Leadership Lessons from Joe Maddon

Tampa Rays Manager Joe Maddon

Joseph John Madden, manager of your Tampa Bay Rays.  He just inspires confidence, doesn’t he folks?  Look at him!  How secure would you have to be to dress that way? OK, the truth is, of course, that this isn’t Joe’s normal look.  It was part of a team dress code implemented for a recent road trip, done in honor of baseball writer extraordinaire Ken Rosenthal.  And how did the team respond?

This is just one example of how Joe runs his team a little differently that others.  His managerial style produces results, a great culture, and loyalty in a sport that sometimes finds it in short supply.  So, outside of becoming a major league baseball manager yourself, what can you learn from Joe?

Sometimes you have to leave the nest if you really want to fly.

Joe spent 31 years in the Los Angles Angels of Anaheim organization, six of them as a minor league manager.  As Mike Scioscia has been the manager of the Angels major league club since 2000 (despite his tragic illness), there wasn’t much of an opportunity for Joe to advance.  He may not have been given a shot regardless, as his teams had a losing record in all six years.

But Joe was, and is, a well respected “baseball man,” and in 2004 was a close runner up to Terry Francona in getting the big job with the Boston Red Sox.  (Francona led the team to two World Series titles, so I guess they made the right choice.)  In 2006, the then Tampa Bay Devil Rays tapped him on the shoulder to manage their woeful team.  He has turned them into a contender, and has a winning record for his tenure, as well as three first place finishes while sharing a division with the Red Sox and the Yankees.

Would he have gotten a chance in Anaheim?  Maybe.  He was 27-24 in two short stints as interm manager for them, but both times the long term gig went to someone else.  In the end, so did Joe.  After a long time honing his craft, he left for the opportunity to grow elsewhere.  Sometimes that’s what it takes.

It’s never too late to get your shot.

Joe spent four years as a catcher in the minors.  He collected 514 at-bats, and never reached AA ball.

Joe got his first managing job in 1981.  His team went 27-43.

Joe got his first full time major league gig at 52, 25 years after his first season.  Imagine getting your first shot at the big dance that late in your career.    You know how Joe got that job?  By being patient.  By learning.  By going in every day and working to get better.

How many players, coaches and managers have hung up their spikes before getting that call?  How long are you willing to wait for yours?

Fun is not a four letter word.

Look at the picture again.  Are you willing to put yourself in the line of fire that way?  Imagine how Joe would have felt had the rest of the team shown up in their traditional sport coat and slacks look.

I have a feeling he would have been just fine with it.  Joe embodies the old phrase, “Take your work seriously and yourself lightly.”  His method is to celebrate a win for 30 minutes, mourn a loss for the same amount.  Then you’re done.  Move on.  And the “moving on” includes going back to the team’s natural state of enjoying being together.

That’s not an accident.

Be yourself.

Joe couldn’t manage like Mike Scioscia.  He wouldn’t succeed being Ozzie Guillen. He shouldn’t try to be Tony LaRussa.  (No one should, but that’s another post.)

That said, you shouldn’t try to be Joe Madden.  That’s not the point.  The point is Joe is Joe, and everybody knows it.

So you be you.  It’s the role you know best.


  1. Love the post.

    One thing I found interesting (mostly from a logic and critical thinking point of view) you said: (Francona led the team to two World Series titles, so I guess they made the right choice.)

    The reality is they don’t know if they made the “right” choice. They only know that they made a choice that resulted in the outcome they wanted. They don’t know that they could have done better (or worse) had they picked Maddon.

    I only bring it up because we often make decisions based on past successes – and the choices we made then. They really can’t say their logic in choosing Francona was good – and therefore repeatable in future decisions. Managers are very susceptible to this – “I did this last time with my employees and it worked – so I’ll do it again.” Sometimes you’re just lucky…

    This was discussed in the book The Drunkards Walk …

    “Why do we think that yelling and getting mad at people improves performance, when all studies show that encouragement is the key to change behavior and train others, including animals? The answer lies in regression towards the mean… Here’s how it works in the example of fighter pilots… Any especially good or poor performance was mostly a matter of luck. So a landing far above his normal level of skill would mean that the odds are good that he would perform closer to his norm – that is worse – the next day. And if the instructor praised him, it would appear that the praise did no good. But if a pilot made an exceptionally bad landing, then the odds would be good that the next day he would perform closer to his norm – that is better. And if the instructor screaming ‘you clumsy ape’ when a student performed poorly, it would appear that this harsh criticism did some good. In this way an apparent pattern would emerge: student performs well, praise does no good; student performs poorly, instructor berates student, student improves. ”

    Sorry for the long comment – that line just stood out when I read the post.

    Although – I’d probably say they were right 🙂

    • Brilliant analysis. Seriously.

      When I wrote it, it kinda tickled the back of my head for the same reason. I’ve argued about the overinflation of managerial value in baseball for years. I still maintain that Joe Torre was never a good field general, and I could have won two or three titles with all the cheddar the Yankees slapped on his burger.

      Francona had a decent track record coming in, though, so your point is, I think, able to be extracted further. Does the fact that he was a decent manager in other places mean he would be good for Boston? Of course not. But that’s the gamble in hiring, right? They took an experienced manager over the long time “never got his shot” Maddon. It worked out for them. And it’s worked out for the Rays.

      But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wish Joe had a ring of his own.

      • I’m not saying that past performance has no bearing – just that you can’t assume a decision was right when comparing to a decision not made. They could have easily have won the same number of games and the Series with Maddon – you just don’t know so concluding they made the “right” choice isn’t, how can I say this…. right.

        Hiring is always a gamble – and we need to keep that in mind instead of creating a false history of making the “right” choice when in reality all we did was make choices that had great outcomes. Other choices could have resulted in better outcomes – you just don’t know.

        Keeping that in mind allows us to make different choices in the future because we’re open to different thinking versus saying “Our history shows us we’re always ‘right.'”

        • Totally agree with you, Paul. There’s more than one path to the end of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, right?

      • I’m glad you brought up the value of the manager. Many stats people believe managers are overrated and you can put anyone on the bench and they can win titles. Statisticians at best say managers can win up to 5 games. Last year was the perfect example how +5 worked. Joe Maddon’s managerial style (plus the Boston collapse that included Francona) lead them to overtake the wild card spot. The +5 also worked in the World Series when La Russa made a lot of pitching changes, but it worked out in the end as they won the World Series.

        I do think managers make a huge difference, but it has to be the right culture and fit. Maddon fits perfectly what the front office is looking for.

        This also brings up HR’s fascination lately with “Moneyball.” Yes, it is influential and HR needs to look into data, but the difference between “Moneyball” and “The Extra 2%,” the book about the Tampa Bay Ray written by Jonah Keri, is how the front office treat managers. Billy Beane treats managers as stand-bys, while Tampa Bay’s front office believes the field manager is part of the front office. Although Beane won division titles in the late 90s, early 2000s because of Moneyball, he never evolved from the concept believing data he was given is face value. Tampa Bay believes in the “Moneyball” method, but the difference is Maddon looks at those stats and tells his players how to improve in that. Maddon focuses on the process of the hit or out instead of the result because baseball does funny stuff, hence the “Extra 2%.” This is why I tell people stop think about “Moneyball” because you’re focusing on the result. Think about the “Extra 2%” and the process. That’s why the Rays are succeeding.

        By the way, nothing related to Maddon, but something Oakland did a managerial search in 2007 of that matter. They hired Bob Geren as their manager and it was their first choice. You know who was in the running for the A’s managerial job that year? Their bench coach, Ron Washington, who is now the Texas Rangers manager. Just saying.

        • Beane won those titles on the arms of Zito, Hudson and Mulder. Period. Conveniently overlooked in the film.

          And don’t give LaRussa credit for that Series win. Not on this blog. 🙂

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