Team Lessons from the Chicago Cubs
“Love is the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good, too.”
For several years, I presented an Eye Opener at the Annual Meeting entitled The Five Fundamental Laws of Team Care. Early in the presentation, I would ask the question, “Why do some teams win, while others don’t?” I illustrated the question with well-known examples from the world of baseball. “Win” was represented by the logo of the New York Yankees; “don’t,” by that of the perennial flops of major league baseball, the hapless Chicago Cubs. And why not? The team had not played in the World Series since 1945 and had not won a world championship since 1908. In 2011, the Cubs finished the season a dismal 20 games under .500. With time, a century-long history of doing the same thing, leading to the same miserable result, had created a “loveable loser” culture in the clubhouse on the North Side of Chicago.
But then things changed. On October 12, 2011 the Cubs hired Theo Epstein as their president and Jed Hoyer as their general manager. Suddenly, the culture of the organization began to look very different. Soon thereafter, something remarkable happened: the Cubs began to win. This year, the Cubs finished the season with a record of 103-58, an astounding 45 games over .500 and an extraordinary 17.5 games ahead of the second-place St. Louis Cardinals. In the end, they clinched the National League Championship from my beloved hometown L.A. Dodgers, earning themselves a chance to win the World Series for the first time since Theodore Roosevelt occupied the White House. The triumph of the Chicago Cubs can rightfully be attributed to the team’s adherence to several fundamental principles of team management. In their successful approach to perspective and motivation, talent acquisition and development, leadership, and celebration can be found several valuable lessons for our own teams.
Purpose: Successful teams are fully engaged by the meaningfulness of their purpose. The goal of all teams is simply this: to win. Of course, “winning” means different things to different teams. For the Cubs, winning quite literally means outscoring their opponents in the games that they play. For craniofacial teams, winning means ensuring that patients and families enjoy the best outcomes and quality of life. In order to win, team members must not only understand the team’s primary goal but also take ownership of its meaning with respect to their purpose, both as individuals and as a group. Just as important is the ability to maintain, win or lose, a sense of humility and a healthy perspective of reality. After the Cubs were swept by the New York Mets in the 2015 National League Championship Series, Epstein noted: “Managing success can be really difficult. You have to be really careful that you don’t have an organizational arrogance that takes hold or a sense of entitlement or a sense of complacency. But I don’t even think we’re there yet. We’ll deal with that after we win a World Series. We are not there yet. All we did was finally get to October, knock off the Pirates and win a series at home against the Cardinals. But we fell short of our ultimate goal. There’s so much that we have to do to just maintain the level that we accomplished this year, let alone improve upon it and then win the ultimate prize. Nothing is promised in this game. Nothing is promised in life. There are teams that think they have these surefire five-year windows and have often seen them slam shut in front of them through bad luck or bad performance or bad decision-making. We don’t take anything for granted. We have to work our tails off to get back to a position where we have another shot at October.” And so they did.at
Talent. Legendary football coach and sports philosopher John Madden once said: “To win, you have to have good players.” Although his seems magnificently obvious, it is a fact that is too often overlooked in today’s world. There is simply no substitute for talent in any team’s success. Yes, hard work is important, but talent and skill are absolutely necessary in order to win. Successful teams recognize that talent adds value. They understand how to leverage individual strengths in order to achieve their goals.
The luckless 2011 Chicago Cubs had several players that eventually contributed to the team’s success. But key talent had to be added. That meant adding player personnel through drafts and free agent signings. Epstein made several strategic gambles after taking over the Cubs’ helm in 2011. For example, many scouts had written Jake Arrieta and Anthony Rizzo off, but Epstein saw their potential, took some risks, and traded for both of them. Two seasons later, Arrieta won the National League’s Cy Young Award, was Major League Baseball’s wins leader, pitched a no-hitter, and set a major league record with a 0.75 earned run average. This year, Rizzo was arguably the best first baseman in the major leagues, starting at the first base in the 2016 All-Star game after receiving the most fan votes in the National League.
Epstein also focused on building up the Cubs’ farm system with young talent and nurturing that talent, building what he called a “player-development machine” focused on hitting, His strategy payed off. The Cubs now have the youngest, and perhaps most talented, lineup of pure hitters in the league. And their farm club is stocked with valuable players that will no doubt join a winning team at Wrigley Field over the next several years.
It is just as important for us to ensure that our teams have all of the talent they need and to determine if new resources are necessary in order to fulfill our purpose. Team leaders should provide the learning opportunities necessary for team members to grow, to fulfill their full potential, and to add maximal value to the team. It should go without saying that team members are most valuable where they add the most value. Great team leaders identify talent and put it in its proper place. But it is also incumbent upon team members themselves to have the strength and the will to fully express their talents. At the end of the day, the only real difference between talent and genius is the courage to do so.
Leadership: For teams to be successful, talent alone is never enough. When it comes to winning, everything rises and falls on leadership. Armed with a passionate sense of their own purpose, successful leaders set and communicate a compelling vision for their team, establish an enduring team culture, recruit and develop talent, and provide the steady feedback and guidance necessary for the team to grow and to win.
In order to inspire and coach the Cubs’ talent, Epstein recruited Joe Maddon, a true wizard of a manager and one of the finest in major league baseball. After a successful eight-year run during which he turned around the woeful Tampa Bay Rays, Maddon took charge of a lineup of talented young Cubs hitters and veteran pitchers. He is well known for his unique ability to combine sound baseball strategy with an ability to understand his players and to connect with them. His players trust him implicitly and always know that he has their backs. In Tampa, Maddon gave his players the chance to simply be themselves, in much the same way that he always displayed his own authenticity. An example of this was the annual tradition he established of having rookies dress up. One year, the Rays rookies dressed as Mario Brothers characters. Maddon is also known for espousing his homespun philosophy, very much in the tradition of the legendary Yogi Berra, and for posting inspirational quotes on bulletin boards in the clubhouse. His “Maddonisms” include encouragement to his players to “do simple better,” to “embrace the target,” and in what would become the slightly off-color rallying cry for the 2016 National League champions, to “try not to suck.” The last of these can now be found emblazoned with an image of Maddon’s iconic eyeglasses on T-shirts throughout the Chicago area, sales of which benefit his own charitable foundation.
“He’s been fundamental in the success this year,” said Epstein. “The organization has been amassing young talent and turning around for three years now, but it’s really hard to capture just the right vibe at the big-league level, and he’s a master at it. All our players, young, old and in between, love being around him. . . . He creates the perfect environment for players to be themselves and perform at the highest level while having fun. That’s priceless.” Maddon’s success shows us that truly effective leadership is never granted as a position or title, but is earned through character, trust, humility, and authenticity. This is a universal fact, one that is as true in medicine as it is in baseball.
Fun. In 2015, Joe Maddon had a disco ball and lights installed in the Cubs’ clubhouse. “I just think it’s very important to celebrate,” he explained. As busy as we are as a team, we should never neglect to take the time celebrate one another and our successes, both as individuals and as a team. Celebrations unify and motivate our teams, while reminding us of our greater purpose. They allow us to take a well-deserved break from the hard work that we do for our patients and their families to focus on one another while recognizing each other’s value. In his introductory Cubs press conference in November 2014, Maddon warned: “Don’t ever permit the pressure to exceed the pleasure.” Maddon placed those words at the top of his lineup card every night. Baseball, after all, is only a game. True, our work is far more serious and far more consequential. The curveballs that we face are far more difficult to hit. Still, the pressure of our daily work should never exceed the pleasure. We can experience the joy of being part of a team of players that care for one another as they care for others. We have the uncommon privilege of serving children that need our care, and we have been blessed with the talents needed to make a real difference.
In the end, the keys to winning in team care are the same as those to winning in baseball: Play hard. Do your best. Keep your eye on the ball. Have fun.
By the time this is published, the World Series will be over, and the ultimate fate of the 2016 Chicago Cubs will be known. But win or lose, we all owe a debt of gratitude to a team has taught us some valuable lessons in what has truly been a remarkable season for the loveable losers of the North Side.