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April 10, 2015

Pitching Backward

The Future of Leadership

by Jeff Long

“Leadership, to me, it's guys having certain qualities," McCann said. "It's guys that show up every night that will do anything and everything for the guy next to him. I feel like we have a lot of guys that do that." – Brian McCann to Bounce Back in 2015, Excited to Meet Alex Rodriguez.

According to McCann, the Yankees clubhouse is packed to the gills with leaders. Everywhere you turn in the Yanks’ posh clubhouse you'll find baseball's equivalent of a Tibetan monk, just waiting to offload wisdom on younger players. It's what teams all over baseball apparently aspire to. Here’s John Hart on Jonny Gomes:

“Good player who fits our club as left-field power, and wears out left-handed pitching,” said John Hart, Braves president of baseball operations. “Equally attractive is his passion for the game, his clubhouse presence, and ability to impact his teammates through good times and bad. And winning player who has an old-school approach to the game.” – Braves Sign Veteran Gomes for bat and leadership

In fact, Gomes’ leadership was described as the main reason the Cubs should be interested in him this past offseason, before Hart swept in and presumably stole Gomes out from under Theo & company.

Jason Giambi also has a reputation as a terrific leader in the clubhouse, slump busting golden thong notwithstanding:

“[Giambi] brings huge leadership,” Francona added. “He is very good at helping guys. He has the demeanor that guys like to come to him for help and advice.” - Cleveland manager Terry Francona loves Jason Giambi’s clutch hitting, leadership skills

This offseason Russell Martin signed a five year, $82 million contract with the Toronto Blue Jays. He was also the subject of a terrific piece from Gabe Kapler about on-field leadership:

“Some guys are more inclined to respond to fire," he told me. "With them, I’ll use some fire. Some guys need a pat on the back. I’ll pat them on the back. There’s all different types of personalities. It’s almost like I’m a psychologist, sometimes.” - Russell Martin's Leadership Might Be Ephemeral, But It's Real

Bolded emphasis above is mine, but I wanted to specifically call out the idea that Martin plays another big role in addition to being one of the best catchers in the majors.

Many of the biggest stars who signed this past offseason were lauded at one point or another for their leadership skills. Jimmy Rollins was compared to a famed leader from Dodgers history. Pablo Sandoval impressed his new manager with his leadership skills. Sabermetric darling Joe Maddon provided some provocative soundbites to Mike Ferrin and Jim Duquette on his $155 million ace’s quiet leadership style. Local media worried that perhaps the Tigers might miss Max Scherzer and Torii Hunter’s presence in the locker room. Finally, we have GM Mike Rizzo using the word “leader” four times in the first 26 seconds of an interview about Max Scherzer.

All of this is to serve as some relevant background for a series of tweets from Dirk Hayhurst that assessed the state of leadership development in Major League Baseball (note: I rearranged the tweets to be read from top to bottom):

Hayhurst describes a phenomenon wherein teams clearly seem to value leadership traits in players they acquire but don't invest in leadership development. Christopher Long, the former director of analytics for the San Diego Padres, agreed that major-league teams might not be doing everything they can to actually develop leaders internally:

Now, I’m not going to try to guess which teams are developing leaders really well and which aren’t. There simply isn’t enough information out there to do that, and it’s naïve to suggest that we know enough about how teams view something like leadership development in order to make any judgments. What we can do is explore the difficulties with developing leaders in this unique circumstance, and what an ideal development model might look like.

In order to do that I spoke with Gib Mason, the Chief Operating Officer of the UMBC Training Centers and Director of the Training Centers’ Center for Leadership and Innovation. Not only is Gib an expert at developing leaders, but he’s also been a lifelong baseball fan who spent nearly 20 years coaching youth baseball.

The current leadership development model in major-league baseball—at least in most cases—revolves around older players or coaches taking younger players under their wing. Be it in the majors or Low-A, the idea of a veteran or coach mentoring a younger player seems to be pretty common. Having a good mentor in place was even a key part of Adam LaRoche’s decision to join the White Sox, and he’s not exactly a rookie at this point. This can be either positive or negative because it “hinges on the capability, quality, or desire of the mentor to participate in that relationship,” according to Mason. “Most people require some training or development themselves in order to excel at training and mentoring others.” (Note: in the following paragraphs, when we say training we are referring to off-field, leadership development training.)

When the quality of the training or leadership development relies upon not just the knowledge of the mentor but also their aptitude and interest in training someone else, teams can’t ensure that a consistent training is taking place within their organizations. It means that your team’s all-star-caliber center doesn’t necessarily have the skills to develop your hot young prospect off the field. It’s also not difficult to imagine a world where a veteran player doesn’t want to engage in training the guy he might see as his potential replacement.

It takes a certain kind of player or coach to train others properly, according to Mason:

“You’re either motivated by the success of the organization first, teammates second, and yourself third or you’re motivated by your success first, and everything else then follows. If a player is willing to make the success of the organization their number one priority—engaging in something we call Servant Leadership— for the betterment of the team; that’s where winning teams come from”.

This makes intuitive sense, that the best people positioned to train and develop leaders are ones who are not preoccupied with their own personal successes. That’s not to say that those individuals aren’t driven to succeed, but that they view their success as being inextricably tied the success of the overall organization.

Now that we know what some of the pros and cons of the current model are, we can explore in some depth what must be done to implement a solid training and leadership development program across an entire organization. The first step is working to understand the context that each player operates within and where they are coming from in regards to that context. For the purpose of this exercise, let’s consider the Washington Nationals. “Context is common among every player on the big-league roster. How they come at that context though is different,” according to Mason. That is, both Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth are on the big-league roster and experiencing similar things. That said, Harper is coming from a very different place than Werth because of age differential, comparative salaries, and roles on the team. Understanding how those similar and disparate factors impact each player's ability to grow and develop is “arguably the biggest challenge,” according to Mason.

Even the context between levels within the same organization can be very different. “If I’m dealing with the Low-A team and the MLB team, then I need to understand that the context of those 18- to 24-year-olds playing in Low-A is very different than what players the same age at higher levels of the organization might experience." In other words: Bryce Harper lives in a very different world than Christopher Bostick, though each is 22 years old. Harper has been a major leaguer for several seasons, while Bostick is working his way through the Nationals' minor-league system, dealing with many of the issues that have been chronicled among baseball players dozens of times before.

In order to properly implement a training program, you “would need to assess, at each level of the organization, where these athletes are in terms of their leadership and professional development,” says Mason. Taking stock of the current situation seems obvious, but we often don’t associate that with “essential skills,” what Mason and the Center for Leadership and Innovation call leadership traits and the like. So what exactly goes into this exercise? Mason explains:

“There are two key components: Perspective and Empathy. What is the perspective of these different players? How are they coming at their opportunity? A 22 year old [like Bostick] arguably has a greater perspective for growth than Bryce Harper, because he’s already made such significant movement within the organization. That said we need to be empathetic to where Harper is in his personal growth and cognitive development. He’s already made great leaps in his career on the field, but now needs to focus on smaller growth opportunities rather than ‘I want to be a Hall of Famer’”.

For a player like Bostick, who has significant room for growth both on the field and off, there are different opportunities for development than Harper. In this way Mason is advocating for personalized leadership growth plans that take into account not only where a player is within the organization, but also each player's own personal situation and perspective.

There’s another phenomenon to consider when looking at leadership development programs for a major-league organization. There’s a trend toward and appreciation for players who dedicate themselves obsessively to their craft. That’s one way to look at it, but Mason suggests another: “Major-league players get so severely focused that they might lose sight of the rest of the world, missing an opportunity to be developed as a greater human being, beyond baseball, in the process.” Most teams have different philosophies around the offseason, and many players do in fact have hobbies on the side. But it's easier to have hobbies when a player is not so worried about proving himself to his club, something that once again puts the younger players who need developing at a disadvantage.

There is one final component that should be included, should a team look to implement a formalized leadership development program. That component includes training for the coaches and front office staff in an effort to create a culture that accepts and embraces change. After all, this will be a new paradigm within baseball, so it’s important that the entire organization is working together to move forward. According to Mason, “simply training the coaches while/after training the players makes the subordinate group feel more engaged, empowered, and excited about their opportunity to grow and develop.” It’s not uncommon for trainees to become disillusioned when they don’t feel supported by their superiors (be it veterans or coaches) within the organization. A two-pronged approach ensures that both sides are put in a position to succeed while embracing new opportunities to learn and grow.

The goal here is to create a “common language” says Mason, “one that goes beyond the field of play, allowing the third base coach to speak in terms that match what the organization is trying to achieve.” That might seem absurd given the circumstances we believe to be present today in many organizations, but we’re really not that far off. Gabe Kapler’s hiring in Los Angeles shows that Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi value the off-field contributions that Kapler can provide. Sure, much has been made of Kapler’s expertise on things like nutrition and workout regimens, but he’s been a force behind other very important changes too. The Nationals hired another former major leaguer, Rick Ankiel, as a “life skills coordinator,” another salvo in the fight for an emphasis on personal development in MLB organizations:

“I’m a resource and a confidant for these guys,” Ankiel said. “Anything they need help with. If they want to talk about stuff on the field or if they need help with something off the field, whatever it may be I’m just here for them to lean on and pass along all the things I’ve learned along my way.” - Rick Ankiel, Nationals’ life skills coordinator, reports for duty

Mason sees this type of leadership training as akin to catcher framing. It is “arguably as important as any of the other training that a player might receive as they move through an organization; it just might require a team that does it and does it well in order for us to understand and properly value it.” The hope is that a proactive effort to develop players as human beings will lead to a shift in the way teams and fans view them.

The Josh Hamilton saga suggests that teams view players as “a line item on their income statement,” says Mason. That is, they view players as expenses who, should there be a lapse in performance, are eminently expendable. Through leadership development, players might be seen as “a line item on the balance sheet, or an asset in other words,” says Mason, a necessary shift in the thinking of teams.

At the heart of sabermetrics is the idea that small advantages, identified and applied properly, can give a team an advantage over their rivals. With the Nationals and Dodgers taking big steps in this direction it seems to be a matter of when, not if, a major league team will reap the rewards from a formalized leadership development program.

Special thanks to Gib Mason for taking the time to discuss two of his passions: baseball and leadership development, and to the Planit Public Relations team for setting up the interview.

Jeff Long is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jeff's other articles. You can contact Jeff by clicking here

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