibility for the team’s success, compounding high expectations with an often-paralyzing, It’s-All-On-Me stress. More useful for the leader with lofty expectations is enthusiastically to distribute the responsibility for the team’s success among team members, encouraging the team to own the opportunities they have earned. After all, it is their superlative talents that have upped the ante for the team, so to speak, so the savvy leader encourages all team members to embrace the expectations, and then lets team members do what they do best. The buck always stops with the leader, of course, but championing a sense of individual ownership in team success is critical to leading when anything but the best result is simply not acceptable.

Keep calm and carry on. Ambitious expectations also heighten team anxiety, and when challenges do arise, there often is a tendency for negative, sky-is-falling perceptions to percolate and amplify among the team. These perceptions can dangerously strengthen as they spread among the team, and it is critical that a leader communicate a keen understanding of the pertinent issues, an unwavering urgency to address them, and above all else, an unflappable demeanor to signal to the team that the leader is, indeed, leading—and to serve as an antidote to panic among the members. Never more than in stressful situations are leaders needed, and when the stakes are highest, the message must be unequivocal: We have this under control.

High expectations are not for everyone. A final tip leaders of such praised teams can keep in mind is that high expectations are an index of belief in the team as voiced by other important constituents. Reinforcing the idea that expectations are a measure of others’ confidence in our team should bolster a team’s own belief in itself and, ideally, strengthen the team’s pride in its objectives. “If it were easy, anyone could do it,” the saying goes.

When Little Is Expected
Be honest. People generally are quite good at detecting when those closest to us are being less than forthright and truthful, and members of Teams Without a Shot are no exception. Like all leaders, those in charge of teams populated by B, C, and D players must avoid the temptation to paint an unrealistically rosy picture for team members. Doing so creates the risk that team members will view them as disconnected from reality or, worse, dissembling in a manner that members might find insulting. Bo Porter’s Houston Astros know their roster is not as talented as Mike Scioscia’s Angels, and to tell them they are insults their intelligence and compels them to question anything else they are told. This is not to endorse the notion of reinforcing the idea of inferiority but rather to remind leaders of even Teams Without a Shot that everyone responds to honesty and candor from their leaders.

Set the cultural standard. Leading a team with less than A-level talent does not involve resignation to the idea that the task is hopeless. Leaders have a unique opportunity to create a Contender-like culture in an alternate setting. A leader’s behavior establishes the prevailing model for “How Things Are Done,” and a leader who embodies diligence, accountability, flexible thinking, and selflessness—characteristics of Contenders—increases the likelihood those attributes will flourish among his team members. Modeling and insisting on behaviors characteristic of A players will not by itself raise the average talent level of B, C, or D players, but doing so is a necessary step toward getting the most from them.

Adjust your own expectations. It’s often the case that someone gains a position of leadership because he or she demonstrated extreme competence in previous roles. For such a talented person, the task of leading a team of people without similar attributes is often quite frustrating. Pragmatic and self-aware leaders accept that not everyone is built the same. Leaders of all teams should have high expectations, but those aspirations must be consistent with the talent on their rosters. It’s a waste of time and resources when leaders constantly bang their heads wondering why they can’t get more out of a B, C, or D team. Instead, these leaders should strive to balance business goals and development objectives with an understanding that an inherent ceiling to performance probably exists. Making peace with this notion—however inconsistent it is with their own personal standards—is necessarily to take the long view: “I am going to do my best and get the most out of this group, so that when I lead an A team, I’ll be that much more ready.”

There is little doubt that as a business leader, you will come across challenges similar to those faced by baseball managers Scioscia and Porter. Nothing is quite as promising—or as potentially intimidating—as a bus full of talent. It improves the odds for success while also increasing the pressure on the leader to make sure the promise is realized. Leaders who can be honest in appraising the talent on their buses and can then adjust their approach will be better positioned to make the most of the journey.