Updated: Jun 12, 2018
This article is part of the Writing to Mary and Jack series.
Dear Mary and Jack,
The world of professional sports is unfair. When a low-payroll team reveals exceptional players, other richer teams will swoop in at the first occasion to sign them at higher salaries. Money alone does not make athletes, but it can make winning teams. The game of baseball, which is the context of this letter is no exception.
Until 15 years ago it was believed that how a Baseball player hits the ball, was how good a hitter he was. We have since learned that hitting performance can rather be measured objectively by the number of times he gets on base. In this new world of outcome driven analysis, the aesthetics of a baseball swing look like a thing of the past… Science has proven that it is more important to know when to hit and when not, than knowing how to hit beautifully. And at the hinge of this paradigm change is the epic story of Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s [i] 2002 season.
After having looked at what a leader cannot influence (the Circumstances), let us examine what he can (and must) influence, which I call the Challenge. I believe that therein lies one of the most gratifying aspects of leadership: leaders do not merely inherit a mission already prepared for them, they must define it. In other terms, to get to a desired outcome, leadership is about deciding what you will influence and how, and making the best of the rest.
In Major League American baseball, one leader (not the only one) who recognized Circumstances for what they were, was Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland A’s from 1997 to 2015. After a very successful 2001 season, the Oakland A’s lost three key players, Giambi, Damon and Isringhausen, to other clubs who signed them for a much higher pay check. Baseball like any other professional sport is also unfair in this way.
At the opening of the 2002 season the Oakland A’s had about $40 million to spend on payroll, a budget dwarfed for example by the Yankees’ $126 million. They were one of the three lowest funded team in American baseball, and they had to replace the key players they had lost. As the 2002 season draft approached, the Oakland A’s scouting department set to accomplish the impossible. From their standpoint, and probably the standpoint of most other professionals in baseball, their Challenge looked like this:
We need to replace three excellent and expensive players by three equally excellent players, but cheap.
And that, in Billy Beane’s mind, was the wrong definition of the Challenge. Billy thought that player valuation was part of Circumstances, and that you could not negotiate your way out of it. It destined the team to a pathetic failure, and Billy Beane did not like losing.
Billy also thought from personal experience that players were assessed wrongly. He believed that by looking in the right place they could find hidden talent for much less money and build a winning team. In Billy’s mind the Challenge looked like this:
We need to build a winning team that we can afford. This means we need to rethink the way we assess talent and find the hidden gems nobody wants (All the while pretending to lose at the dollar game).
The confrontation of these two different views of the challenge is epitomized in the film Moneyball [ii]. Let’s first watch Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) explaining to his team what an unfair game baseball is [iii].
Nowhere in the film is the prevailing thinking of the time better represented, in which players where dismissed for subjective reasons mostly unrelated to the game (Body shape or weight, age, swing aesthetics, looks, family members, or character even).
Billy then proceeds to explain how the team can be reconstructed on a new basis by looking at a new type of statistics called On Base Percentage (OBP).
I am not suggesting that Billy is portrayed in the film as a master of change management, after all in the film his response to his head scout objecting to the new approach is: “Adapt or die”. But this episode brings home with dazzling clarity what it means to define the Challenge.
Curiously (or maybe not curiously at all…) The people who most ignored the developing science of winning at baseball, where those who would have benefited the most from it: the professionals of the game. Scouting and drafting players, game strategy and all aspects of baseball were managed by people who thought that they knew a good ball player when they saw one, and considered experience and intuition the hallmarks of good scouting. And this explains why Billy Beane’s new approach is greeted with incredulity, then resistance.
Oftentimes a leader will have to wrestle with his own team to defeat old preconceived ideas and habits. For defining the challenge is an exercise that has very real and unsettling consequences. In this instance it changed fundamentally all aspects of how a team is put together and then managed during competitions [iv]. It made a team of experienced and weather beaten scouts feel obsolete… He may also have to endure public ridicule until such time as the laughter dies.
Dear Mary and Jack, do not imagine that thinking out of the box is an arcane art reserved to a few visionaries or geniuses, what it requires is courage. The box is your perception of Circumstances, and in that box you define your Challenge. Research Circumstances deeper, and you will be out of the box, you will end up with a very different Challenge, one which you can win.
Therefore, to think out of the box, you need to constantly research, and question the accepted and prevailing views of the world. You then need to shed whatever fear you have of displeasing people or upsetting an established order, and explain the Challenge to your Team, and tackle it with them (Team, is our third pillar, of which more in my next letter).
And now let’s finish our story… 2002 was a record-breaking year for the Athletics. Between August 13th and September 4th 2002, the Oakland A’s won 20 consecutive games, a record winning streak unseen since 1935 [v]. They ended up first in the American League West, with a record of 103 victories for 59 defeats.
Understanding Circumstances requires research and asking questions. Tackling the right Challenge means accepting to potentially upset a whole lot of people and turn a lot of established habits on their head,
and it’s definitely worth it.
[i] Oakland A’s official website: https://www.mlb.com/athletics/
[ii] Moneyball (2011) is the onscreen adaptation of the book by Michael Lewis, 2004, Moneyball, Norton & Co., 317 pp. Whilst the movie is not 100% faithful to the book, the dramatic adaptation was artfully done (In my opinion) to enhance the momentous change that the Oakland A’s brought to the game. For example, the movie presents the addition of Peter Grant to the team as assistant GM as a 2002 event. Peter Grant is in fact a fictitious character inspired from Paul DePodesta, who was assistant GM since 1999.
[iii] In 2018, this scene shocks by the crude, sexist and altogether subjective language used to assess the players, and in one instance their girlfriends, but I take this as a sign that mankind has made some progress since!
[iv] In the early years 2000, The Oakland A’s designed and implemented a method for drafting and training players that relied on the developing science of Sabermetrics. A precursor of modern baseball statistics, Bill James had created a large community of baseball fans who dedicated enormous amounts of time to analysing the game. He had authored the now famous yearly Bill James Baseball Abstracts for 11 consecutive years from 1977 to 1988 and other books on baseball analysis. These were used and further developed by Bill’s assistant GM Paul DePodesta, a former College Football player and Harvard graduate in economics. Eventually the whole scouting team was replaced…
[v] A 20 games winning streak puts the Oakland A’s in the top 5 winning streaks of baseball of all times, see Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Major_League_Baseball_longest_winning_streaks