Ozzie's School of Management

Book review: Loosen up your team with a profanity-laced outburst, and other management lessons from the Miami Marlins' Ozzie Guillen.


(Photo illustration: Natalie Castellino; Source image: iStock)

For Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, the problem was simple, if a little disheartening: no one liked his baseball team. Year after year, the Marlins were at the bottom of league attendance, their cavernous stadium conspicuously empty. So Loria invested. This past off-season he spent millions on free agents and dressed them in freshly redesigned uniforms. He convinced Miami-Dade politicians to chip in on a state-of-the-art stadium in the heart of Little Havana. In perhaps his boldest stroke, Loria hired Ozzie Guillen—the longtime shortstop and then manager of the Chicago White Sox, a Venezuelan baseball legend. He was famous and successful, making him the rarest of creatures, a “celebrity manager.” If anyone could get the attention of the Hispanic fans Loria so desperately needed, it was Guillen.

On paper, it was the perfect match. Then the reality arrived.

“I love Fidel Castro,” Guillen told Time magazine this spring, the quote appearing just a week into the season. “I respect Fidel Castro, you know why? A lot of people have wanted to kill Fidel Castro for the last 60 years, but that motherfucker is still here.”

For a franchise whose rebranding efforts are based on attracting passionately anti-Castro Cuban immigrants, it was literally the worst thing Guillen could have said. For anyone who knows Ozzie, it was also completely unsurprising.

As a sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, Rick Morrissey followed Guillen’s tumultuous years as manager of the White Sox. He had seen the chaos the former player could create, had been witness to the man’s profanity-studded press conferences. In his new book, Ozzie’s School of Management, Morrissey argues that there is a method to Guillen’s madness. He’d run a team that was a perennial contender, had won the 2005 World Series championship and earned a Manager of the Year award. None of these achievements came by accident. “In a Harvard Business School world of management, Guillen’s loose approach makes absolutely no sense,” writes Morrissey. Look more carefully, he argues, and a winning management philosophy emerges.

The first thing that strikes you about Ozzie Guillen the manager is how much disdain he seems to have for the job. Players win games, he’s fond of saying, and the best thing a manager can do is get out of the way. Unlike football or basketball, where set plays and crafty tactics are vitally important, a baseball manager is only rarely called upon to make a big move. Even the locker-room pep talk, the coach’s climactic moment in any cheesy sports movie, is of questionable value in Major League Baseball. Inspire a hockey player to “give it his all” and he might skate that little bit harder, come back on defence that tiny bit faster. Attempt to inspire a baseball team to “try harder” and chances are your hitters will tighten up, your pitchers will overthrow. At the end of the season, all you’ll inspire is a losing record.

“Managing now is not about how good you are at strategy,” Guillen says. “It’s how good you are with your players.” As in the business world, being a manager in baseball is about supervising people, trying to get the most out of a group of individuals over a long season. For Guillen, that means trying to keep his players as loose as possible. Whether it’s by design or not, Ozzie’s constant outbursts serve to take the pressure off his players and put it on himself. “Whenever we need the attention taken off us or if he needs to do something to loosen us up, I think Ozzie knows what he’s doing,” said White Sox pitcher John Danks. “Ozzie’s a character, no doubt, but there have been times when he’s said things or done things where it’s almost planned.”

An employee won’t perform well with the boss hovering over his shoulder, watching his every move, so Guillen will go to great lengths to make his workers feel secure. This doesn’t always work. At times, he’ll keep a slumping hitter in the lineup far too long, as he did with Adam Dunn in 2011. But by taking a risk and staying with a hitter or keeping a pitcher in a game a little longer than he should, Guillen might lose a game or two. The hope is that by showing faith in the worker, you give them confidence and experience that could pay off later in the season.

Of course, one of the many paradoxes of Guillen’s management philosophy is that while he can be fiercely protective of his players, he is also more than willing to insult them in the media. After a string of bad outings by the White Sox closer Matt Thornton, Guillen declared, “We have no closer.” He once told reporters that pitcher Will Ohman needed to “get his head out of his ass.”

For most executives, publicly insulting the people who work under you isn’t the best way to build trust. Guillen believes the opposite. He thinks the easiest way for a manager to lose the respect of his players is by being deceitful. If he stands up and lies to the media, how can the players trust anything he says? Brutal honesty is a cornerstone of the Guillen philosophy.

As Morrissey moves through the Guillen “school of management”—each chapter labelled with a cute self-help title like “Promote Serenity in the Workplace,” “Don’t Confuse Team and Family,” and “Protect Your Employees from the Barbarians”—the idea of a unified Guillen theory of management begins to fall apart. Guillen’s wild tantrums sometimes deflect attention from his players, allowing them the space they need to perform, but just as often they bring more scrutiny to the team. Though at times there may be a philosophy behind Guillen’s madness, at other times the madness just seems to flow out, unimpeded.

In the end, Morrissey’s book seems to be making a different argument than he supposes. If you’re as exceptional as Guillen—passionate, talented, incredibly knowledgeable about your field, and enormously entertaining—then by all means follow his example. If not, it might be best to stick with the rules or, at the very least, avoid complimenting Castro in Miami.