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What It Means To Put The Team First

Sports have been an integral part of my life since T-ball and the herding-cats-soccer-experience at 4-years old. I played baseball, basketball, golf, and tennis as a kid. These experiences shaped my whole persona as it relates to humility, teamwork, self-awareness, GRIT, etc. As an adult and student of leadership, I have come to appreciate all of this even more.

In mid-August, Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker offered a master class in team-building and leadership. With Atlanta trailing the Dodger 3-0, Braves superstar Ronald Acuna smacked a pitch deep into right field. Acuna slowly ambled to first base in what he clearly thought was the start of a home run trot. Unfortunately, the ball bounced off the outfield wall to a waiting Dodgers outfielder. What should have been an easy, stand-up double for the speedy Acuna ended up as a meaningless single.

For the uninitiated, Ronald Acuna is a baseball phenom. The 23-year-old was Rookie of the Year in 2018 and is a 2019 MVP candidate. He very nearly achieved one of baseball’s holy grail achievements in 2019: Forty homers and forty stolen bases. He is crucial to the Braves’ recent on-field success.

So, what did Brian Snitker do when his rock star player failed to hustle? Did he overlook it? Limit his reaction to a disappointed glance in the dugout? Nope. He benched Acuna. The manager of a team judged solely by its win-loss record took his best player out of the game while the team was losing. Who does that?? Good leaders, that’s who.

In his post-game media conference, Snitker explained that the team must always come first. “You’ve got to run,” Snitker said of Acuna’s dawdling. “It’s not going to be acceptable here. As a teammate, you are responsible for 24 other guys. That name on the front is a lot more important than the name on the back of that jersey.”

Snitker’s action and Acuna’s response highlight the manager’s success in avoiding Patrick Lencioni’s classic Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Acuna’s non-defensive ownership of his mistake was made possible because there is a level of trust in the clubhouse that allows teammates to be vulnerable. That trust also enables the Braves to openly address conflicts and resolve them in a healthy manner. Commitment, accountability, and attentiveness to results were also on display in this episode.

As sports fans, we often marvel at a player’s skill and think, I could never do that! Could you, as a manager and team leader, do what Brian Snitker did? Could you discipline your top sales rep for failing to show up for a mandatory staff meeting? Would you take corrective action if a key department head was repeatedly disrespectful to co-workers?

No, I get it! Upsetting your top seller, especially when you are pacing behind your number, is a scary prospect. But as leaders, we must always put the team first. That means having the courage to address a team members’ shortcomings and bad behavior, regardless of their contribution to the mission. Failure to take such action when necessary undermines trust and is otherwise corrosive to your leadership position.

In my experience, maintaining accountability is easier when an organization operates from a set of Core Values. A set of such well-crafted guiding principles provides, among other things, a universal code of conduct. Invoking the organization’s Core Values when addressing a team member’s missteps reinforces the necessity of prioritizing the group’s purpose and goals. It also builds trust by assuring team members that their actions are judged by an objective organizational standard, not by the personal whims of their manager.

The pay-off for creating a team-first culture can be tremendous. Trust and the resulting benefits are powerful engines of achievement. As I write this, the Snitker-led Braves are battling their way towards the World Series after achieving their first 2019 goal: a second consecutive National League East championship. Yes, much of that achievement is attributable to a very talented roster. But Snitker’s leadership since his arrival in 2016 has been crucial to the Braves’ success. Think about how many loaded teams fail to reach their potential.

I’ll never play baseball like Ronald Acuna. But if I can learn to lead as well as Brian Snitker, well, that would be a career home run.

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