Valentine vs. Farrell: Leadership Lessons from the Boston Red Sox

This month at IHAF, we’re focusing on Leadership. And if you can forgive this Bostonian for drawing on the recent World Series victory for a lesson in leadership, I think even those who don’t follow baseball will be intrigued at how a dramatic change in managerial style enabled the Red Sox to make that remarkable transformation from worst to first in the course of a single season.

The two men who managed the Red Sox over the past two years seem to me to be the very embodiment of what to do and what not to do in leading a team.

In 2012, Bobby Valentine was brought in as the manager of the Red Sox with the hope that he could be a transformational leader. The Sox were coming off an epic collapse in 2011, when they squandered their division lead. One phrase became in an infamous summary of the players’ lax attitude that year—“chicken and beer”—after it was reported that pitchers who were not playing that day were enjoying takeout chicken and beer in the clubhouse instead of supporting their teammates from the dugout.

Bobby Valentine was brought in to fix all of that.

Initial reports from spring training were that Valentine was making the players work harder. Yet almost from the outset, things started to unravel. He screamed at players in front of their peers and leaked clubhouse secrets to the press. Early on he lost the support of one of the team’s most influential players, who commented to reporters, “That’s not how we do things around here.” The Sox went on to lose more than 90 games—their worst record in nearly 50 years.

It’s unusual for a professional sports team to do a complete 180 in a single season, but the Red Sox pulled it off—largely due to the leadership style of their new manager, John Farrell. Whereas Valentine tried to make everything about him, Farrell put the players in the forefront while protecting them from the media and never letting the press get wind of issues that arose in the clubhouse. It didn’t hurt that Farrell has natural charisma, with his strong, steady presence causing players and reporters to comment that it’s like having John Wayne at the helm.

Now I know how different the sports and business worlds are, and that coaches can get away with things that corporate leaders can’t. Still, as the Red Sox marched to their World Series victory, I couldn’t help but think how challenging it must be to be the kind of leader that Farrell is—empowering his staff, trusting them, and instilling confidence that he always has their backs.

Valentine’s mistakes are easy to ridicule, though I recognize how easy it is to fall into the traps he did—especially when you’re brought in to right the ship. It’s hard not to think that your leadership style will be the key difference maker, and then want the credit for any positive changes that do occur. It’s harder to take a back seat, to let your staff be who they are and to trust that with your guidance, the team can collectively steer itself to a better place.

So yes, this Bostonian is proud that there is another World Series trophy at Fenway Park. I’m also looking forward to the conversation we can have across the IHAF community about what it takes to be a great leader and how best to steer our in-house creative, account and production teams to victories of their own. Join us,

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