Joe Maddon on Leadership and Straight Talk

The Charlie Rose Show is a personal favorite of this author. There’s little shouting, little over-the-top debate, few hot takes. Some of our greatest minds, innovators, and performers have gathered at Rose’s iconic oak table over the years.

I’ve always been curious about the studio environment because it’s so different. There’s no loud, elaborate set. The studio is the antithesis of an ESPN or cable-news backdrop, lacking similar bells and whistles, lacking gigantic flat-screens. I personally know of few people who have entered the studio as a guest but I was able to approach one recently in Pittsburgh: Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon.

As Maddon walked from the visiting clubhouse and down a series of steps to the dugout at PNC Park for his pregame media session on a recent Sunday morning, I took the opportunity to walk alongside him to ask about the in-studio experience. He recently appeared on the Charlie Rose set for the first time — an episode which any interested reader can watch here:

Maddon said there are no camera operators in the room while the show is filmed. Rather, there are cameras set around the table, mostly hidden from view by the black backdrop of curtains. In the center of the space is the same oak table Rose has had for the show’s nearly 30 years of existence, a table onto which Rose places a mug filled with coffee that he never sips, Maddon said. What Maddon said of the environment is that it is designed to foster an open conversation, to create comfort, to create an honest exchange.

And, coincidentally, that’s what Maddon endeavored to foster in Tampa Bay during his first managerial stop and now in Chicago. Open dialogue is the bedrock of Maddon’s leadership principles. And while I’ve asked him about environment before as a newspaperman, I was curious to see if he could expand upon the idea.

“I think all of us can put ourselves in a group situation. You are sitting in a group across the table, and you don’t really know each other,” Maddon told FanGraphs. “You want to put out an idea, but often times the person receiving this idea doesn’t know you well enough, so they are going to want to push back, promote their idea because they don’t really know you. Also, turn it around, you are in their seat, accepting someone else’s ideas. It’s hard to put that full amount of trust in them if you haven’t built the relationship. I think there is natural push back when it comes to exchanging ideas.”

Maddon told Rose that, when he first accepted the Chicago managerial position, he had three immediate goals: to build relationships, to build trust, and (as a consequence of successfully reaching the first two goals) to allow for a free exchange of ideas.

I asked Maddon where, specifically, that approach has yielded results. With Tampa Bay, perhaps the most conspicuous evidence was the Rays’ early adoption of saber-minded principles like defensive shifting.

“It’s conversation with coaches, as an example,” Maddon said. “When you are in a room with a coach, when you first get to know a new coaching staff, a lot of times they are afraid to come to me [with honest assessments]. Not that they don’t trust me, but they don’t feel comfortable in that situation. So they are going to hold back their ideas, which I don’t want.

“So we built that relationship first, and after a period of time, we start trusting each other… If you don’t nurture the first two items [relationships followed by trust], you will never arrive at a free exchange of ideas, without someone getting upset because you don’t agree with them. That’s the only way you get the best out of the group.”

Maddon said he has seen changes from his first year to his third in Chicago.

“I will have coaches coming to me now and tell me straight up what they are thinking more than they did two years ago. There is no question,” Maddon told FanGraphs. “They will come in and disagree with me, which I absolutely love. That would not have happened two years ago.”

Being surrounded by a staff who can challenge ideas and collaborate to produce better ones, a staff that isn’t fearful about speaking openly, is a challenge for anyone in a leadership position. The ideal workplace, the ideal conditions to allow for the best performance possible, is something difficult to quantify, but environment is not without value. Google recently applied the “Google Way” to better identify and develop supervisors. From a Business Insider report on that effort: “The manifesto has helped engineering geniuses who know how to write code but have no idea how to manage people.”

And one of the eight key findings seems rather Maddon-like:

5. Be a good communicator and listen to your team

* Communication is two-way: Both listen and share
* Hold all-hands meetings and be specific about the team’s goals
* Encourage open dialogue and listen to the questions and concerns of your employees

Maddon shared some other interesting notes about his managerial role during the Rose interview, including this one: he doesn’t have rules.

“The more freedom I give them, the more respect and discipline I get in return,” Madden told Rose. “I don’t have a dress code. If there are any rules to be made, I have players make them.”

Rose asked him about the “Do Simple Better” motto seen on T-shirts last season around the Cubs clubhouse.

“We don’t have a bunch of plays, but the ones we do have I want to be like the Packers’ sweep, which [the players] don’t remember,” said Maddon of the Green Bay Packers’ signature running play from the 1960s. “The other team knew it was coming, but they couldn’t stop it anyway. To me, that is ‘Do simple better.’ When you are that efficient, that proficient in what you do, when you reduce it… it is easier to repeat when things get hot. I am a big proponent of that, I am a huge believer in that…

“The relentless execution of fundamentals. When I talk to my kids, I tell them to enjoy the struggle, I tell them how important it is to understand and enjoy it.”

What did Maddon do, what did he model to players when facing a 1-3 deficit in the World Series?

“They had to see me on a daily basis not change,” Maddon told Rose. “Not panic, not start saying a bunch of crazy things, not changing a bunch of stuff… that’s easy to do. That happens in life. That happens in our game.”

Maddon has long been viewed as one of the most analytically friendly managers in the game and something of a new managerial model to follow. While he says the back of his in-game jersey pocket is “dripping with analytical information,” while he told FanGraphs he was feeding statistical information to Marcel Lachemann in the early 1990s with a laptop that weighed as much as Rose’s table, he said balance is still critical.

“At the end of the day, you still have to balance what you learned since 1976 when you first got into the game in regard to the feel of the game, and understanding of the game, and the methods of the game, and when to do this or that in the game,” Maddon told Rose. “So I really don’t believe in extremism either way, as a conservative or liberal. I really believe there is gray. I believe in gray. I believe gray exists and enough people don’t — they run away from gray. They have to be polarized one side or the other.”

The complete interview is worth a listen, as Maddon, always media friendly, perhaps opened up more in an environment designed to be conducive to creating revealing conversation. And, coincidentally, that’s what Maddon is trying to accomplish in the Chicago clubhouse.

The manager position has been devalued in the data age, in a time when front offices have gained more power and influence over roster construction and strategy. But the role of manager can still be a powerful value-adding force. It can still connect people and break down organizational barriers. It can create and enhance ideas and practices. The manager still matters and Madden can articulate why as well as anyone.





A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

19 Comments
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JimmieFoXX
5 years ago

“So I really don’t believe in extremism either way, as a conservative or liberal. I really believe there is gray. I believe in gray. I believe gray exists and enough people don’t — they run away from gray. They have to be polarized one side or the other.”

The gray is the status quo, the Establishment.

The polarization is necessary in order to move the gray in one direction or another.

In MLB terms, if you believe in the gray then you believe in asking what the owner of the MLB team wants and then giving it to him.

It’s never been about conservative vs liberal. It’s about the Establishment vs the Revolutionary.

sportsfreak2744
5 years ago
Reply to  JimmieFoXX

No, gray is not the status quo. It is exactly the opposite. Too many people today are too polarized on subjects when in fact the answer isn’t always (or doesn’t have to be) right or left but somewhere in between or a mix of both. Neither liberals or conservatives are 100% right in their world views. We are all better off when we are able to pick the best ideas from both sides.

Spartacus
5 years ago

There’s been scientific studies that have stated that liberals and conservatives think in different ways. I tend to believe a mix of both tends to get the best results. I don’t know how it’s going to happen, but I really wish we could all work together… finding that balance between resources & humanity is something we’ve struggled with since it all began.

sadtrombonemember
5 years ago
Reply to  Spartacus

Let’s be clear about what the psychological research says and doesn’t say. What psychological research shows is that liberals and conservatives think in different ways. His research does *not* state that a mix of both tends to get the best results. People like Jonathan Haidt strongly imply this (ironically, his own work doesn’t really contribute to this area directly), but that goes beyond his research.

Haidt’s implication relies on the research that diversity on project teams leads to better outcomes for an organization. However, that research is on sex/race diversity, not ideological diversity. You would think that it would make a difference because it would help overcome groupthink, but there may be unexpected costs too.

This is all kind of irrelevant to the article but the psychological research is too basic to make policy recommendations at this time.

Spartacus
5 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Other than the first sentence, my comment was entirely my opinion. I don’t believe one way of thinking is better than the other. To be overly simplistic, I think each way of thinking sees things the other doesn’t.

sadtrombonemember
5 years ago

I think the key is not succumbing to the fallacy of the golden mean. Getting ideas from lots of different places is good, but often the most radical positions are the correct ones.

JimmieFoXX
5 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Yes. Without the presence of the unreasonable man all societies would stagnant in gray that turned to mold and poisonous rot.

There are no ideas among liberals or conservatives, just bullsh… to steal more money from the workers and give that money to those who have never worked.

That’s 100% of the problem in the USA today. A tiny group who have never worked have all the money flowing to them, so much so that the rest of society is stagnated in poverty and crime and general rot while those filthy rich thieves bank all the money with no idea what to do with it.

JimmieFoXX
5 years ago

“No, gray is not the status quo”

The Bell Curve proves within its pages that 75% of the US population is stupid. It may be possible to fix crazy, but you can’t fix stupid.

sadtrombonemember
5 years ago
Reply to  JimmieFoXX

I hope, for your sake, that you are right about it being possible to fix crazy.

phpope
5 years ago
Reply to  JimmieFoXX

I assume you believe you fall within the other 25%.

sadtrombonemember
5 years ago
Reply to  JimmieFoXX

I don’t know what liberal vs. conservative has to do with anything else Maddon is saying, and I don’t entirely understand this comment but there is a value in being a “polarized” or “radical” or “revolutionary”. In baseball, these are people who take advantage of market inefficiencies. It sounds to me like Maddon is being polite about considering all points of view, because he takes all kinds of radical ideas and puts them into practice.

JimmieFoXX
5 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

No, basicly Maddon is a professional dick sucker. He’s got his big contract and he’s not rocking any boats.

Psychic... Powerless...
5 years ago
Reply to  JimmieFoXX

Another hateful comment that adds nothing to the conversation. But this is a new low, even for you.