Lessons from the Major Leagues: The Power of Teamwork

I live with a family of baseball fanatics, four generations of avid St. Louis Cardinal’s fans—and counting. I can guarantee that our first grandchild will receive a raft of baby paraphernalia bearing baby birds on a baseball bat.

These days two of our three children live in Washington, DC, and so were in baseball heaven this weekend when the Cards came to town to play the Washington Nationals in the final playoff game for the National League East. (My daughter will be disappointed if I fail to note that the Nats are a close second in her heart.)

The Cards are just off the 2011 World Series Championship—game 6 was possibly the greatest baseball game ever played—but 2012 finds the team down two very key positions on the team. They are without their long time manager Tony LaRussa, and also lost the Home Run King Albert Pujohls to Los Angeles. In addition to hitting it out of the park, Albert was much of the glue that held the team together and kept the fans energized.

The Cards are not exactly a young team, either. By baseball standards they are the senior citizens, while the Nats field quite a young team. You can do a lot with experience but you can’t shave any time off the run to first. And the Nats have a seasoned manager to match that youthful speed. Not so the Cards, the old guys are answering to a brand new manager—brand new to the Cards and brand new to management. And no chants of Albert! Albert! from the stands to urge them on.

By the All-Star game, the Cards weren’t even in contention for the playoffs, while the Nats have held that coveted position in the bag all season long, playing with the luxury of knowing they could afford a few setbacks.

So when the Cards faced the Nat’s home field advantage on Friday night, it wasn’t looking too good. Even worse when Wainwright, the Card’s veteran pitcher, had an off night, giving up 6 runs in the first two innings.

But the Cards kept playing. 6-0 turned to 7-5 heading into the 9th inning. Twice in the last two innings the Cards were two outs away from the end of the season. Then in the 9th inning, two walks and two hits took the Cards into the lead, and relief pitcher Mott retired the Nat’s lead-off batters in order, resulting in the biggest comeback in a deciding postseason game ever. Maybe more important, it was the first game in three decades the Cards came back from a 6-0 deficit to win a game.

When the game was over, my husband remarked, “They never seemed to think they were out of the game.” Think about that: they never seemed to think they were out of the game. Now, I am only an occasional baseball fan, but I am passionate about good teamwork. And on Friday night, my friends, the Cards wrote a dissertation on teamwork. While my family watched sliders and ground balls, I saw:

  • Alignment around a common goal
  • A commitment to strengths rather than stars
  • Commitment to perform your own well-defined role and confidence that your teammates will do the same
  • Everyone understanding the critical importance of steady, incremental progress toward a well-defined goal
  • Making adjustments when needed, strategically and not out of panic
  • Watching your own metrics without being pulled off your game by the other guys
  • Remaining optimistic and on your game plan, because you know it and believe in it, even when you are behind

At Clarus, we see these realities at work, not only for our clients but for our own Clarus team. Our planning processes are always designed to build buy-in, understanding and capacity right from the beginning. We know change is not always easy, and that leadership must be prepared to hold the vision until everyone else catches the wave. We know that often projects have sinking spells brought on by change fatigue, impatience, unexpected circumstances or setbacks. At those times, part of our work is maintaining the confidence and momentum our client might not be able to find in the moment.

Sometimes we have to do this for ourselves, too. When a project reaches that difficult phase, as leaders and employees grasp what is going to be necessary for change but don’t see the end in sight yet. When a change process pushes people out of their comfort zones and they can’t yet imagine the results. It is part of our internal systems thinking to recognize those moments of challenge and not allow them to pull everyone off a well-conceived plan. We rally around each other to see what support and resources we can offer to move things forward. We remind each other that the percentage lies in solid execution.

As I write this, I don’t know whether the Cards have a 2012 World Series Ring in their future. But in 2012, there is no doubt they fielded a World Class team.

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