When The Bronx Burned Brightly: Joe Torre and the Power of Warmth

When we think of great leaders, we often exalt the gruff types like Bill Belichick and Vince Lombardi. But in order to get the best results in any organization, leaders must develop another softer side, beneath that authoritative persona. Case in point is the evolution of Baseball Hall of Famer Joe Torre.

In 1995, I was working as a sports broadcasting television agent when my boss called me into his office and told me that he wanted me to help market a new client, Joe Torre.

It was a tough assignment.

Torre was 55 years old and had just been fired from his third managerial job with an overall losing record. Torre was a nice enough guy, but he was short, closed off and a bit gruff in our interactions.  Soon after, I left to start my own agency and reconnected with Torre during research for my book.

In the 25 years since our last interaction, Torre had become a living legend – a hall of fame manager, a bestselling author, a top draw on the speaking circuit, and had also started a foundation (Safe at Home) that has raised millions of dollars for abused children. In that time, he’d also evolved into a warm, kind and beloved man.

What happened?

In my book, I argue that to achieve your full potential, it’s not enough to have good technical expertise; you also need to have the soft communication skills of Authority, Warmth and Energy, aka AWE. Those who have a serious weakness in just one category can self-sabotage their career without even knowing it.

After Torre and I spoke, he agreed that his life fit the theory. Torre had great Authority. He’s got the physical presence and posture of an athlete, he speaks with a strong voice, and his baseball knowledge was unquestioned. His Energy emanated from his love for the game. What he lacked was Warmth. Torre was a bit distant in his interactions with players, which was not optimal when leading a group of 25 highly-paid men under intense pressure over a grueling 162 game season. He just couldn’t connect on the level needed to lead people effectively, and it cost him multiple jobs.

Warmth is communicated through humility, vulnerability, empathy, and by your attentiveness, your listening ear. That’s because effective connection isn’t just about output—projecting your message outwards into the world. Input, how you receive the crowd, group, or single individual you’re communicating with, is equally important to making an effective connection. Warmth is necessary to create trust, as well as relatability, which is crucial to solidifying your position as a leader.

Torre’s journey to developing Warmth began when his wife asked him to join her in a self-help seminar called Life Success. At the seminar, Torre was typically reserved until the second day when he decided to speak to the group of hundreds of strangers. He suddenly broke down crying, relating the story of the childhood abuse he suffered from his father. In that moment, everything changed for him.  A lifetime of low self-esteem washed away. Torre opened up to that crowd and he’s been open ever since.

Once Torre had that breakthrough, his persona and his communication totally shifted. He was able to show vulnerability by listening to others and sharing his own ups and downs as a player. This openness gave him a greater sense of authenticity to his players who invariably had the same struggles at some point in the season. Just being approachable to someone in a slump can make all the difference. Around this same time, the New York Yankees were looking for a new manager. Torre wasn’t exactly their top choice – two future hall of famers turned them down – but he landed the job and after his previous record, knew he had to change something. By the time the Yankees went to spring training in February of 1996, a new, warmer, and more open Joe Torre was their skipper.

The rest is history. Torre went on to win four World Series and six pennants, and made the playoffs in every one of his 12 full seasons under Steinbrenner – by far the longest tenure under the man notoriously referred to as The Boss. Torre also harnessed greatness from emotional players like Paul O’Neill, kept a sense of calm in the clubhouse, and quieted the New York media, ever eager for controversy.

Torre put his Warmth to full use – “you lead by listening” he told me. He recounted that every player knew he was accessible, honest, and willing to give them a fair hearing. But his newfound Warmth never compromised his Authority. In his first few months, he traded a key player – Ruben Sierra – who wasn’t on the same page for aging slugger Cecil Fielder. Sierra was a top performer, but he wanted to be a full-time player instead of the “platoon” (part-time) role Torre envisioned as part of the team strategy. Making that trade was an authoritative move – and it paid off. Fielder became an integral part of the team and won the Babe Ruth Award leading the Yankees to their first World Series win in nearly two decades.

Of course, that Yankees team was loaded with talent; but so too was the 1995 squad that finished seven games behind the rival Boston Red Sox. That team could never get hot at the right time under stoic manager Buck Showalter. It took the warm Joe Torre to light the fire that built a dynasty.

That same thing can happen to your organization. Many leaders mistake Warmth for weakness, and fear that Warmth compromises their Authority. But the best leaders, like Joe Torre, understand that these qualities work hand in hand.

Managers and leaders who deliver Authority without Warmth often tend to devolve into authoritarianism, expecting high performance of employees or teams for no other reason than it has been demanded of them. Effective leaders are authoritative, not authoritarian. The difference is profound. With the former, teams perform their best out of fear of punishment; in the latter, people perform their best out of a desire to contribute to the success of something they care about, whether it’s an individual project or task or an entire company mission. Which leadership style do you think encourages the most creative, innovative, energetic, determined thinking and problem solving? Which will elicit a strong sense of duty and commitment, the kind that sustains teams even when the stakes and expectations are high and the road gets rough? You get that kind of performance and dedication by delivering authority with warm output that conveys authenticity, humility, empathy, and vulnerability.

Presenting yourself with vulnerability is not about showing weakness or being too soft. It’s also not about TMI or exposing all the sensitive details of your personal life. Vulnerability in the workplace is simply about revealing that you’re human, which makes you relatable to everyone in the room. Showing the right amount of vulnerability actually boosts your authority, so long as it’s done selectively, judiciously, and authentically.

Originally published in HR.com on June 12. Link here.

Catapult Your Career and Your Life Forward

Steve Herz, one of the nation’s premier talent agents and career advisors shows you how to catapult your career and your life forward with three key communication strategies—Authority, Warmth, and Energy. Available June 16th, from HarperCollins.

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