Building a Learning Organization, a Lesson from Major League Baseball


It is the first of June, and another Major League Baseball Season is well underway….but there is a long way to go to the World Series which will not conclude until November.  What does it take to win this very difficult championship?

It takes a team.  But not all teams win.

Last night, Joe Maddon, the manager of the Chicago Cubs made an unconventional tactical decision that provides an important window into the foundational strategy of success in organizations: team building.

The Cubs were winning, 2-1 in the 8th inning against an excellent Los Angeles Dodgers team.  Jon Lester, the Cubs pitcher was expecting to come out of the game after throwing 8 hard innings.  Instead, Madden left Lester in the game to pitch the 9th inning.  The Cubs won, with Lester striking out the final batter of the game.

Asked after the game why he left Lester in the game, he said, “experience has taught me that when you leave a starting pitcher in the game in the 9th inning, and he is successful, it is a great confidence builder going forward”.  John Lester was asked about Maddon’s decision.  He said, “I was very surprised that Joe left me in the game, in fact that is the second time this year he has left me in the game to finish the 9th inning when I expected to be pulled for the 9th.  In both cases we won the game, and I must say, it really builds my self-confidence going forward.”

Joe Maddon is known as a “players-coach”.  That is a generic term often used for managers who seem to be well –liked by their players, or managers who let the players have substantial freedom in the way they prepare for games and lead lifestyles that may not meet conventional standards (so long as no laws or ethical standards are broken).  In the case of Maddon, these typical definitions appear to apply to him.

However, strategic player development is the key to Maddon’s success as a manager, something more complex than being well liked.   He understands that a baseball team is made up of consistently high performing individuals at every position on the field.  He understands that how you develop consistent high performance in baseball is very, very difficult.

We must remember that most hitters who make an out 70% of the time are elected to the Hall of Fame.  Put another way, hitters who are successful only 30% of the time go to the Hall of Fame.  That is an example of how difficult the game is to play and to be successful.

Jon Lester is a pitcher.  In order to maintain the velocity, control, and tactical dominance over hitters, he must use his whole body in a fluid motion which drives power and control from his lower body into his shoulders and arms which deliver the pitch.  Injury is common, consistency very rare.  And while it is true that the very best hitters make an out 70% of the time, in the 30% of the times they do not, pitchers’ careers are determined.  The same impact on pitchers’ performance applies to the majority of hitters who make out 75% of the time on average.

Maddon understands that the building of confidence in one’s physical and mental capacity is critical for success in a game decided by such tiny margins of error.

Joe Maddon spent 30 years in the Los Angeles Angels organization as a minor league and major league coach.  He did not have an opportunity to manage a major league team until 2006 when he was 52 years old.  He took the helm of the lowly Tampa Bay Rays.  While there from 2006-2014, he was selected as Manager of the Year twice, won a pennant, and had a winning percentage.

Based on that success, he was hired by the Chicago Cubs in 2015.  The Cubs have not won a World Series since 1908, and have not even been in the World Series since 1945.  In his first year with the Cubs, Maddon led the team to the playoffs, and the Cubs are a consensus pick to win the World Series in 2016.  But that goal is a long way off, with many potential barriers in the way:  injury, player slump, pitching inconsistency, as well as the reality of never knowing which way the ball will bounce on any given play.

With this background, we can learn a great deal from Maddon’s unconventional decision in last night’s game to leave a starting pitcher in the game for the 9th inning, when the common tactic in this situation is to bring in a fresh, hard throwing relief pitcher.  All teams have pitchers who are groomed and trained for this common situation.  Such a pitcher is called a “closer”.  They are called the “closer” because they are expected to have the ability to “close out” the victory.  Closers are only brought into the game when his team is ahead by a small margin towards the end of a game.

Conventional decision-making demands the closer in the 8th inning of last night’s game.  Instead, Maddon left his tired starting pitcher in the game.  Maddon did this to force Lester out of his comfort zone and take the chance that what Lester would learn about himself was more important than making an effort to guarantee (as best as possible) a win with a strong, fresh pitcher who trains every day for just these situations.

Great leaders like Joe Maddon have learned through experience that skill, regimen, strength, and consistency are requirements that each player must possess to have a successful team…that the high performing team is made up of high performers at every position.  He also understands that these attributes are not enough.  He understands that each player on the field must not just possess these skill qualities through 162 regular season games and another 19 post-season games, but excel at each position through the long season to win it all.  In a game of split seconds and millimeters of margin of error, “confidence” is a process factor that makes the critical difference among the skill sets all these great athletes possess.

Maddon’s unconventional decision in last night’s game was for the sole purpose of building confidence in his pitcher.  It was very risky to leave a tired pitcher in the game.  Maddon’s leadership places belief in the player’s own ability to rise to the challenge.  Without the challenge, there is much less to rise to, much less to learn.  It is the learning that Maddon places the highest premium on to attain true high performance.

This example of leadership commitment to the capability of the frontline worker to learn and grow exemplifies an important characteristic of leadership in building teams:  teams will not be built unless they build themselves.

How did Joe Maddon learn this type of leadership?  He made this clear when he was first asked the question about leaving Lester in the game:  “experience”.

Jon Lester earns $20 million per year.  He is a highly successful pitcher having led the Boston Red Sox to two World Series championships.  Why would a pitcher of this caliber need to have his confidence built?

The system, baseball, at any level from sand-lot, to Little League, and all the places on the way to the rarified “Big Leagues” is an unrelentingly complex system designed to cause error.  In that respect it is unlike any other sport because it is a team sport that must respond successfully to potential error on every play, every pitch, every throw, and every catch. Success in baseball is determined by the elimination of errors.

While only one player interacts with the ball at any given moment, each player will have the chance to interact with the ball at some point in variable situations that require different and highly developed skill sets.  A shortstop needs different qualities than a second-baseman, a catcher different from an outfielder, a starting pitcher different from a relief pitcher.  How the team performs at highest possible performance is dependent on the high performance of individuals who possess highly specialized skills.

Learning to use those skills successfully, both individually and collectively is a matter of experience under pressure, where each team member learns to do things he/she does “not have the confidence” to accomplish.  Leadership must create the environment in which that learning can flourish.

Indeed, to err is human.  To build a successful system requires the building of successful teams that can mitigate and eliminate errors through learning from experience, experience which includes skill, ability, and emotional strength.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s