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Kurt Streeter

A professor sounds note of caution for McCourt

August 23, 2008|Kurt Streeter

The hometown team was up 1-0 and off to a good start, but in the stands my guest was less interested in Matt Kemp than he was in the Dodgers organization as a whole.

"They're at a tipping point," observed Warren Bennis, a bright-eyed, white-haired USC professor. "Frank McCourt needs to be very careful now."

I was all ears, which is hardly uncommon when Bennis offers his opinion. Long hailed for his study of management and leadership, Bennis has advised four U.S. presidents, numerous Fortune 500 companies and written a trove of books detailing what does and doesn't work when it comes to groups as small as your family or as large as Starbucks.

So I brought Bennis, 83, to a recent game to get his take on L.A.'s boys in blue.

The Dodgers are on a nice little surge after acquiring Manny Ramirez. Still, at 11-9 with Manny aboard it's not exactly as if they're suddenly a true contender. This is a team still trying to find the right mix of age and youth.

"We're looking at a team that is labile," said Bennis, who has a reputation for thinking outside the sandbox.

"Uh, that's a fancy word in physiology," he said. "A labile physical system is one that is in a state of flux."

He advised me to look beyond the recent hoopla.

What happens if the sweet-swinging Ramirez, a free agent to be, bolts town at season's end? Next year, the Dodgers will either fall back to their sputtering ways, or young players such as Kemp and Clayton Kershaw will take the next step in their maturation, bringing L.A. the consistent contender it has not had in years.

We watched Kemp catch a ball at the warning track and Andre Ethier smack a homer.

So, to tip the team the right way, does it come down to leadership? You bet, said the professor. Leadership from the very top, from the owner, Frank McCourt.

"Right now, he needs to be extremely astute with everything he does . . . [With a labile system] any intervention, any small movement, could have a huge impact, an impact that could be felt for years."

Bennis said McCourt had room for growth.

We spoke of Arte Moreno, the Angels' owner. When his team pulled off the recent trade for Mark Teixeira, Moreno went into hiding, allowing others to take the spotlight.

By contrast, when the Dodgers pulled off the startling trade for Ramirez, McCourt was front and center in the media, as he so often seems to be.

The professor grimaced at the thought, noting that his study of leadership shows the most effective bosses tamp down the ego as much as possible. More, he reminded me that the Dodgers owner took the stage only a few days after failing, in a column by my colleague Bill Plaschke, to give his General Manager Ned Colletti a full vote of confidence.

A sure sign that an organization has lost its way, Bennis says, is when it has constant turnover in key positions. If this is the case, the Dodgers are stuck deep in the dark forest.

My guest leaned forward. "McCourt sounds so damn equivocal whenever he is asked about Colletti's future. That needs to stop."

Colletti, of course, deserves kudos for the Ramirez deal. But he has frittered away a boatload of McCourt's money with free-agent moves that have gone south. The professor duly noted that Colletti rolled the dice on those signings, as most every GM in baseball does. Sometimes the dice rolls the wrong way.

Besides, there are signs the first-time GM is learning. There are the recent moves. Also the fact that the young core has stayed in L.A. and steadily improved under Colletti's watch.

"Right now, when the team is fighting for the playoffs, McCourt should show total confidence in Colletti," Bennis said, his voice firm. "There is a time for legitimate doubt, a time when he may decide to move in another direction, but the time to show doubt is not now, not midseason. What he communicates to everyone in his entire organization is a sense of not being able to make up his mind."

It was a fine game, but we left an inning early. The professor's bad back was acting up.

Waiting for an elevator, a stadium employee approached. My guest was in his 80s and walking with a hobble, but she growled something about us being in the wrong line. "That might seem like a really small thing, but it's as telling as the game itself," Dr. Bennis said, once we were a safe distance from Mrs. Snarl. He pointed out that the cream of the crop companies always seem to have receptionists who greet you with broad smiles and willing help.

"Good leadership permeates. . . . It cascades down, not just to the players, but to the secretaries and the hot dog vendors and yes, even the elevator operators."

To test out Bennis' theory, all one has to do is visit Angel Stadium. There you will find what is arguably the best team in baseball. And there, you will be hard pressed to find any employee as grumpy as good old Mrs. Snarl.

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Kurt Streeter can be reached at kurt.streeter@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Streeter, go to latimes.com/streeter.

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