Leadership Lessons from Moneyball

Moneyball is one of my favorite movies. It is the story of Oakland A’s GM, Billy Beane’s, innovative approach to baseball. Following the loss to the Yankees in the 2001 post-season, the A’s lost marquee players, and did not have the deep pockets to compete with other teams in Major League Baseball. Sports is a business after all, and Billy Beane, as the General Manager has to run it to win, regardless of the competition, uneven playing field, dissonance in the company, or anything else. I thought it would be interesting to summarize some key moments from the movie that highlight the courage, conviction and other qualities that leaders possess.

Hiring and Grooming Talent

When Billy Beane met with the Cleveland Indians, he noticed that Mark Shapiro, the Indians GM, was giving a lot of importance  to the opinions of a junior low-level analyst on matters relating to player personnel. Beane thought the combination of a Yale economics grad with a passion for baseball and analyzing player worth very insightfully was something interesting. He eventually hired Peter Brand making him the Assistant GM. It turned to be a critical hire. Later in the movie, Beane grooms Brand and stretches him in his role, giving him difficult tasks, including trading players.

Leaders are good at recognizing the talent in front of them. Spotting and hiring the right talent is a critical skill of leaders. They empower the right people and not pigeon-hole them into what they are naturally good at, giving them opportunities for further development and growth. Jim Collins talks about this in “Good to Great” in terms of having the right people on the bus.

Focus on Real Issues 

The scouting staff of the Oakland A’s is going about the difficult situtaion with a narrow view of the problem and a business as usual attitude. The scene in which Beane repeatedly asks them to state the real problem they are trying to solve is very good. Many times organizations lose their way by not grasping the real problem, and doing things that have always been done, in ways that have been done. In business and in life, it’s important to ask – Are we solving the wrong problem? (HBR)

Leaders are able to get to the real issues because they ask the right questions. This requires a deep understanding and awareness of the situation. In business and in life, it’s important to step back and ask – Are we solving the wrong problem? (HBR). Defining problems is a critical business skill.

Challenge the Status Quo

Organizational culture, if not nurtured well, can be a daunting adversary. There are the cliches about ‘what got you here won’t get you there’, and ‘culture eats strategy for lunch’.  But change is not easy, especially when it comes to people. The A’s scouting staff feel that Beane is not letting them do their job, that he needs to have faith in the process that has made them successful in the past. It’s very much a culture of “it’s always been done this way” and anything else is doomed to fail.

Leaders challenge old mindsets and push the organization out of it’s comfort zone. Easier said than done. Going against the grain requires courage. A leader with organizational authority can push his or her way forward. But it comes at the cost of employee disengagement, morale, and dissatisfaction. It requires tough honest conversations with those that don’t see or agree with the strategy.

What Moves the Needle

Brand breaks down the season for Beane into number of runs needed, and how OBP (on base percentage) was the key performance indicator for each player. Going against conventional wisdom, Beane and Brand build a team exclusively around the on-base percentage statistic, thereby recruiting players with high OBP that are neglected by teams around the league, thus assembling a group with much greater potential than could be afforded by the constrained finances. The A’s scouts talk about players in terms of beautiful swing, hard hitting ability, readiness to play baseball, all metrics that have been traditionally used to evaluate players for years, etc. Brand’s and Beane’s focus on OBP as the key metric is eye opening and radical.

KPIs come in many flavors and dashboards abound. It is important to know what are truly meaningful metrics for success. Some are leading indicators and others are lagging. Lagging indicators are like the rear-view mirror, good to know past performance. However leading indicators are a predictor of where we will end up. If we don’t have the right indicators, dashboards only become a beautiful way to admire the problem.

Leaders Don’t Take Credit

This point comes across subtly in a very brief scene. The media credits Art Howe with turning the season around despite having the most unlikely cast of characters. Art Howe has been opposed to Beane’s approach and player personnel decisions. He even tries to “play politics” by making the on-field decisions that he wants. Brand is incredulous that the media credits Art for the turn around. Beane completely dismisses it.

Leaders don’t care who gets the credit, as long as goals are achieved. Leaders are the first to take accountability and responsibility for failure. The buck stops with them.

Connect. Communicate. Repeat.

Beane is reticent in the beginning to mingle with the players because he feels it might make it difficult to cut them or trade them. He never travels with the team, and delegates that to Brand instead. This has a disastrous effect since no one else in the organization matches Beane’s hunger to win. But once he starts spending time and connecting with the players, explaining his strategy to them and how they can contribute, telling them he believes in them more than themselves, they start responding with higher intensity.

Leaders are empathetic, and untiring cheerleaders for their teams. They connect as individuals across their team. They hold themselves accountable for team morale and frequently communicate to keep it high, positively pushing their team to achieve more than they can themselves imagine.

Obviously this is not all that sums up leadership. If you’ve seen the movie and came up with additional observations, I’d love to hear.

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