Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Remembering Dick Williams, a
Management by Baseball All-Time Great  

Dick Williams (1929 - 2011) is all over the Management by Baseball book, because he was one of the greatest management and life teachers I've ever had. He advanced through all four bases of the MBB Model, and if you never saw him manage or hear him talk about the game, the quick stop at each base I'll put farther down the page will give you some insights into what made him so special.

I can't say he was a personal friend...we had a thin, professional relationship, first when he managed in Seattle towards the end of his manager career and I was doing some work for the A.P. covering the team, and later when I was lucky enough to be assigned the work of writing his biography for the Society for American Baseball Research's Baseball Biography Project.

Reporters were usually scared of him or hated him or both. And he was a notorious "red ass"; he could deliver devastatingly acerbic responses to what he considered dumb questions. A lot of Bob Dole-generation managers (for example, Ralph Houk, John McNamara, Billy Martin) were that way. 

I noticed, though, he was different from those other red asses in two major respects: he was skeptical and he was fair. He didn't automatically presume a question was stupid, he waited for the question, listened and then judged  whether it was dumb or not (while those other three for example, didn't bother to listen because they were so convinced the reporters were dumb that they would not get asked any interesting or smart questions). "Skip", which is what a lot of his coaches and players called him at that time, as much stress as he was under, seemed to always listen and then judge the question itself, and even if a reporter had asked him a bunch of dumb questions every night for most of a homestand, Skip would listen and only diss the reporter if the immediate question was dumb. He didn't hold a grudge that way -- which is one of the reasons, btw, he was such a great manager -- he presumed improvement was possible and that reinforcement (in this particular case, the negative reinforcement of calling into question a reporter's acuity) made improvement more possible. He certainly didn't hold it against one of the most ignorant baseball reporters around, Bill Plaschke who covered the M's at that time, and if Williams had held a grudge for the accumulation of a scary number of very ignorant questions presented arrogantly by a know-it-all without a shred of useful knowledge, he would never have chosen Plaschke to be the as-told-to for his autobiography (No More Mr. Nice Guy).

If Dick Williams didn't believe in the perfectibility of humans, he did believe that improvement was possible and always a good thing worth expending energy on.

So my trick back then was to let everyone else ask the vanilla, predictable questions you could win money betting on would be asked (e.g., What did you think of <insert starting pitcher's name>'s performance tonight?, or How costly was Yeager's error tonight, or the immensely vapid, pointless and hollow How did you feel when <such-and-such> happened?, or the always good for a big cringe Why didn't you pinch-hit with <so-and-so> instead of letting <whatshisname> ground into that double-play?). I had an advantage over most of the press guys in this...for one thing, I worked for the wire service, which only wanted colorless predictable words; with rare exceptions, anything extraordinary or insightful got snipped out (and the New York sports desk held against you the extra work it took them to homogenize and sterilize your prose). So I could just take dictation and pass the most appreciated part of the responses back as part of the story. The trick part was staying after everyone had left (or coming back later) and asking the kinds of questions an aspiring manager would ask. What was his insight on this or that, had he changed his views of constructing a line-up over the years, and if so, how...essay questions. And even though I was no smarter than any of those other writers, I asked questions that were unexpected and it was obvious I wanted to learn.

Skip loved to teach and see the learning acquired and used. I can say that in the couple of dozen conversations I had with him, he never once ridiculed my ignorance or quest for understanding; more often than not, he acted enthusiastic about sharing his insights. And he was never once rude to me.

I used his lessons in my management practice for over a decade before the SABR Baseball Biography Project started up, but when it did, I asked Mark Armour and his editorial team if I could write Williams' bio, and they were kind enough to let me do it. It enabled me to have about a half-dozen more life & baseball conversations with him, and much of that found its way into the biography. I still called him Skip and he still was willing to teach if I was willing to ask meaningful questions and learn. And this round, the interaction still wasn't as "friends" (can't do that as a biographer), it was closer, less guarded and more like the "relationship" I imagine his coaches had with him.

He was a great interview, a great baseball person, and one of Baseball's five or six best managers of the 20th Century.

Well, too much to scribe here. But I'll give you a single choice piece at each of the four bases.

Most of what professionals call management is here at First. What people mostly remembered about him until he died this month was that if an employee didn't try to improve, he was a red ass and that was true. But Skip excelled at giving people (with extra patience for the younger ones) a chance to prove what they could do and for using people for what they had proven themselves good at. He wasn't a glass-half-empty person, he didn't pretend they could do what they didn't/couldn't, and he didn't resent people for not being able to turn full effort into the high results he always hoped for and drove people for.

The next essay I post will be a reprise from January of 2004, where I discussed his approach to establishing a reputation, and that's all about 2nd base. But here I'll tersify it: Williams knew that if you had a diverse roster/staff, you would need to work with different egos and personalities and that there was no one right way to do that, because those personalities would be different, need different inspiration and motivations to succeed. Very very few managers Beyond Baseball work as though they know this, and Williams was expert.

Too many managers bring their childhood or family issues into their management style. This is a severe mistake only 100% of the time. The most common tack managers who have not been professionally trained as managers (that is, most managers in the U.S.) take is to use as a foundation for their managerial style either their dominant parent or the exact opposite.

Williams was an abused child, physically beaten by his dominant parent -- his father -- and driven to achieve the maximum in every way. Since he was most adept at athletics, he pushed himself to please his dad there: he lettered in baseball, football, basketball, track, tennis, and swimming. In handball, he didn't just letter, he was city champ. But his father withheld full approval -- almost as though he believed that if Dick thought he was good, he would stop trying.

When he became manager, he neither used his father as the model, nor embraced the opposite. Instead of totally rejecting his father's "management by disappointment" approach or using it wholesale, he found he could use a piece of it with modifications. By demanding high effort and rewarding high effort, by letting physical errors pass by without tormenting the perp but at the same time pointing out all the mental errors & their consequences in blunt, sharp language, he was able to use his father's ghost without either worshipping it or avenging himself on it. Very very few managers Beyond Baseball ever master third base, understand how their own ego and personal experiences color their management style -- and Williams not only understood his own demons, but channeled them to improve himself and his work.

Dick Williams was one of two great turnaround artists in Baseball between Joe McCarthy and Lou Piniella. There's probably 1,000 words on what and how he did this, in both leagues and with very different kinds of teams and I won't elaborate that deeply here.

What Skip knew about Change was that to succeed in turning around what had been mediocrity or worse, you couldn't just address talent issues and you couldn't just address attitude -- you needed to deploy the full panoply, not let anyone stand in your way even if they were using reasonable sounding reasons for hesitancy, and you needed to be completely aware of the realities of the resources and people at hand, and let everyone know they were welcomed along for the ride but if they weren't working at helping, they were off the bus.

Beyond Baseball, managers rarely have the courage to try and the sensitivity to carry this off.

Williams, well, he was just an extraordinary manager, an all-time great practitioner of management skill rarely found in Baseball, and present in under 1% of the managers Beyond Baseball. I wish I'd have had a few more interviews, a few more lessons.

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