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How “Character” Made the Chicago Cubs World Champions

By Mike Hoban

Mike Hoban

It wasn’t just athletic talent—good hitting and good pitching—that enabled the Chicago Cubs, Major League Baseball’s perennial losers, to finally win a World Series last November, ending a 108-year drought, the longest in baseball. The unique ingredient in the Cubs’ secret sauce for success? That old-fashioned human attribute called “character.”

It became a key factor in the player selection system instituted by Theo Epstein, the Cubs’ president. It supplemented—not replaced—the data analytics focus that has now become de rigueur for baseball operations following its successful introduction into baseball and chronicled in the book and movie "Moneyball" a few years ago.

Character? While most of us find it hard to define exactly what it is, at the same time we agree it’s an important personal attribute. It’s celebrated in our literature, in fables and in stories of heroism as well as in narratives of everyday people and their struggles and their triumphs. We want to instill in our kids; we value it in our friends and colleagues. It’s old-school in the best sense of the word. And we bemoan the perceived absence of it in so many others, especially business and political leaders.

But what does it have to do with playing winning baseball? According to Epstein, plenty.

Fortune magazine recently named Epstein #1 on its annual list of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.  You read that right—not best leader in sports, but World’s Greatest Leader? To put that into perspective, the Pope was only #3, Angela Merkel finished #10, and Elon Musk was an also-ran at a distant 30. Sorry other famous leaders, but as they used to say about the Cubs, “Wait ‘til next year.”

The Fortune article about Epstein was adapted from a new book about him that has a fun but heady title: The Cubs Way: The Zen of Building the Best Team in Baseball and Breaking the Curse. What Epstein did was to look for a powerful intangible that separated the true winners from everyone else. And that intangible was character: a mashup, it seems, of elements we at DDI might call resilience, integrity, emotional intelligence.

BaseballEpstein’s new selection methodology for signing or acquiring players, often as prospects, included interviews with those who knew the players, asking how they dealt with adversity both on and off the field. It was important that players could swing the bat or throw strikes, of course, but Epstein wanted to know what the players were made of.  Like the story of the initial astronaut selection in the 1960’s, he wanted to know if they had the “right stuff.”

Among the specific areas Epstein explored through interviews:

  • How does the player treat people when no one is looking?
  • What do his friends AND his enemies say about him?
  • How does he treat people he doesn’t necessarily have to treat well?
  • Is he internally or externally motivated?

Says Epstein, “If we can’t find the next technological breakthrough, maybe we can be better than anyone else with how we treat our players and the relationships we develop, and how we put them in positions to succeed.”

Epstein’s experience in winning and losing at the highest levels of professional sports (he also helped break another of baseball’s infamous losing streaks when the 2004 Boston Red Sox, for whom he served as general manager, won the World Series for the first time since 1918) told him that he as a leader needed to build a culture of excellence with character at its heart. It would be a difference-maker.

I think the several million people who crowded the Cubs’ victory parade route in Chicago last November would say that he succeeded.

Mike Hoban is a senior consultant for DDI who works with executives in many different industries. He takes way too many pictures of Lake Michigan sunsets.

Posted: 09 May, 2017,

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