Faculty & Leadership Blog / Faculty Thought Leadership

Bobby Valentine; failed leadership?

This post originally appeared in the blog, Influence Without Authority

It’s always dangerous to make direct business analogies from sports, but there are some useful things to learn from the firing of Bobby Valentine as Red Sox manager.

First of all, it is quite common for the designated leader to either be over-blamed or over-praised for organizational results. Some of this has to do with the widespread automatic assumptions about heroic leadership that place too much solo responsibility on leaders, as if they operated by themselves. At minimum, leadership is also about the followers – their talents, attitudes, assumptions about how things are supposed to work, measures and compensation, and so on — and the dynamics among the leader and followers.

But there is also the problem of trying to judge leadership from outside, where much of daily interaction and the contributions of others is not visible. In my own managerial life I found it frustrating to be given praise without recognition of the enormous initiative and contributions of the talented professionals, I was responsible for, (not to mention the over blame) but I finally gave up protesting because I realized that my role had symbolic meaning which served as a shorthand for the complex dynamics required to make major change.

Similarly, it is hard for most human beings to see complex, systemic behavior all at once. We default to overloading blame or praise on individuals or other single factors, in the process making for easy talking points but misleading “explanations” of complex phenomena.

Did Bobby Valentine make some important blunders? It certainly appears so. Brought in with an apparent mandate to shape up a team that had collapsed at the end of the last season and was widely considered to be self-indulgent and spoiled, he didn’t recognize that following a popular manager, he would need to win the confidence of his subordinates – the players and coaches. He just came on strong, expressed himself with intensity, and managed to turn a number of core people against him early on.

It doesn’t matter how “correct” he was about criticizing Mike Aviles or observing an apparent change in the intensity and passion of Kevin Youkilis; new leaders almost always have to win the respect of those they are trying to change, unless they have extraordinarily recognized expertise that gives them considerable latitude, or almost unlimited power to force their will on others. Bobby had neither of those coming in.

The need to win respect, or convince subordinates that you understand them and are basically on their sides in trying to help them perform better, is most magnified when managing a group of highly skilled professionals who are not easily replaceable. In business I have seen smart, capable and astute new leaders totally fail because they were focused only on the strategic tasks required and not on gaining the cooperation of those who had to accept and execute the brilliant plans.

Nevertheless, even though the fault is almost never entirely that of the leader who is not succeeding, there are times when removing him or her is best for the organization, as I believe it was in the case of Bobby Valentine. As much as he might have eventually brought to the Red Sox, the combination of the circumstances in which he found himself (including an extraordinary number of injuries to key players) and the way he dealt with those circumstances, had rendered him ineffective, not only with players but in the eyes of the paying customers. There is a lot of talk about how everyone is going to learn from the experience; let’s hope that in fact both the organization and the individuals involved learn the right lessons.

Allan Cohen
Professor of Management