The Chicago Cubs have won the World Series.
Let me say that again with appropriate emphasis – The CHICAGO CUBS have won the World Series!
After 108 years of comfortable, predictable mediocrity, the lovable losers are now simply lovable. For anyone with even a passing interest in
baseball, this is hard to fathom. There has been a disruption in the Force. The space-time continuum is in disarray. Dogs and cats will live together. Is there nothing we can count on? Could our grandparents have actually been right when they assured us that anything is possible if we just set our minds to the task?
As we reel in disbelief and attempt to reconstruct our personal realities, it’s instructive to examine how this came about. The Cubs, I would suggest, were successful for two reasons, and there are lessons in their story.
Firstly, they established highly competent leadership. Five years ago, they hired Theo Epstein, a 42 year old lawyer-turned-baseball executive, who had previously extricated the Boston Red Sox from their own seemingly endless 86 year exile in baseball purgatory. Epstein began by taking his entire front office on retreat and re-establishing a new culture, centred on regaining respectability and building on fundamental competence. He then put in place a five-year plan to achieve those goals. Everybody, I would suggest, bought into the plan. The approach he took is not unique to baseball or sports. In fact, it reads like John Kotter’s eight-step approach to change management.
For the plan to work, however, the leadership had to have the courage to challenge conventional wisdom, and bank on teamwork and human qualities rather than pure athletic skill.
Let me try to explain. There are two types of players in baseball – pitchers and everybody else. Success is so dependent on a team’s ability to prevent players from getting on base, that conventional wisdom holds that you build a team around pitching. Teams therefore covet pitchers like bears (or cubs) covet honey. They will stop at nothing to obtain them, whether it’s by drafting, trading or prowling the playing fields of Caribbean elementary schools. They will pay astronomical, rather obscene sums to retain their services. Convicted felons with sociopathic personalities, if blessed with a 98 mph fastball, can be embraced as innocent victims of an unforgiving society. I fear the day that a baseball executive discovers cloning technology and considers exhuming the remains of Sandy Koufax or Satchel Paige.
The prevailing concept is that if you prevent players from getting on base, you needn’t worry about the defensive aspects of the game. Concentrate on pitching and take your chances on all the other parts of the game, like catching and fielding. These are considered lesser skills and an opportunity to preserve budget. This approach is also tactically less demanding because, by concentrating on pitching, what should be a team sport becomes essentially a single player issue. Teams can stop trying to find nine skillful, committed athletes who need to work together, and instead concentrate their attention (and money) on securing that one key piece.
Except for the Cubs. The Cubs took quite a different approach in building the team that finally found success. They recognized that even the very best, most highly paid pitchers will inevitably falter some of the time. They also tend to unravel when things go wrong, and things tend to go wrong at the worst times when pressure is greatest like the playoffs. They also recognized that shoddy fielding turns small pitching mistakes into disasters. Moreover, they seem to recognize that fielding requires more than requisite physical skills. It takes a strong and resilient personality to perform at peak efficiency if the opportunities to do so are infrequent and interspersed with long periods of inactivity and tedium. (Parallels to a few medical specialties come to mind.) They therefore emphasized and valued all aspects of the game, and searched for position players with skill and dedication to team play. In doing so, they took some unusual steps.
They searched diligently for the best defensive players available. In fact, they were quite exacting, seeking out very specific skills. Epstein describes one of their recruits, Javier Baez, as “the best tagger in baseball”.
They prioritized defensive play in their coaching, hiring no fewer than nine coaches, including a “Run Prevention Coordinator”.
They devoted time and resources to scouting opposing teams hitting tendencies to better position and prepare their players to defend against hits.
Most importantly, they were able to identify and recruit players who bought into the plan and understood their role in it. They supported and valued those players.
In doing all this, they developed a resilient, mutually supportive team, remarkably free of the high-priced prima donnas that can be so disruptive, and eventually falter.
Make no mistake, I would have preferred a Blue Jays victory, but the Cubs are a great consolation prize. They provide inspiration and instruction for us all. They illustrate how leadership and teamwork are not mutually exclusive. Effective leadership begets teamwork. Without good leadership, there is no team. And that holds whether it’s baseball, government, academic groups or health care.
Leadership and teamwork: interdependent, indispensible keys to success.
Anthony J. Sanfilippo, MD, FRCP(C)
Undergraduate Medical Education