In Baseball as in Organizations, Players, not Tactics, Win Games

Recently I read a review article about a new book on baseball managers. The author was comparing several managers to answer the question: “Who is the better manager? Someone steeped in strategic acumen, the type of guy who constantly shuffles players in and out of a game to get the right “form of play”? Or someone who focuses on the development of talent, a manager who believes that “Players, not tactics, win games”?  Born in New York City with a Yankees gene lodged in my soul, I’ve also seen that talent trumps strategy—and it does so on every field.

When I was a kid there were no play-offs, so the winner of each league was in the World Series. For more than a decade the only question most baseball fans pondered about The Series was which National-League team would be playing the Yankees? We never thought about whether the Yanks’ manager was a tactical genius or not–I mean, when Joe DiMaggio retired, his heir to the center-field position was Mickey Mantle! What did strategy matter to a team stocked with Hall of Famers?

I’m not dismissing all those Harvard Business Review articles detailing the need for powerful strategic processes to inform a way forward. But with the inferno of change engulfing the globe, frying millions of your brain cells attempting to construct a strategic plan prophesying your marketplace five years out is pretty much a waste of time. My friend, it is useless to try to portend what the world will “look like” five years from now. The dynamics of change are just too powerful now, plus the number of factors involved in plotting that change is too high to identify and relate to one another. Having said that, you still need a healthy combination of realistic strategic plans put in the hands of talented people, and those people must be focused on the implementation of the most effective tactics to carry your strategies to a successful outcome. Yet the strength and practicality of that outcome always comes back to people.

While you may not be able to divine strategies well into the future, you should be imbuing your team with a culture that will cause individuals to flourish along with the organization. Cultures are not planned in one-, two-, or five-year increments. Rather, the culture of any organization should be a dynamic, shared state of being or understood environment that acknowledges human complexities—our tendencies to make errors, then adjust and try harder next time.  After all, even in the game of baseball, errors are an acknowledged part of each game’s records.  In baseball, as in corporate life, building a practical, workable culture means that by necessity you acknowledge that attaining perfect success will always be in a state of becoming, and thus will always require leadership’s humane and reasoned attention.

When I was in a leadership position, I often told co-workers that if the culture we had created did not resonate with their values and beliefs, they needed to find another place of employment.  I emphasized that I was not espousing a “love-it-or-leave-it” mentality. Rather, my advice was given with the most holistic intent possible. “Why,” I would ask, “would anyone want to live day after day in a culture that did not speak to their values?  That did not reflect and reinforce their deep beliefs and feelings as to what were proper goals for the work?  As to what was true, good, and aesthetically pleasing to each employee?”  I knew that stationing yourself daily in the sort of environment that’s abrasively at odds with your beliefs and feelings hurts you and feels bad.  Even more dangerous—to do so over long periods of time is unhealthy to mind, spirit, and body.

Organizational cultures don’t come in one-size-fits-all. Rather they are a composite of the leader’s values and beliefs. That’s why care has to be taken both by applicants and those making hiring decisions to openly and rigorously discuss this issue during the hiring process.  It is, of course, a sensitive issue yet one that colors every daily action there, from sharing the copiers to making decisions about the use of capital.  If open definition of the organization’s values doesn’t occur and folks are hired who don’t embrace the organization’s culture, the chances of gradually developing a dysfunctional work family are pretty high. Don’t let it go that far.

Of course, some companies are already acting out daily battles—overt and covert–similar to those in the 1970s TV show “All in the Family,” and as a result, their cultures are pretty toxic.  Competing values among colleagues or family members are a lot funnier on TV than in real life.  Jean and I were on a cruise ship several years ago. I asked one of the servers how long she had worked on the ship. She replied, “Six years, and those of us who have been employed for over ten years are known as ‘heroes.’” She did not explain why, but I thought, wouldn’t it be great if ten-plus-years’ workers were referred to and felt like “the blessed and fortunate” instead?

Whether you are coming into an organization whose culture is on the ropes or you accept and are gladly in the “continuous-improvement” mode, here are some tips on the kind of coworkers I would be looking for to help me produce a positive work culture over the next five years:

  • People who are “expansive thinkers,” not small-minded people. Expansive thinkers have room in their lives for people who disagree with them and actually welcome opposing views. Not so much from contrarians (stay away from those folks!) but opposing views from folks who read and have well developed, thoughtful views of the issues. Addressing dissenting views in open discussion makes for a more pristine work product—though, realistically, having these honest discussions may be unpalatable and even messy at first.  With practice under a leader’s humane, reasoned values, the open talks will become productive in time—stick with it.
  • People who view truth as an infallible compass. These are people who embrace the conjunctive requirement of being true to the organization’s vision and their own consonant personal values.
  • People who don’t rationalize unacceptable behavior.
  • People who want to be in a vibrant organizational atmosphere, who aren’t hiding under their desks when tough decisions must be made or carried out.
  • People who have intellectual curiosity.  Recently I was in an airport with TV monitors at the gates when I noticed something interesting. The sound was off on the monitors, yet many folks were looking up anyway, transfixed by the talking heads even though they didn’t know what they were saying. I would indeed shy away from building an organizational culture with people who have their intellectual curiosity so easily satisfied.  
  • People whose souls allow for a good amount of give and take. Elbert Hubbard allowed that “Every man is a damned fool for at least 5 minutes a day. Wisdom consists of not exceeding that limit.” So I would hire those who have the wisdom to know that it takes some folks a little longer to grasp the rudder than others and therefore can approach changes or tough decisions with patience.
  • People who are neither indifferent, even blasé, nor cynical and sarcastic. Populate your organization with brethren who give of themselves with no calculation of reciprocity in kind—Yep, those people do exist and you need to find them.  They are generally people who like their work.

If you’re fortunate, you already work within a galaxy of beings that carry and express the above traits–individuals I classify as having a spirit of charity. After all, when it comes to winning your company’s iteration of The World Series, you can’t have too many closers!  You can’t have too many great center-fielders and home-run hitters!

About Santo Costa

Sandy Costa is an internationally respected speaker and business leader. Check out Sandy’s website at
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