Well, if your organization needs a turnaround, sports is a good place to look for examples. Let’s explore lessons from three big turnaround moments in sports, and the men who were the catalysts.
From Worst to First
Jim Leyland recently stepped down as the manager of the Detroit Tigers. Leyland was a successful manager, but was probably known more for his colorful personality. He is famous for his arguments with umpires, his no-nonsense communication style, and for doing things like sitting for newspaper interviews in his underwear while smoking a pack of cigarettes.
What I remember Leyland most for is a locker room speech that changed the fortunes of the franchise almost overnight. When he took over as manager, the Tigers were one of the worst teams in baseball. They were only a few years removed from nearly breaking the record for the most losses in one season. When Leyland took over in 2006, expectations were higher, but nobody thought he could bring about immediate success. Fans (like me) were still skeptical. However, things looked very promising as the team started out with a 5-0 record. Maybe a reversal of fortune was underway?
And then the team lost 4 in a row, and started looking like the old Tigers. The same pattern was emerging. There was a feeling among fans that we were right back where we started. Leyland decided he couldn’t stand for that.
Following a terrible 10-2 loss to the Cleveland Indians on a Sunday before a West coast road trip, Leyland went on a profanity-laced tirade in the locker room that could be heard by reporters and anyone else in the clubhouse. He recounted it with reporters soon thereafter (h/t: Detroit Tigers Weblog):
Leyland: We Stunk. Next question.
Reporter: What bothered you the most?
Leyland: It was lackluster, the whole ball of wax was lackluster. We had a chance to take the series, take 3 out of 4, and we came out like we brought our luggage to the park like we had to play a game before we went on the road. That’s not good enough.
Reporter: It seems like this was your worst loss…
Leyland: Yeah we stunk period. We stunk and that’s not good enough. This stuff has been going on here before and it’s not going to happen here. We had a chance to take a series. I’m not talking about anyone in particular. I’m talking about the team, myself, the coaches, and everybody else included. It’s my responsibility to have the team ready to play today, and they weren’t ready to play. They were ready to get on the plane and go to Oakland. If they won it was okay and if they lost it was okay. That’s not good enough.
The Reverend's Speech
And then there is the story of Hunter Pence, a member of the San Francisco Giants. The Giants were a good team in 2012, and made it into the playoffs. However, they struggled in the first playoff series and were on the brink of elimination. Pence, who was fairly new with the team (via a mid-season trade) was not really known as a leader or inspirational force in the locker room. But that all changed on the night of October 10, 2012. Right before a decisive playoff game, Pence surprised everyone with an emotional speech. Unfortunately, no cameras were available to capture it, but it was recounted by assistant coach Tim Flannery on his Facebook page:
"get in here, everyone get in here..look into each other eyes..now! look into each others eyes, I want one more day with you, it's the most fun, the best team I have ever been on said the Reverend Hunter Pence. " and no matter what happens we must not give in, we owe it to each other, play for each other, I need one more day with you guys, I need to see what Theriot (jerry) will wear tomorrow, I want to play defense behind Vogelsong because he's never been to the playoffs..play for each other not yourself, win each moment, win each inning, it's all we have left"............for me an old coach it moved me like I have never been moved before...purity, real, passion, soul. the last of the holdouts this Pence..no arrows being shot, no hey look at me, no spotlight on me, no dance but "play for each other"...honor the game the game honors you..don't know where and when it ends, but tonight I was proud to be together as a team, in a hostile environment, with just us..brothers that play for the name on the front, not the name on the back.The Giants went on to win that night. And win the next 2 games and the series. And the next one. And then the World Series. Pence was credited with the turnaround by his fellow players, who had some fun recreating the speech in the video below.
A Promise Upheld
And the final example is Tim Tebow.
Tebow was the starting quarterback for a successful team that had the tools to win the championship. The 2008 Florida Gators were undefeated and ranked 4th in the nation heading into a home game against Ole Miss. The Gators were 22 point favorites. And they lost. Their national championship hopes were severely diminished. Tebow addressed the media after the game:
Florida went on to win the rest of their games and the national championship. Tebow’s
“promise” was credited with helping to refocus the team on their goal. Without it, the team may not have regained its confidence.
(Side note – I’m always struck by how many detractors Tebow has, especially in the higher education community. I would have taken this guy as my chapter or IFC president any day.)
So is the key to turning around a failing organization giving a speech? Not necessarily, although all movements start with a spark. Turnaround does take leadership, and based on these examples, it requires the kind of leadership that:
- Is authentic;
- Speaks to individuals’ hearts as well as their minds;
- Calls on individuals to be better versions of themselves;
- Is fueled by sincere passion;
- Has a healthy mix of anger and optimism;
- Isn’t afraid to display emotional investment.
And it’s worth noting that these individuals likely built up enough credibility as leaders to be able to have these turnaround moments. You may not be ready to challenge your brothers or sisters publicly, but you can start increasing credibility right now. You do that by building relationships. What you’ll find from Leyland, Pence, and Tebow is that while they could command a locker room, they were also regarded as all-around good men, friends, and teammates.
Every good turnaround story starts with a moment of consequence and usually, with someone who cares. Is that now? Is that you?