Sunday, May 16, 2004

When What is Past is Prologue.
And the Book & the Epilogue, Too.  

An interesting interview in today's New York Daily News (courtesy of Baseball Primer) is a clear indication of why Major League Baseball has such a persistently difficult time evolving without making a mess of it. The (clearly) well-intentioned man at the top, commissioner Bud Selig, is firmly attached to the past. That's not a bad thing in itself, especially in an "institution" like baseball that has megatons of emotional investment in its fans nostalgic memories and traditions. It's a weakness in a manager or executive when that attachment to the rear-view mirror unbalances the necessary focus on the future and the present's shaping of the future.

For the dozen years Selig has been acting as commissioner, I've had a lot of concern for his "leadership". It was not until I read today's interview that it became clear to me the precise pattern that has made his tenure so gratuitously rocky. Selig's good intentions are constrained by his lusty passion for the past paired with a lack of aptitude for understanding the present and how that present affects the future.


I almost never talk about "leadership" because it's mostly vaporous hogwash, sometimes sweet-smelling, sometimes sulfurous. With only one exception I can think of, people who write about or research "leadership" are puffing up something that's neither measurable, definable, nor actionable (that is, whatever "leadership" as defined is, an intelligent person can't re-create a pattern and follow it to get success).

I'm not confident "leadership" exists outside of fire/rescue and military environments where the manager may be required to make decisions about his employees' life and death and the employees are required on request to commit to actions that may be their last. If it exists at all, it is the combination of inductive reasoning to recognize future possibilities with reasonable accuracy and to have high enough "emotional intelligence" and communication skill to inspire reports to follow an actionable vision based around those possibilities.


It's clear from the interview that Mr. Selig loves the past and doesn't have a sophisticated view of the future. For example:

Q: What's the last movie you saw?

A: I just never get to go to the movies. I'll sit at home, by the way, watching movies. Old movies. My favorites? Gone With the Wind, Casablanca. Pride of the Yankees - I can watch "The Natural" over and over.

He's not steeping himself in popular culture, a necessity in an endeavor that is, at its core, an entertainment that sells itself to an evolving population. The past is comforting to him. I can watch The Natural over and over myself, but not to the exclusion of important ethnographic work about today's teens and young-twenty-somethings such as Dude, Where's My Car & Matrix, Reloaded. Selig, I think, recognizes things are changing and need to, he doesn't try to freeze the game in the past, he's open to change, he just has a tin ear for what that change should be. His changes, because they are out of context with the environment (you get something caught in your throat and cough violently, he says "god bless you"), grate on people and can even create controversy he didn't foresee or even understand as likely because his ear is tin.

Q: Were you surprised at the reaction to the Spider-Man promotion?

A: Yeah, I guess I was. Just remember at Ebbets field when you hit the old Abe Stark clothier sign, you got a free suit. You had the Chesterfield sign in the Polo Grounds emitting smoke. People can say, "But it's different on the bases." Well, No. 1, (the ads) are very small. No. 2, we had ribbons on them Mother's Day to fight breast cancer, and we're going to have blue ribbons on Father's Day for prostate cancer. There are some people who are going to resist every change, no matter what.

But the single thing I have always used as the milestone of MLB's executive lack was the 2002 All-Star Game. As you probably remember, it went extra innings and ended in a tie because there was no contingency plan for an extra-inning game. When one of the teams ran out of pitchers, execs held a hasty meeting and decided to call the game. A frightful, unforgivable managerial performance, not because I think there's anything sacred about the All-Star game (if there ever was, there certainly hasn't been since 1957, and if there's a venue for pure tacky experimentation, it's got to be this flextravaganza), but because they didn't have a plan already in place for a contingency that is so probable. A little over 8% of games go into extra innings, a little more frequently than one game in 13, with that probability meaning about one game per day during the season.


Every individual team in the majors has grounds rules for how long a game can continue as a tie and what happens when the game reaches that trigger point. All 30 team front offices have that nailed. The rule book has specifics of how to handle a regular season game that extends beyond the time the teams can continue to play for whatever reason. Every workgroup of umpires in both leagues have that down.

The commissioner's office didn't think of it in advance.

Q: In 2002 you had the All-Star game in your home town, in the new stadium you pushed to build. Then it ended in a tie and you were ridiculed. What was that like for you?

A: It hurt a lot. That was one of the most uncomfortable nights and days afterwards. It was really heartbreaking. I thought quickly of my options - there were no options.

That's the essence of it right there. This well-meaning, perfectly-intelligent man thought quickly of his options which he shouldn't have been thinking about in that moment because he should have had a contingency plan in place for such an eventuality years previously so if it ever came up, it wouldn't have required quick thinking. We're talking about planning for an occurrencee that happens about 200 times during a regular season.


Selig, sadly, is not extraordinary, just more exposed because baseball is televised and very public. In non-baseball organizations, you see this all the time, especially in the corporate world. It's amazing to me how many $250 million or bigger companies have a man, or (rarely) a woman, at the helm who believes what is past is not only prologue, but the whole book and the epilogue as well. With a manager who knows they have a tin ear and behaves accordingly (delegates this to someone good who does have the aptitude and the power to make things happen), a head person can finesse their disability. But too frequently, the man with his eyes glued to the rear-view mirror does what most of us do -- value the things we do well, and tend to undervalue what we don't.

Yes, the past is important, more important in an endeavor like baseball. But understanding the present, its reality and trajectory, blended with the knowledge of moments and trajectories in the past, is the foundation for planning for change, for the future. If you don't have that aptitude, and Mr. Selig doesn't seem to have even the smallest soupçon of it, you can't manage change.

And if like Selig, and like an overwhelming number of managers and executives, you don't have that ability, you should absolutely not be the woman or man at the very top of an organization.

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