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The Zen Masters: Terry Francona and Joe Maddon


You don’t have to be a huge baseball fan to realize that this year’s World Series has two of the Major League Baseball’s prolific Zen leaders at its helm: Joe Maddon of the Chicago Cubs, and Terry Francona of the Cleveland Indians. Both men are “Zen-like” leaders who embrace the moment, thrive under pressure, and allow the game to come to them. What is their secret in influencing effectively, while tapping into the special skills of their team?

Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton popularized the idea of “Strength vs. Weakness” leadership, believing “A person’s talents are enduring and unique.” Inherent talents should be nurtured and expanded because that is their ultimate asset. Zen leaders work around their team’s weaknesses, versus harping on negatives. Both Francona and Maddon understand this. These guys play the game, treating every moment as winnable and changeable. They know their players’ individual strengths and think holistically about all the human assets of their teams.

This personal tone is rooted in emotional health. They are known for connecting intimately with their team; they demand that their players seek a life (and passion) outside of baseball, and the players are never punished for doing so. Most players on both squads went trick-or-treating the night before their next World Series game. They embraced the moment.

Maddon believes that wins follow execution – if that isn’t Zen, I don’t know what is. He finds his answers “by being present.” Maddon, an iconoclast, embraces the energy of the moment and transfers it to his team. It’s all about using the team’s energy which is available in “the moment.”

Both Maddon and Francona embrace delegating decisions and have unshakable self-confidence. Zen leaders:

  • They create preconditions for trust and are comfortable challenging the status quo.

  • They can admit their own failures and mistakes which puts the team around them at ease.

  • They don’t micromanage because they are not crippled by internal fear nor the illusion of control.

  • They encourage creative (healthy) tension within their teams.

The point is this: these two are the best at their craft, and have earned the love and respect of their peers and their organizations. Here are some of their most impressionable mantras:

  1. “Learn to love stress. Never let the pressure exceed the pleasure… That’s on the top of my lineup card every night.” (Joe Maddon)

  2. “Why would you ever want to run from high expectations? Embrace the moment, play your game and take mental pictures along the way.” (Joe Maddon)

  3. “Once players have my trust, they have it.” (Terry Francona)

  4. "The mind, once stretched, has a difficult time going back to its original form."(Joe Maddon)

Scott Fitzgerald once said, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."The most effective leaders embrace the paradox that results are a bi-product of preparation and being in a relaxed state of mind. They are present, fully in the moment and having fun.

Dan Mack is the founder and managing director of Mack Elevation Forum, and author of the book “Dark Horse: How Challenger Companies Rise to Prominence.”

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