Theo Epstein, president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs, who won the World Series in 2016 for the first time in 108 years. It might seem like an odd choice for such a role to come in above Pope Francis, Angela Merkel and Sadiq Khan, all of whom feature in this year’s Top 50 World Leaders. One might also say it is typical of a US publication to pick someone who has won a “world” championship in a sport that hardly anyone else plays. However I’m cutting them some slack and going with it as I got drawn in by the story as it emerged while travelling in the States last October. I think one of the reasons it gripped the USA at the time was the welcome distraction it provided from the Presidential Election debates!
My only visit to watch baseball at the Cubs’ famous old home ground of Wrigley Field in Chicago was back in 1990, when they were a mere 82 years into their failure to win the World Series. I really like the game but haven’t really followed it closely much since until it captured my imagination on arrival in San Francisco where we saw the Cubs on TV knocking out the local team in the playoffs. But three days of heavy rain in Santa Cruz, California left us looking for something to do and we found a great bar to watch the games. The addiction was growing and we got home to London for the World Series and found that it was being shown live. The Cubs were staring at defeat 3-1 down after four games, but won the next two. They clinched the title in a nail biting deciding game in extra-innings after a 17 minute rain delay allowed the Cubs to regroup and broke the momentum Cleveland had built up in coming back to tie the game.
What kept me glued to the TV was the way that, after long periods of struggle, different individuals would pull something special out of the bag in the most dire moments of need. The coach, Joe Madden, seemed generally to be a thoughtful, calming presence as he directed in-game strategy but the camera often flashed to Epstein and I wondered what he did. After a successful period (at a very young age) in Boston, his data-driven approach to acquiring the players the team needed ran out of steam. So he did what good leaders do and adapted his approach, adding two further factors to the in-depth analysis of massive amounts of technical data that he had previously relied on.
These new factors were both very familiar to me from my experience of building successful business teams: finding players who display good character and building strong bonds within the team. You can find people who hit the ball out of the park more often than all the others on average, but can they do it when there is just one last chance to save the day and it has to be now? Watching the Cubs players’ faces and body language, I thought that they would somehow pull through. I’ve always wanted people who will contribute to the team, so it becomes greater than the sum of its parts, and who come up with the right answers under pressure. Here was a great example of that happening. You can say “it’s only sport” but it’s an incredibly demanding crucible of pressure and, in this case, a huge weight of history and expectation to overcome.
Clearly the coach and some of the players played key leadership roles but it’s good that Fortune have looked up from the field to the board room. Epstein’s leadership role was to set a vision (winning the World Series in five years) and to create the framework, an organisational design within which the key people could perform their roles, and to engender teamwork. Like all good leaders he needed some luck on the way (notably when that critical rain delay in the deciding game came at just the right moment) but this was a victory for adaptation, planning and belief in a long-term strategy. He achieved the vision – just on time, right at the end of his fifth season.
I will be watching this coming season to see if they can do it again but for now, Fortune’s choice looks a good one among the wide range of people they included in their Top 50. As I said on setting up this blog, 2016 was a bad year for leadership – but there were exceptions!