Charlie Manuel, model of management savvy

Posted: October 25, 2009

Charlie Manuel isn't as brainy as Steve Jobs, as brash as Donald Trump, or as bizarre as Ted Turner. He doesn't do pie charts, power lunches, or peer appraisals. And the last time we saw him in a suit, that gaudy pin-striped number he wore to the 2008 victory parade, he looked more upstart mobster than upper management.

But don't let the Phillies manager's down-home demeanor and syntactical struggles fool you. While his Citizens Bank Park office might not have a Wharton diploma on its walls or any of Tom Peters' books on its shelves, he possesses the leadership savvy and skills of the chief executive officer of a Fortune 500 company.

The techniques Manuel, 65, displayed in guiding the Phils to an unprecedented second straight pennant four days ago - they will begin play in the 2009 World Series on Wednesday - were familiar to many local executives and management gurus who watched and admired him.

When Independence Blue Cross president Joe Frick spoke to a Chamber of Commerce group on leadership, for example, the model he used was Manuel.

Those experts said Manuel had melded prodigious individual talent into a smoothly functioning unit. He has, when needed, suppressed and inflated players' egos. He has called meetings but not too many. And he has both inspired and instilled confidence in his workforce.

"Leaders in sports and business have one thing in common," said Bill McDermott, the Newtown Square-based president of global field operations for the software giant SAP. "They have committed followers. If you look at Charlie Manuel, his team is fully behind him."

Whether it was nursing Brad Lidge through the reliever's season-long downturn, continuing to tout Jimmy Rollins' stock during the shortstop's first-half slump, or promoting a rookie to replace veteran Pedro Martinez in the postseason, experts say Manuel has pushed all the right strategic and emotional buttons.

"People always want to judge a book by its cover, and that was the case here with Charlie his first few seasons," said Kenneth Shropshire, director of the Sports Business Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

"The most important thing a management type can do is figure out what he does best and not change from that approach," Shropshire said. "Charlie looks like he's one of those leaders who says: 'Look, this is who I am, and this is who I'll always be. I'm not changing.' "

According to Shropshire and others, while Manuel might manage by the seat of his red-pin-striped pants, instinctively he's been true to the best management principles.

"The closest analogy in business management to what he's done might be what happens on Wall Street," said Peters, a management consultant, author, and Baltimore Orioles fan whose best-selling In Search of Excellence is a business bible. "The same sort of star mentality that exists in a baseball dugout is at work there. The best managers in both places know how to handle those stars."

With all the talent on the world champion Phillies, Shropshire said, there could easily have been crippling jealousies and feuds.

"With someone less adept at managing people," he said, "it could have been a real disaster."

Manuel's most valuable managerial asset, those interviewed said, was knowing both his players and himself. That self-knowledge especially, Shropshire said, was something only the most successful business managers ever achieved.

"One of the hardest things our management students face is the leadership assessment test, where we ask them to evaluate themselves as leaders," Shropshire said. "They all think they should be Donald Trumps. They don't see and can't identify their own strengths.

"Charlie knows who he is. He revels in it, and he uses it to his advantage. He doesn't try to be anyone else. And his players grasp that. They respond to that. That's great management technique."

Maybe the best example of Manuel's leadership this season was the way he handled Lidge. After a season in which he recorded every save opportunity and likely was the Phils' most valuable player, the closer endured a horrific 2009, squandering 11 save chances and never recapturing his '08 form.

But the manager defended him constantly, handed him the ball whenever possible, and, when he finally did sit him down in the season's final month, found ways to get him into situations that rebuilt the pitcher's shattered confidence.

It was all right out of a management textbook.

"He set up an atmosphere where players know that even if they fail, their boss still believes in them," Wharton professor Eric Bradlow said. "Notice the psychology Charlie used with Lidge. He puts him in situations where he can succeed to build his confidence back up. Now he's had some success, and you're beginning to see the Brad Lidge of last season. From a management-style perspective, he's doing exactly the right thing."

Manuel isn't the Vince Lombardi type, the stern authoritarian boss. The reason might be, as Peters pointed out, that the nature of football demands more discipline.

"Baseball's not football," Peters said. "In football, you've got 16 one-hour games, and it's all about tactics. In baseball, it's all about keeping your guys from killing each other over the course of a 162-game season. And from what I can see of Charlie Manuel - and I was a Phillies and Senators fan before the Orioles came to Baltimore - he does that as well as anyone."

Manuel sets boundaries - more than the casual fan might think - and allows his players to operate freely within them. It's not quite a hands-on style, not quite hands-off, and certainly not hand-holding. But, as nearly all his players likely would attest, it is, hands down, a successful method.

While the average Philadelphian's perception of Manuel is as a good old country boy who gives free rein to his players, those players, not surprisingly, see a different side of their boss.

"He may come across as laid-back," reliever Chad Durbin said. "But he can be pretty intense when he has to be. When it's time to make a point, he's always got a pretty good one to make."

Peters and Shropshire, who played football at Stanford, both said that one of the coaches Manuel most reminded them of was the late Bill Walsh, who led the San Francisco 49ers to three Super Bowl titles.

While Manuel publicly displays little of the cerebral nature that characterized Walsh, he, like the popularizer of the West Coast offense, has a knack for seeing inside players and recognizing what makes them go.

"Jack Christiansen was a wonderful guy but had a very uniform approach," Shropshire said, referring to Walsh's predecessor at Stanford. "Bill Walsh came in and knew how to get inside each player's head. That's something Manuel obviously can do."

Peters said Walsh was "brilliant with people."

"I talked to him once about why he chose Joe Montana," who was not a highly regarded quarterback coming out of Notre Dame, Peters said. "And he said: 'Too many people looked at his arm strength. I looked into his eyes.'

"It appears Charlie Manuel has done that, too. He obviously understands his guys."

Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

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