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Dusty Baker's Leadership Lessons

Feb. 20, 2020
His vision and execution are a winning combination, on and off the field.

We live in leadership-challenged times. Principles seem to have taken a back seat to winning at all costs. Fairness and decency have frequently been replaced by bullying, caricaturing, and demeaning one’s competitors.

Our divided nation is in sore need of healing, but few of us have confidence in the current crop of industry and political leaders to effect that healing. We need models of leadership we can look up to—in business, in politics, and in life.

One place we can look for such a model in 2020 is Major League Baseball, the Houston Astros to be specific. Why would anyone look to professional baseball, of all places, for models of leadership—least of all to the Houston Astros, whose recent cheating scandal might be the biggest blow to the sport’s integrity since Shoeless Joe played for the Black Sox?

For one reason: Houston has hired Dusty Baker as its new manager.

Baker is no stranger to private industry, having started two companies over the past decade, Baker Family Wines and the Baker Energy Team. In both businesses he uses his keen ability to combine data and instincts with vision and execution. So it’s not surprising that his managerial skills in the dugout mirror those of many successful industry leaders.

Dusty Baker is a person of immense integrity. He is colorblind, yet an advocate for African Americans; a tough disciplinarian, yet a forgiving soul. He is an accomplished builder of talent, he has his team members’ backs, and he accepts responsibility for mistakes. He inspires and motivates. USA Today recently dubbed him “the Dalai Lama of managers” because of his calm, unruffable wisdom. The ups and downs of a season don’t get to him.

Baker’s character has been forged in the furnace of adversity. He was tasked with keeping Barry Bonds focused through his home-run-record chase of 2001 and the ensuing steroid scandal. He has dealt with massive financial setbacks. He faced down prostate cancer as well as a mini-stroke and cardiac issues. He suffered a heartbreaking Game Seven loss in the World Series. As only one of two African American MLB managers, he has experienced racism first-hand and has bounced back from being fired, arguably unfairly, on several occasions after leading his teams to the playoffs. 

And he always comes through with his humor, sense of purpose, and his principles intact.

Baker will have his work cut out for him as the new Astros manager, no doubt. He is stepping into an unenviable role. The Astros cheated in 2017-18, plain and simple, and they got caught. Their transgression was emblematic of our times: the team put winning ahead of principle, and now it must pay the price. Some of this year’s players were on the team that committed the offenses, some were not, but all will be painted with the same dreaded epithet: “cheater.” Wherever the Astros play this year, they will likely be taunted and reviled by fans and players alike. Some of this treatment will be deserved, some won’t.

And one man will be responsible for holding the team together through all of it: Dusty Baker.

Just as he has done when facing difficult business challenges, Baker will need to juggle a set of competing priorities. He must lay down the law and make it clear that cheating will not be tolerated on his watch. He must also forge bonds with his new cast and inspire them with the passion to win in the face of an enormous setback. And he must keep them laser-focused, day after day, as they endure the inevitable boos and catcalls, sometimes from their own fans. A seemingly impossible set of tasks, but if anyone can pull them off with skill and grace, it’s Dusty Baker.

That’s why I’m encouraging you to watch the Astros this year, if you want to see how a real leader behaves under adverse conditions. Baker has flaws, as we all do. He won’t get everything right—few leaders in sports or business do. He’ll make mistakes. But when he does, he will own them. And he will gain the loyalty and respect of his team by doing so.

I am confident, at the very least, you won’t see Dusty Baker doing the following:

  • Lying to cover for himself or others
  • Putting his ego ahead of what’s best for his team
  • Throwing others under the bus
  • Taking undue credit for victories
  • Dodging his responsibilities as a clubhouse leader
  • Pointing his finger at others 

Who knows how the 2020 season will play out for the Houston Astros? But I do know one thing: You will see, in Dusty Baker, an example of leadership that many people on Wall Street, in boardrooms across America, and in Washington, D.C. should take notes on.

Ritch K. Eich, former hospital executive, chief of public affairs at Blue Shield of CA and a retired Naval Reserve captain, has published four books on leadership. His latest is Leadership CPR: Resuscitating the Workplace through Civility, Performance and Respect, and he is currently writing his fifth book. 

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