Leadership Lessons from a Youth Baseball Team

Bob Milligan LearningEdge / DairyStrategies

Bob Milligan LearningEdge / DairyStrategies

I have two successful grown sons. One of my favorite memories from their childhood comes from coaching my younger son’s baseball team. The team was formed when most of the boys and girls were in kindergarten. They were eager and had talent although it was not a team of superstars (none ever played high school baseball). Over a period of several years, they learned a lot about baseball (and more I think), had a great time, and won almost all their games. Based on my understanding of current research and thinking in motivation theory and behavior change management, we can learn from the success of that team. That is our goal for this article.

Let’s start with what I think was the most important key to the team’s success. The coaches helped the youngsters improve by focusing on what they were doing well (positive feedback). We also did not allow team members to criticize each other, again focusing on the positive. After the positive feedback, we would suggest a small, achievable change for improvement. I sometimes was asked by coaches of other teams: “How can you say something positive when the player did not even move to the ball?” My answer would be to start by complimenting him for watching the ball and then suggest that next time he move toward the ball. The positive feedback and encouragement followed by a simple, achievable next step for improvement contributed both to learning and to the wonderful attitude of players and their parents (culture). I can remember the joy of watching those boys and girls learn and achieve success.

This leads to perhaps the most important question I have asked YOU in this newsletter: Are you, your partners, your employees, your family, your friends different from these young baseball players in your response to positive feedback, encouragement, and achievable suggestions for improvement? Let me suggest the answer is a lot NO and a little yes. The NO is that our internal, real emotional responses are the same. I believe everyone responds to positive feedback, encouragement, and achievable next steps/redirection. The yes is that most of us do not show the joy from receiving positive feedback, encouragement, and learning like children do. Unfortunately, we have been socialized, “learned,” to believe that such expressions are not “adultlike.” Unfortunate, but true! The key is that we all respond to positive feedback, encouragement, and learning.

The success of the positive feedback, encouragement, and learning was complemented by two additional aspects of the positive team culture. First, the coaches learning expectations were achievable. I often watched with amusement and horror as opposing team floundered as their coaches encouraged their players to make plays like major leaguers. By contrast, we expected infielders to always throw to first and outfielders to second. Learning to decide what play to make after retrieving the ball was beyond their age group and could come later in their development as a baseball player.

The second addition comes from my son who was on the team. The enjoyment and learning of the players were created by the coaches relating to the needs and wants of the players. The boys and girls wanted to be competitive, become better baseball players, and have some fun. The coaches created a structure where that happened – THE CULTURE.

The second key to the team’s success – learning, enjoyment, winning – was clarity. Clarity started with setting the expectations for the parents. For example, it was the parent’s responsibility to have their children at practice on time; it was the coaches’ responsibility to end practice on time. It worked. We were also clear with the players – everyone batted, everyone player the same innings, mistakes were OK, players had to earn the key positions, i.e. Like first base. (This was both an incentive and a means to avoid players being embarrassed.)

What does this mean for your leadership of your farm business?  Actually, everything! Let’s translate the two keys into what you must do to effectively lead your farm business and your workforce:

  1. The clarity key translates to the role of the owners – the leadership team.
  2. The positive feedback, encouragement, and next improvement translates to how the leadership team and supervisors lead the workforce every day.

Let’s look at each.



The clarity key translates to the role of the owners – the leadership team

I remember a meeting of the three leaders of a Cornell project where we had a breakthrough in our thinking and strategic planning. Before that meeting, we considered cancelling the meeting because there was “nothing urgent.” Without some structure to leadership teams, these not urgent, breakthrough meetings don’t occur. The more I attend professional development, read, and think about leadership; the more I believe that the needed clarity, both strategic and operational, is never or at least rarely achieved without significant structure for the leadership team including regular meetings. In fact, I would argue that the absence of a functioning the leadership team is often the greatest weakness on multiple owner farm businesses.

The positive feedback, encouragement, and next improvement translates to how the leadership team and supervisors lead the workforce.

In the clarity key, the leadership team articulates the vision, the core values, the culture, the farm business rules, employee responsibilities, and employee expectations have been delineated. This enables the leaders and supervisors to focus their people responsibilities on coaching and supporting employees to succeed. Ordering and directing are replaced by coaching, supporting, redirecting, and providing choices (with consequences).



My recent professional development has included behavior change management and servant leadership. Both help to understand the power of what happened with those young baseball players and what can happen with your employees. Research tells us that the consequences of a behavior have a much greater impact on behavior change compared to what created the behavior. In fact, it is suggested that 80% of behavior change results from consequences.

Now answer this question: Which is more likely to create permanent behavior change – a kudo or a reprimand? I think the answer is a kudo. So, we go back to the positive feedback, encouragement, and a small improvement with the young players. Research and experience support that this approach will work as well with your employees.

Your assignment

I will continue to focus on these two keys in coming articles. Your immediate assignment is to dramatically increase your use of high-quality positive feedback. High quality means it must be specific and immediate. This likely will not be easy as your training with cows, crops, etc. has been to look for problems. With people you must also look for kudo opportunities. You must change your behavior!

Full Steam Ahead!

Dr. Bob Milligan may be contacted at ph 651 647-0495 and email [email protected].  This information is taken with permission from his July e-newsletter


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