Chicago Cubs and Leadership Insights

You may think baseball’s traditional lovable losers, the Chicago Cubs (at least until last fall’s Word Series victory) have little to do with the kind of leadership you want to bring to your organization.

You’d be wrong.

So, how did the Cubs use a renewed commitment to leadership principles to break what seemed like a permanent jinx and win their first championship in more than 100 years?

The team built a new culture of leadership – and saw it bear fruit in less than five years.

According to a 2017 book by Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci called  “The Cubs Way: The Zen of Building the Best Team in Baseball and Breaking the Curse,” the team’s new owner, Tom Ricketts, started from scratch with the best leadership he could find.

First, he lured a successful general manager, Theo Epstein, away from the Boston Red Sox to build his team. Epstein then hired a proven on-the-field manager, Joe Maddon, a free spirit who focused on communication and keeping his players loose.

Both Epstein and Maddon wanted players with strong character, even if that meant passing over some extremely talented players.

“We are not going to compromise character for talent,” Epstein told his new baseball operations team in spring training after the team lost 91 of its 162 games in 2011.

Good advice for any organization. The Cubs focused on strong character in its hiring – drafting young players, trading for current major leaguers and signing free agents.

The team also benefited from Maddon’s 13 core principles of managing, most of which have some application to any organization wanting to get the most from employees. My interpretation of how Maddon’s principles can transfer is in parentheses:

  1. Make a personal connection first: Everything else follows. (You cannot effectively lead a team if you don’t know what makes team members tick. Knowing the background and interests of your team members builds trust and creates an environment for crucial straight talk. Maddon: “If I tell you the truth you may be upset with me for a week to 10 days maybe. But if I lie to you, you are going to hate me forever.”)
  2. There is only one team rule. (And that is to give your best at all times; Maddon stresses that each player “be present.”)
  3. Freedom is empowering. (He shuns overmanaging and micromanaging; “I never want to coach instincts out of you. I want your instincts to soar.”)
  4. Never hold a team meeting in your home clubhouse. (In baseball, team meetings are almost always held when things are not going well, so Maddon doesn’t want to “poison the room” at his home ballpark. He only holds three team meetings a year, preferring one-on-one talks with players.)
  5. Do not have a fine system. (Most other teams will fine a player who misses a sign or doesn’t run out a ball in play, but Maddon doesn’t want the negativity.)
  6. Wear whatever you think makes you look hot. (He’s not into team dress codes.)
  7. Empower your coaches. (“Any time anybody shows up to work they need to feel as though they can make an impact.” Coaches not part of the team’s planning, won’t have buy-in.
  8. But don’t allow your coaches – or veteran players – to be harsh on young players. (“If they mess up, they have to be told about it. But you don’t have to get hyper-angry at them or send them back to the minors, or explain it to them in a way that absolutely fractures their self-confidence.”)
  9. Question data with feel. (Baseball is more than statistics. “I’ve got to feel it… The dudes that are solely based on numbers, they can’t see through trends because they don’t believe in them.”)
  10. Pregame work is excessive. (Sometimes too much practice actually hurts performance in the game.)
  11. Keep signs simple and to a minimum. (“I like players to rely on their baseball instincts.” It is part of empowering his players.)
  12. A lineup card is all a manager needs in the dugout. (Don’t become overly dependent on technology. Teams are allowed to use a non-Internet-connected tablet in the dugout, but Maddon doesn’t.)
  13. Forget “the book.” (Sometimes baseball’s accepted ways of doing things need to be challenged. Maddon does not want players having a passive mind-set on the field, always playing it safe. He once intentionally walked a slugger even though the bases were loaded and the move forced in a run for the other team. Maddon’s team won that game.)

Verducci’s book boiled down Maddon’s golden rule to: Connect, trust and lead – in that order.

“What you need to understand,” Maddon said in his first talk to the Cubs as their manager in the spring of 2015, “is that we need to get to know each other. We need to start trusting each other. And then we have to start bouncing ideas off one another without any pushback. In other words, once you’ve trusted me and I’ve trusted you, we can exchange ideas openly without this concern about who’s right… You’ve got to get beyond the ‘who’s right’ moment.”

If your organization focuses on improving its leadership – perhaps in a way similar to the Cubs – your team may win the business world equivalent of the World Series.