How Leaders Can Quickly Take A Team From Worst To First

How Leaders Can Quickly Take A Team From Worst To FirstIt’s September, and for sports fans that means the NFL season is starting, and the Major League Baseball pennant races are heating up as they head to the postseason.

Since I’m one of those fans, I find myself reading the sports pages first this time of year, and recently I discovered one of the best (and most concise) leadership lessons I’ve ever come across in a piece written in the New York Times by Bill Pennington.

It was a profile of Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter, whose team is in a great battle with the mighty New York Yankees for first place in their division.

What’s notable about this story is that last year, the Orioles finished in last place in that division, and had a record of 69-93.

They’ve gone from “worst to first” in one year, and what’s more, they did it with basically the same personnel, since as a small market team they are not able to spend big dollars to pay free agent talent.

How did they do it?  Therein lies the leadership lesson.

Buck Showalter put it this way in the article:

“I’m happy for the players; I didn’t do this,” he said. “All I did was create an atmosphere of accountability. When you see something done the wrong way, you say, ‘Hey, that ain’t good enough.’  And after a while you get the players to do that for each other. It’s about helping them take ownership of their own team.”

An “atmosphere of accountability” was what took the Orioles from worst to first, and as leaders, it’s a lesson we must take to heart.

The lack of accountability is the main reason why teams fail.  

And, we need define “accountability” as Showalter did so simply – having the players take ownership of their own team.

It’s when the team members are so “bought in” to the culture that the leaders rarely have to point out the “ain’t good enoughs” – the team does it with each other.

I’ve seen this work myself as a leader, and it’s a beautiful thing.  We had put all of our cable TV locations in a friendly competition with each other on service metrics, and two places in particular were always at the head of the pack, generating not only company-leading, but industry-leading performance.

Why?  I only had to attend their team meetings to find out.  They had taken ownership of their own team.   Performance was reviewed and talked about as a team, with peers challenging peers, and with a camaraderie and vibrancy that indicated that these high bars were standards that EVERYONE needed to live up to.  These were teammates that would mentor their less experienced members without prompting, and cheer them on when excellence was achieved.

All the while, the local leader, like me, just got to sit and watch it all.

There was an atmosphere of accountability.  There was no way they were going to fail.  They were going to be first, or bust.

And so now it is for Buck Showalter and the Baltimore Orioles.     As of today, they are tied for first place with the Yankees.   Let’s see what happens……

Lead well!

(Photo by Bigstock)



  1. says

    That’s a great quote. Creating that kind of a team culture so quickly is amazing. Getting the team to internalize the lesson and change their behaviors is powerful.

  2. Chris Giordano says

    The main point of this article is that no matter how bad you do you can always improve and can still come out on top. “All I did was create an atmosphere of accountability.” This grabbed me because it shows that he didn’t just yell and tell them to be better, he actually taught them to be better and to try harder. “They had taken ownership of their own team.” This grabbed me because it tells you how the team is their own team not a coaches team. “As of today, they are tied for first place with the Yankees.” This grabbed me because it proves that they literally went from first to last. I can connect this to my life because of marching band. In marching band it’s all student run. You have to take control.

  3. says

    Hi Chris, thanks for your comment – you’re right, teams “own” their own destiny. Good leaders, like Buck Showalter, can set the right tone and serve as teachers & mentors. I wish you well with your marching band!

    All the best,

  4. says

    Great post, Thad, and very indicative of what we have been experiencing recently under the leadership of CEO, Mike Martin here at The Karis Group. Delegate responsibilities; make sure that people have the authority to fulfill their responsibilities, and then hold people accountable for what they are responsible for! I would say that the turn-around we are experiencing as a company is almost as remarkable as in the article about the Orioles that you posted.

  5. says

    Hi Tony, thanks for stopping by, and congrats on the success of your company. When you get right down to it, it’s quite a simple formula, isn’t it?
    Thanks for sharing further proof!
    All the best,

  6. says

    I love this time of year with football on the tv on Sundays… Thanks for your article. I find people can rise to the challenge of being accountable for results. Most people just need someone to believe in them and challenge their capabilities. This is a perfect example. Suzanne


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