Earl Weaver on Leadership

Posted on Jan 20, 2013
Earl Weaver on Leadership

Yesterday was the beginning of the National Hockey League season, after a lengthy work stoppage that cut the regular season in half. Not that I noticed, since I’m not an enthusiastic NHL fan. I just don’t consider hockey all that important — not as important as baseball, anyway.

Yesterday also saw the passing of two all-time baseball greats: Hall of Fame outfielder Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals, and longtime Baltimore manager Earl Weaver. I lived in Baltimore from 1987 through 1994, during a time when the Orioles were something of a joke. Prior to that, however, the club was among the most successful sports franchises for the better part of a generation.

Volatile, irascible, sarcastic, meticulous, visionary and profane, Weaver was a brilliant strategist whose teams won at least 90 games twelve out of his first fourteen years as manager. On six occasions his team won more than 100 games in a single season, including five division titles and three pennants. It’s unfair that Weaver is remembered more for his battles with umpires and for chain smoking in the dugout, but this is typical with damaged geniuses.

Weaver’s Legacy

One of Weaver’s greatest strengths was the ability to capitalize on the individual strengths of his players. Perhaps this was due to his own experience as a middling ballplayer who would never make the major leagues, as well as the mental transition he needed to make when he became a manager:

“It broke my heart. But right then, I started becoming a good baseball person, because when I came to recognize and, more important, accept my own deficiencies, then I could recognize other players’ inabilities and learn to accept them, not for what they can’t do, but for what they can do. And in the process, I suppose, I broke some hearts.”

Weaver was especially adept at identifying roles in which his players could excel. He routinely picked players from the Orioles’ farm system, or from other teams, and architected game scenarios in which they would be most productive. Weaver understood better than anyone that a successful baseball team requires contributions from all 25 players on a roster.

Weaver on Strategy

I have a copy of Weaver’s 1982 book, Weaver on Strategy. I’ve always found it to be a fantastic guide to managing people in any occupation, and I refer to it frequently when confronted with leadership challenges. I recommend it highly for emerging leaders; here are some highlights:

  • On starting a new role: “A rookie must make an impression right from the start. He doesn’t have the luxury of playing himself into condition.”
  • On preparation: “I could tell the minute a player walked into camp if he had done his work over the winter.”
  • On practice: “The best players could execute fundamentals in their sleep. They never let down or forgot the importance of drills.”
  • On priorities: “No one’s going to give a damn in July if you lost a game in March.”
  • On keeping composure: “What good does it do to throw a helmet? It makes no sense, and your teammates don’t respect you. No one is impressed.”
  • On dealing with a malcontent: “Sometimes these situations are very simple. You let the guy play his way off the club.”
  • On meetings: “When meetings are rare, players usually get the idea that it must be something important.”
  • On keeping your options open: “No promises. None. If you don’t make any promises, then you won’t break any.
  • On regret: “After each confrontation I’ve had, I could go back and say that I could have handled it differently. But each time you learn something and get better at dealing with these things.”
  • On building teams: “When a manager can walk through the clubhouse and enter his office and sit there by himself, he knows he has a pretty good ballclub.”
  • On adapting: “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”