May 16, 2014

I am going to begin this essay on leadership with an extended baseball analogy. I realize that this will make my argument sound “gendered,” and not in a good way, but I’ll take my chances.

There are a lot of good baseball managers out there, and one of them is Joe Maddon, skipper of our local team the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays are struggling this year with injuries to their pitching staff, but under Maddon’s leadership they have become – with one of the lowest salary budgets – one of the consistently best teams in baseball.

There are lots of reasons for this success. One of them is Maddon. Players like to play for him. He has high standards for his players. He demands maximum effort. But he is patient, positive, supportive, and experimental. And he likes to have fun. In short, he creates the conditions in which his players can be productive and satisfied, proud and happy to be a Ray.

I hope he never leaves here for Boston or New York, but if he should, I have the perfect job for him: executive editor of The New York Times.

But he’s not a journalist, you must be thinking. That’s OK with me. At this moment in time – in the wake of the firing of Jill Abramson – what that paper needs is not a great journalist at the top, but a great manager. I’m coming more and more to the conclusion that you can’t have both, that, in fact, the qualities that make people great journalists (urgency, skepticism, doggedness) make them bad managers. If you think I’m being cynical, come visit me some time and I will open up for you a 30-year file of bad editor anecdotes for you.

Let’s go back to Joe Maddon for a moment. When I began to write this essay, I had no idea as to Maddon’s history as a professional baseball player. A quick Wikipedia search uncovered these revealing paragraphs:

He is a former minor league catcher, who never advanced higher than A ball (the lowest level of minor league baseball), which he played for four seasons. In his four seasons, he never had more than 180 at bats, and the most home runs he ever hit was three for Salinas in 1977.

He worked in the Angels organization for 31 years, including time as a minor league manager, scout, roving minor league hitting instructor, and coach for the major league team.

In short, Joe Maddon had one of the least distinguished playing careers of anyone who ever became a manager in the major leagues. Instead, as a catcher and then a coach, he became a student of the game and of its players. He brought to the task of leadership an emotional intelligence that allowed him to set a standard for excellence, but also to develop relationships with individual athletes to help them meet those standards in their own way.

The great baseball players who became great managers are exceedingly few in number.

My old friend John Harwood says that Jill Abramson is a “great journalist,” and I believe him. And so, I would argue, is another old friend, Howell Raines, who also led the Times. But whatever made Abramson and Raines great as practitioners of their profession, it was not the same stuff required to create a place where people feel that they can do their best work.

About an hour ago, I asked this question on Twitter: Who would you prefer as your boss, a great journalist or a great manager? If u can’t have both.

Not a single person who responded chose “great journalist.” The overwhelming preference was for a great manager, said most powerfully by Bill Schiller, a veteran of the Toronto Star: “I’d opt for a great manager, one who creates the circumstances in which you can do your very best work.”

Of course, there are fine journalists who are good managers. Having known him for many years, I have the feeling that Dean Baquet, the new executive editor at the Times, is one of them. If he succeeds, as I predict he will, it will not be primarily because of his journalism chops. It will because he has the capacity to support and motivate in the most positive ways a habitually cranky and unruly tribe.

We pose the question again for you and your workplace. If you had to choose, what would you look for most in a boss: great journalist or great manager?

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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