Leadership in the Locker Room: Empathy and Coaching in Chicago

Leadership in the Locker Room: Empathy and Coaching in Chicago

by Connor Hannon, Contributing Writer

Chicago is, without a doubt, a sports town, but it’s also a tough place to have success – consider a century-long World Series drought, for example. However, the Blackhawks’ Joel Quenneville and the Cubs’ Joe Maddon, as coaches of their respective clubs, have managed to defy those odds. Though they differ greatly in style, stature and sport, these two men are more alike than just the similarities of their first names. Both Quenneville and Maddon are ubiquitously referred to as “a player’s coach.” I have always found this moniker to be somewhat arbitrarily assigned to a coach that both has success and is likeable at a press conference. “Player’s coach” is sports jargon for an empathetic leader, one who does not merely have empathy, but has established as a foundational element of his approach. According to Tim Matheney, author of Leadership that Lasts: Seven Actions Toward an Enduring Impact, this type of leader draws on their empathy to address three critical needs within his or her group: significance, order and the opportunity to grow.

Both of these coaches arrived in Chicago under less-than-ideal circumstances. The Blackhawks and the Cubs had rich histories, huge fan bases, but both, at the time, were not very good. The Cubs’ repeated struggles (often credited to “The Curse of the Billy Goat” or simply, “The Curse”) were well-documented. So when Joe Maddon was mulling over mantras for his new team, he decided to poke fun at the history of the Cubs as “lovable losers” with the phrase, “Try Not to Suck.” When Joel Quenneville was hired in 2008, the Blackhawks were known for early playoff exits, or in the late ’90s and early 2000s, not even coming close to qualifying. This reached an all-time low in 2004 when ESPN deemed the Blackhawks to be the worst franchise in professional sports. Nevertheless, these two coaches foresaw what their players perhaps could not: that they could bring millions of fans together – just by having success. They knew that by being successful at the games they loved, they could be part of something that extended far beyond their rosters and front office.

Both coaches communicated this understanding to their respective teams. Joel Quenneville was able to convince his team that they could transform Chicago into a hockey town like Detroit, home of the rival Red Wings. Even if he didn’t exactly envision winning three Stanley Cups, Quenneville has done just that in Chicago, carrying a .578 regular season winning percentage and nine playoff appearances into his 11th season as coach of the Blackhawks (bear in mind, these numbers are impacted significantly by a tough 2017-18 campaign in which offseason decisions and key injuries forced the Blackhawks to lean heavily on inexperienced, young players). Joe Maddon was able to get his team to understand how a winning culture could provide an emotional lift both to Chicagoans and far-flung Cubs fans. His players “bought in,” and since his arrival, the Cubs have won at least 92 regular season games, gone to every NLCS, and in 2016, ended that pesky World Series drought. These two coaches gave their players a sense of significance that transcended the team and transcended the sport to a level of human connection, and their players have responded since the day they both took over.

Perhaps the organizational need that both coaches expend the greatest amount of effort and focus toward is the need to have the right kind of order. According to Matheney, “Leaders have to understand how their colleagues are experiencing the sense of order they create. Is it too tight? Too loose?” In this realm, the two Chicago skippers are distinct yet similar, and I think that is a product of how different their two sports are. Both seasons are long and tiring, so the monotony must be broken up. Maddon accomplishes this by scheduling themed road trips such as the Pajama Trip or the ’70s Trip where the players dress up accordingly for the plane ride to their next destination. In Quenneville’s case, he knows the rigors of hockey as a former NHL defenseman, and therefore, keeps practices short or, at times he deems necessary, cancels practice altogether. His main priority is that his players show up to the game ready to play, and his players respond to that. During games, the differences between the two stand out, as Quenneville is often yelling to (sometimes at) his players, and Maddon is quitter, even contemplative. However, that doesn’t mean that Quenneville is verbally abusive and Maddon is aloof, they’ve simply found the best way to evaluate the feelings and performance of their team members during pressure situations. They seek to create the right kind of order for their group.

Thirdly, both men lead by not leading better than most coaches. By that I mean that they give their players opportunity to grow. When both men arrived with their new teams, young players were abundant, and leadership was in short supply. However, they both knew that rather than present themselves as the “new sheriff in town,” they would be better off instilling their philosophies and letting player leadership and team hierarchy blossom. And blossom it did. The Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews, Duncan Kieth, Marian Hossa and Corey Crawford became the NHL’s gold standard for team leadership over the course of ten years. For the Cubs, Anthony Rizzo, Jon Lester, David Ross and Jason Heyward made sure that everyone knew their parts to play in order to win the World Series and make history. Maddon kept his focus on managing. If either coach had taken a “my way or the highway” approach, or tried to prescribe team leaders before player chemistry manifested itself, it might have spelled continued failure for both franchises. That’s what makes these two empathetic leaders two of the best in their respective games.

All good coaches in any sport have principles that define their style of coaching – elements that compose the foundation of their approaches.  I doubt that Joe Maddon nor Joel Quenneville has ever used the word empathy when describing his coaching philosophy. However, both men, in their lives and in their crafts, embody empathetic leadership.