“If you get the culture right, most of the other stuff will just take care of itself.”
Tony Hsieh, Zappos
I am writing this post with a great deal of trepidation, fearful I am about to bestow a new curse upon my beloved Chicago Cubs, a team I have followed fanatically for my entire life. However, the other day I was on a Voxer chat and Joe Mazza--one of the few members of my PLN who understands my passion for all things Cubbies--asked me what I thought about Joe Maddon as their manager now that we are well into his first season in the role. Reflecting on this question, I realized that not only do I consider him an outstanding baseball manager, but I would also hire him to be a principal in our school district. Although I suspect he is not “highly qualified” in the eyes of our State Board of Education, I am confident our students and teachers would fare well were we able to lure him away from Wrigley and bring him to Deerfield to lead one of our schools. In fact, I stand ready to extend him an offer.
What makes me think this? Because school success starts with successful school leadership and successful school leadership looks a whole lot like successful leadership in any other walk of life. Perhaps the foremost responsibility of a successful leader--in schools or on the baseball field--is to, as Tony Hsieh suggests, "get the culture right." In many ways this is a leader's Job #1 and it is a job at which Joe Maddon has excelled. The Chicago Cubs are winning this year NOT because their roster is filled with star players; rather, they are winning because they finally have established a winning culture. Some may disagree regarding my estimation of the players' talent on this year’s squad, so let’s confront some brutal facts about my favorite team:
- As I write these words, the Cubbies are dead last in team batting average in the National League. They are not merely bad in this area, they are the worst in the entire league.
- They are also dead last in team hits, more than 30 hits behind the team immediately ahead of them in this statistic.
- They do find themselves in first place in one batting statistic, however. Unfortunately, that stat is strikeouts. Yep, they lead the league in Ks, having struck out almost 200 times more than the next worst team.
- In terms of individual offensive stats, the Cubbies have nary a hitter who is batting .300 this year, typically considered the batting average of an excellent hitter. In fact, their shining star in this stat is Anthony Rizzo, whose average is a pedestrian .281.
- Maybe they are winning because of defense? Nope. Only 5 of the other 29 teams in the majors have committed more fielding errors than my beloved Cubbies this year. My mom (age 82) would likely commit about as many errors as Starlin Castro has this year had she been playing infield for them.
- Well, it’s gotta be the pitching, then. Statistically speaking, this is a comparative bright spot. Their team ERA of 3.59 places them 5th best among the 15 National League teams, so they perform in the top third. However, they have but two consistently reliable starting pitchers: Jake Arrieta, a true superstar, and Jon Lester. Nearly anyone who follows the team would agree that Lester is the team’s second best starting pitcher. His current record? 8 wins; 10 losses.
Looking at these stats alone, an uninformed observer would be excused for suspecting the Cubs overall team record to be pretty miserable. However, in terms of winning--the only stat that truly counts--the Cubbies are unbelievable: There are but 3 teams in all of Major League Baseball with a better record (unfortunately, of course, for us, 2 of those 3 teams are in our own division). How is it, then, that a team with mediocre talent and statistics among the worst in baseball, finds itself playoff-bound for the first time in years (unless, as I fear, I have now doomed them, adding to the many curses with which they already face)? Leadership. And the Clubhouse Culture that Maddon--and other team leaders (e.g., Rizzo) have created. Are there any comparisons to be made between the Cubbies success so far this year and school success? Here are just a few thoughts:
Relationships First: Maddon cares about the players he leads. He knows them, treats them with dignity and respect, and appears to genuinely like them. Successful school leaders start with relationships, too.
Team Over Individuals: Maddon does not need (and perhaps does not even want) a mere superstar or two on his team. He is interested not in pockets of excellence, but in networks of excellence. He will sacrifice the interests of an individual team member in favor of the interests of the entire team. Successful school leaders cultivate a team mentality, focusing on the collective mission, vision, and values, too.
Gotta Have Fun: Although playing baseball for money seems like a pretty cushy gig, Maddon knows that over a long 162-game season, it can also be grueling. It requires discipline, tedious practice, and an intentional focus on fundamentals. To get the culture right, he is equally intentional about having fun. As an example, look no further than the recent team pajama party! Successful school leaders know that teaching is tough and important work. They find ways to balance this work and seriousness with a regular dose of fun, too.
Believe to Achieve: Many players on this year’s team were also members of the team last year, when they had the worst record in their division. What has changed is not so much a roster overhaul as much as an attitude overhaul. An attitude that believes they can do it. Successful school leaders instill confidence in the students and teachers they lead. They know that when kids believe they can achieve, they are likely to do so. They know that their own belief in their kids’ abilities to succeed influences whether the kids will believe in themselves.
Focus on What You Can Do, not What You Can’t Do: Maddon will not have the league batting champ on his team this year. Nor will he have the Home Run King, the Gold Glove shortstop, an established base stealing threat, or even a left-handed starting pitcher who can execute a pick off throw to first base. Guess what? None of that matters and he wastes little time fretting about it. Instead, he focuses on what he does have: decent hitters, reasonable power, consistent pitching, especially in the bullpen, and outstanding character. Successful school leaders focus on what they do have in front of them and do not waste time complaining about what they do not have.
Would I hire Joe Maddon to be a principal in our school district? Absolutely. Here’s the really interesting part: I actually disagree with many of his tactical decisions, probably more so than I did with Renteria or Sveum before him. I still despise his penchant for batting his pitchers 8th instead of 9th. I decry the lack of sacrifice bunting exhibited under his tenure. Still, I suspect he would be the type of school leader who would create a culture in which others would be empowered and encouraged to do great things. I suspect the students and teachers in a Maddon-led school would find themselves working hard, having fun, and being nice to each other every single day. These things are far more important than any single decisions we may--or may not--support.
So, Joe, please give me a call so we can commence with negotiations (that is, as soon as you wrap up the Series this October!); as difficult as your current gig is, honesty compels me to suggest you will find serving as a school principal even more difficult. However, I am confident you will do well and that you will find it equally--if not even more--rewarding! We likely will be unable to match your salary, but we offer amazing benefits: some of the best students and staff in the free world! Focusing on school and classroom culture like Maddon focuses on clubhouse culture is another way we Teach and Lead with Passion!