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What Current and Future Leaders Can Be Taught from Baseball’s (R)evolution

April 18th, 2018

By Kris Kemmer

Gabe Kapler marched to the pitcher’s mound on opening day much to the chagrin of Phillies fans everywhere. Could the first year manager really be considering removing his ace pitcher in the 6th inning of a game with a 5-0 lead and a low pitch count? Fans quickly realized that this potential decision was not only a consideration but in fact a reality.

“How could this be?” fans and pundits argued and complained via numerous social media outlets.

This one opening day decision has spoken volumes about the evolution of not only the decision making process within the sport of baseball, but also to how professional sports management of all types is being conducted around the globe. Baseball has fully embraced and entered into an analytics driven decision making mentality. The mentality has been 20+ years in the making as team by team slowly but surely incorporated more and more “big data” into their on the field and off the field decision making processes.

The choice made by Phillies manager Gabe Kapler to remove his pitcher during the first game of the season was just one small, albeit controversial, example of a decision being made by a coach that was based off of statistical data. You see at that moment in the game Kapler had plenty of analytical support for the removal of his starting pitcher, Aaron Nola. Nola was facing the same hitters for the 3rd time which was coupled by the fact that two of the next hitters were to be left handed. Those two facts alone made Kapler’s decision feel like an extremely wise one from an analytics’ perspective. There was only one problem. It didn’t work.

The Phillies blew a 5-0 lead ultimately losing the ball game and setting off a twitter firestorm amongst disgruntled fans and pundits. The loss was not exactly the best way for Kapler to begin his first year as manager especially in the city of brotherly love.

This may come as a surprise but this article today has nothing to do with whether or not Gabe Kapler’s decision was right or wrong. Rather, it has everything to do with one simple word. How. How do we make the wisest of decisions in today’s complex data driven world? The pendulum has swung hard the past few decades throughout not only sports but the business community as well. This decision making swing has gone towards the direction of the usage of data and in-depth analytics. And unfortunately away from thoughts on how those very same decisions will impact people and culture.

I have been in leadership my entire life. Most of the time a bit unwillingly. I am proud to be one of the few so called “millennials” that has been able to experience and see first-hand the changes that have occurred the past 15 years in business and in sport. I can attest that while a pendulum will always swing back and forth to some extent, “big data” and analytics are here to stay. And they should be. What is also here to stay is the fact that today’s workforce is not going back to the days of following orders simply to follow orders. It is common knowledge that millennials and those generations behind them are independent thinkers and doers. They have been raised to believe in “big data” more so than any other generation before them, yet they also want to be considered and heard before any decisions are made. Therefore, to state that leadership throughout organizations of all types will be even more complex in the years to come is likely an understatement of epic proportion.

The biggest question facing front offices and coaching staffs in baseball is the same question every leadership team in any organization should be grappling with. How do we create an organization that can balance their belief in the “numbers” with their belief in their “people”? Any leader and organization that tackles this profound question head on is going to be setting up their organization to win. Every professional baseball team is now using most of the same data. Ask yourself, where is the competitive edge in that? There potentially is none if everyone is doing the same thing. The competitive edge lies in the ability to explain the “why” behind decisions that are being made. Many leaders reading this article will roll their eyes at this point and claim that they already know this to be true, but I would humbly submit that being able to state the “why” is only one small step in the right direction. I have found that how you explain the “why” is more important than the factual explanation of the “why” itself. People need to feel valued. People want to know that their perspectives and positions were considered. Most importantly, people need to know that while decisions being made might be “big picture” in nature that same “big picture” decision being made is still in their individual best interest as well.

This is not easily accomplished. In fact, it can be extremely complex and exhausting. Because of this there will be no greater leadership skill set in the years and decades to follow than the ability of leaders to view things through a variety of perspectives and lenses. The ability to know and understand objections before they occur will be critically important. Getting a team to buy into a seemingly impersonal, data driven direction will be more difficult and therefore more critical than ever before. Sadly, organizations are struggling to find leaders who are trained to deal with the influx of statistical analysis in today’s evolutionary environment. Leaders who can review and understand the data while still striking the right balance with their people seem to be few and far between.

Many fans believed Gabe Kapler’s decision ultimately lost the Phillies their opening day game vs the Atlanta Braves. I am not sure if that is a fair sentiment. Was the data right? Was the data wrong? If he had the chance to do it over again would he make the same decision? These are all fair questions and ones that should be examined by departments within the organization. But to me, none of that really matters.

Once data and analytic teams are appropriately put into place within an organization all that really matters is if the players (the talent) believe in the decisions that are being made. Is the “why” clearly communicated? More importantly, how is that “why” clearly communicated? Do the players feel valued? Do they understand that decisions are being made not only for the team’s best interest but also for their own best interest as well? These questions may not always be enjoyable for leaders to stew over, but very few things worth doing are. And these questions must be considered in order to have a successful organization or team.

Leaders of the 21st century whom can bridge the ever increasing gap between the “numbers” and the “people” will be invaluable to organizations of all types for decades to come. And who knows…maybe these leaders could all learn a thing or two by simply following a little more baseball.

To connect with Kris on LinkedIn, click here. He played college baseball at the University of Dayton and was named a team captain senior year. Kris is a respected thought leader pertaining to topics of team building and leadership training. Kris is a Chartered Financial Consultant®, Chartered Advisor for Senior Living®, and has earned the distinguished degree of Chartered Leadership Fellow®. Kris has been in corporate leadership for over a decade and has earned numerous international management awards. He spends his free time with his wife and four children along with applying these same skills to the building and coaching of competitive youth sports teams.

2 Responses to “What Current and Future Leaders Can Be Taught from Baseball’s (R)evolution”

  1. Trish Lober says:

    Excellent article and thoughts to ponder …

  2. JohN hughs says:

    Well done kris. Good read I enjoy leadership thoughts and information to help me be a better teacher and coach.

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