Five Leadership Lessons from the Wildcard World Series

by Mark C. Thompson and Daria Wagganer

We’re only minutes away from Game 1 of the 2014 World Series, and the Hollywood screenwriters couldn’t have written it better… two teams – one perennial postseason powerhouse and one who hadn’t seen October action since the advent of the cell phone – have proven all of the oddsmakers wrong this year and have breathed new life into our nation’s pastime. The Kansas City Royals and San Francisco Giants, both “wildcard” teams who got into the playoffs by the skin of their teeth, fought off the toughest teams in baseball and delivered their clubs to the championship this year with unparalleled drama, excitement and true grit.

There are always great business lessons from the sports world, but these two hard-scrapping teams and their leaders – managers Bruce Bochy of the SF Giants and Ned Yost of the KC Royals – are providing us with perfect examples of “Most Admired” leadership along their path to this year’s World Series. Bochy, a seasoned postseason veteran who led the Giants to two of the last four championships, is a master of putting the right team with the right skills together at the right time of the season. Yost, an eleven year manager who had never had a team suit up in the playoffs, is the underdog whose lack of postseason experience made no difference to his “never say die” Royals who fought their way through four extra-inning games to win eight straight and make him the only unbeaten manager in postseason play.


On the surface, these managers and their teams couldn’t seem more different, but listening to their players in post-game interviews – you definitely hear common leadership themes that provide lasting lessons for leaders or team players in any organization.

5 Leadership Lessons from the Wildcard World Series –

  1. Put together the right team with the right skills at the right time.
  2. Never look past the upstart competitor who has nothing to lose.
  3. Trust and Respect your team and you’ll earn theirs.
  4. Great ideas and contributions can come from anywhere in the organization.
  5. Lay it all out on the field, have fun and be grateful!

Lesson #1: Put together the right team with the right skills at the right time. 

Sometimes the team that’s cruising through the season isn’t the one that ends up on top at the end. It’s the one that pulls together the right players to play the right roles and comes together with a “never say die” attitude and takes every play seriously in every game. Both Bochy and Yost have been masters of strategy en route to the series – utilizing specialty role players at critical points and never looking past the play in front of them at the moment. Which leads us to lesson #2…

Lesson #2: Never look past the upstart competitor who has nothing to lose.

The last time the Kansas City Royals had suited up for a post-season game was when they won the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals in 1985. So they definitely had nothing to lose. Squeaking in to this year’s postseason as a wildcard team – they laid it all out on the field every night and swept through 8 games including 4 that went into extra innings against three much more highly favored teams.

Not to be outdone in the drama department, the Giants pulled out their wins in equally exciting fashion with almost every win a “come from behind” triumph including one game against the Washington Nationals that went 18 innings and was the longest postseason game in history!

Both of these teams played each game leading up to the World Series as though they had nothing to lose. One of the biggest reasons that repeating a championship is so rare is that great sports teams, like great companies, often begin to “coast” after great success. Every team has to continue to play like they have nothing to lose – and continue to innovate and scrap for each win – or they may get blindsided by upstarts who are leaner, quicker and more agile.

There’s always room for improvement – even when you are on top. And if you are the upstart company looking to knock out the market leader – never cede a potential deal or customer to the entrenched company who has “always won that business” or “owns that space”. The companies and teams who think this way year after year continue to innovate and grow and end up standing tall at the end of the season.

Lesson #3: Trust and Respect your team – and you’ll earn theirs.

How do great leaders bring talented individuals together with such passion and unity? How could Yost, whose team hadn’t picked up a bat in the postseason for 29 long years, pull this team together to believe that they’d be the ones to break that long drought?


Ned Yost is the kind of leader whose decisions have not always been trusted by the commentators, sports writers or the fans. After 11 seasons as a manager of a low budget team in a relatively small market, the last eight games that the Royals have played are Yost’s first postseason games ever as a manager. But the Royals didn’t need a manager who had “been there, done that” this year. They needed a leader who believed in each of his players – and could elicit the kind of reciprocal trust from the team that he’d lead them in the right direction. “Ned’s probably not getting his due for his ability to communicate with his players,” a former Royals manager noted. “You never see that. It’s an unsaid thing. It’s clearly one of Ned’s greatest abilities — getting his players to buy into his philosophy.”

“I’m glad I’m playing for a guy like him, for sure,” said Travis Ishikawa of Giants manager Bruce Bochy, “He just seems to have the right intuition with every move he makes.” Michael Morse seconded this sentiment, “To be a part of his (Bochy’s) program and his team is such an honor. That’s why coming here was a big thing for me.  Everybody comes here happy to be here, nobody ever has a bad attitude. Everybody has one goal, and that’s to win together. To me, it’s the perfect balance of having fun and having success.”

Yost and Bochy both lead by example – creating a culture of trust and respect that infuses all of their players. In the celebrations and postgame interviews after both the Royals and the Giants advanced to the World Series, all the players expressed how each person on their teams felt valued for their unique contribution to the team and was treated like family by the coaching staff and the other players. This mutual respect and admiration allowed each team to come through some really low times in the middle of their 2014 season and ultimately earn a championship berth.

Giants League Win 2014 Lesson #4: Great Contributions can come from anywhere within your organization.

No game exemplifies this better than the SF Giants “come from behind” win in Game 5 against the favored St. Louis Cardinals. San Francisco’s heavy hitters hadn’t had a home run in over 220 trips to the plate during the playoff games leading up to their last game against the Cardinals, but Bochy was able to get his team to shake off their slumps and adjust to a strategy of just getting on base and making things happen play by play. He trusted his specialty role players – his designated hitters, pinch runners and relief pitchers – to use their specialized skills to do what they do best.

Three “role players” stepped up to pull the Giants out of the home run slump in this last game and helped launch them into the World Series. The first one to send one out of the park was the Giants’ 23 year-old rookie 2nd baseman (and ironically named) Joe Panik. Giants’ hitting coach Hensley Meulens commented, “Nothing Panik does surprises me. He plays way beyond his age – his overall demeanor and the way he plays the game – he’s calm, cool and collected. Nothing ever seems to rush him at all, at any point during the game. Maybe it does, but he never shows it.” Next, Michael Morse – a 10 year veteran – stepped in as a pinch hitter and sent a solo shot into the stands and rounded the bases smiling ear to ear with the joy of a little leaguer hitting his first home run.

The final star of the night was Travis Ishikawa – a veteran player who almost gave up the game after being cut from the Giants, bounced down to the minor leagues, and traded to other teams over the past few years. Ishikawa was called up by Bochy just weeks before the start of the postseason to fill in for injured Giants players. He was placed in an unfamiliar position in the outfield – and was nearly the goat of the game when he dropped a line drive that allowed St. Louis to take an early lead in the game. But, he never gave up and played every at-bat as though it would be his last. And in what can only be described as a perfect Hollywood style ending – he stepped to the plate on the final out of the 9th inning and sent a three-run shot that almost made it into McCovey Cove in San Francisco Bay. After that walk-off home run, Bruce Bochy walked calmly out of the dugout to join the exuberant group hug going on at home plate – as though the script had been written this way and he expected it all along.

This trifecta of unlikely heroes proved that the winning contribution doesn’t always have to come from your superstars – and a great leader who values to the contributions from all of his/her players will get the best effort from each person and the highest level of performance from the whole team.

Lesson #5: Lay it all out on the field, have fun and be grateful!

To be a part of a winning team and a successful organization, one of the most important factors is to play with passion! Both the Royals and Giants took many games to extra innings to get the job done during their postseason march to the championship. Players on both teams laid it all out on the field every single game, and truly in almost every at bat.

“We know what’s at stake, and getting to this point now, we’re excited,” Manager Bruce Bochy said. “You go out there and you play like there’s no tomorrow, and these guys have done a great job of it. They’re keeping their poise and finding ways to get it done.”

Yost said the same about his Royals, “This is a gutty group. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I will say that they will leave it all out on the field for you.”

Royals 2014

Giants’ superstar slugger Pablo Sandoval – choked back tears in his postgame interview when asked why this team – of all of the great teams he’s been a part of – was so special. “The chemistry we have – all these guys are special – the whole team plays hard for each other.” It’s exciting,” he said. “You win or you go home. That’s what we try to do every single day – not get too excited in situations. You want to… have fun no matter what the situation is, what the score is… Just have fun out there.”

Michael Morse, Giants designated hitter said, “I’m just happy to be here! Any role, anything, I’m just a guy who will do whatever it takes. In Spring training, we said that we were a World Series Bound team – and to be around 25 guys who have one vision is incredible.”

The players on these two teams and their leaders exemplify the lessons of organizations that are Most Admired and achieve long-term success – grit, trust, respect, passion and gratitude. So, here’s to the boys of October! This World Series promises to be one for the ages!