Cleveland’s Luke Carlin on Organizational Leadership and Collaborative Culture

The Cleveland Indians front office places a high value on organizational culture. From the lowest rungs of the minors to the big leagues, they want their managers, coaches, and players to embrace both a collaborative process and a forward-thinking mindset. For that reason, they also highly value leadership skills. Luke Carlin, a 38-year-old former big-league catcher with a Bachelor of Science degree from Northeastern University, possesses those attributes in spades.

Carlin has managed in the Cleveland system for each of the past four seasons, most recently the Lake County Captains in the Low-A Midwest League. He’s viewed by many as a future major league coach or manager, and his interpersonal skills, paired with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge — analytics-based and otherwise — is a big reasons why. In a nutshell, he exemplifies what one might dub, “The Cleveland Way.”

Carlin shared his thoughts on leadership and teaching following the conclusion of the Captains’ season.


Luke Carlin: “To me, managing and player development go hand in hand. I’m passionate about teaching, and it’s an awesome feeling when you have a clubhouse firing on all cylinders and pulling in the same direction. When you’re trying to earn the trust of the team, it’s not just interpersonal skills; it’s also a bunch of content-based stuff. Can you get the guys better? Can you help them develop? I think that really clicks within the information-rich environment that players today are coming up in.

“I’m finishing my master’s right now, at Northeastern, in organizational leadership. And it’s not just leadership theory, but also organizational-behavior theory and team dynamics. Piggyback that with what I’m learning here with the Indians. There are biomechanics, motor learning, teaching-and-coaching pedagogy… we’re basically trying to create a recipe to where we can interact with the people around us, and do a better job of developing high-performance than everyone else.

“That’s largely what my role as a manager is, now. There’s game strategy, but at the same time, our hands are tied at this level with some of that stuff — things like match-ups, and really using your bullpen. Plus, our data isn’t as reliable in the minor leagues. I don’t think we would take a bullet for it as much as we would for the data we have at the big-league level.

“Taking the research and theory [in an organizational leadership curriculum] and applying it in this work setting is something… there’s not a lot of research in baseball about some of this stuff. But a prime example would be Google’s Project Oxygen. Several years ago, Google took all their bright minds and crunched the numbers to try to figure out, ‘OK, if we’re hiring the very best of the best, and we’re putting them in teams, why do some teams succeed, and sometimes they don’t? What role does management play in this?’ The findings were super interesting. The teams that had good leadership outperformed, and the reason is what you’d expect — what most people would find to be intuitive — in terms of synergy, of the collective being better than the individual pieces.

“It’s about human behavior. A lot of it is built upon trust. A lot of it is built around virtues. How to apply things like empathy… the whole emotional-intelligence theory. We could go down that rabbit hole forever. Basically, people interacting with other people is the secret sauce. They quantified the soft stuff that leads to the hard stuff. So whether you’re learning about leadership theory, team dynamics, or emotional intelligence, it really takes some reflection to say, ‘OK, how does that translate over to baseball?

“How do we create a culture, and sometimes I think it’s countercultural… but at the same time, baseball is changing. The Indians are awesome at allowing us to make some of those decisions when we have good reasons for them. It’s been awesome. It’s not just Northeastern, but also the resources around us that the Indians provide, which includes access to some of the best teachers in the world. How to apply all of that isn’t a simple question to answer, but there’s a lot of reflection, a lot of collaboration. And we get the reps. The best part is that we get to try it at the minor-league level and see what works.

“There has to be a clear vision for goal-orientation for the players. That’s both on an individual basis and a collective basis. We need to have a structure — a team environment — that not only facilitates the environment needed to develop individually, but collectively as well. There’s a lot of soft stuff we need to rally around.

“Here with the Indians, it’s a team-first approach and a growth mindset. There is language we use that gets our players to understand the standards we set. We have very high standards of excellence, and we need to consistently message that. We need to model that as a staff. There is going to be developmental feedback that is done more privately. There is going to be psychological safety. We want an environment where the players aren’t afraid to make mistakes. We’re equipping them with a ton of great content, and we’re using our experience to weave everything they need into a language that allows them to apply it.

“That’s our approach when it comes to communicating data. We’re tailoring the message to the individual. Some guys can dive in. Some guys maybe don’t want to. Some guys maybe don’t need to as much. But if there’s need for change, it’s about creating a sense of safety, and at the same time a sense of urgency. You’re basically telling the player, ‘Hey, we’re not just throwing stuff up against a wall here. This is what the data says and here is how we think it can help you.’

“We go into more of a coaching language with the player. It becomes more of a partnership. It’s ‘Hey, this is what it means; what do you think? How do you think this could help you?’ We use data to anchor us. I think that’s best way to look at it. Data doesn’t tell us what to do; it tells us which direction we should go. What we do, and how we get there, becomes a relationship. It’s collaborative with the staff, and our resources, and a partnership with the player. We move forward from there. So is it about the individual? Yes, but it’s also about being part of something bigger than yourself. There is a legacy that is the Cleveland Indians.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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I think I’ve read all of David’s articles on this topic, and while I think he’s a talented interviewer, I’m just not seeing anything beyond repeated, warmed-over management consultant buzzwords here. This is an analytically-inclined site for analytically-inclined readers, and even I have to ask myself after reading this – are we just totally squeezing color out of the game? This interview could have been on the About Us page for an executive coaching service.