The Oscar For Visionary Leadership

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Moneyball is the story of an intractable business problem solved by visionary leadership. It is my pick for the best leadership film of the year.

This is the true story of the 2002 Oakland A's, one of the poorest teams in baseball. When rich competitors gut the team of its star players, GM Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt, must solve the riddle of putting a competitive team on the field without throwing money he doesn't have at the problem.

Reflection leads to Insight

Beane struggles to find players to replace the positions lost using conventional means to solve the problem. He quickly comes to the conclusion that a conventional approach won't work. His payroll is $41 million. By comparison, the Yankees will spend over $125 million.

"There are rich teams and poor teams," says Beane. "Then there's fifty feet of crap... And then there's us."

Beane recognizes that in order to field a competitive baseball team he will need to think very differently about the game.

 

Willingness To Risk

In a meeting to explore potential trades with the GM of the Cleveland Indians, Beane notices an assistant, Peter Brand, played by Jonah Hill. Brand, looks more like a nerdy accountant than a baseball executive, but appears to have the ear of the front office. Beane wants to know why.

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When Brand shares a radical new system for player evaluation that is driven more by computer programs and spreadsheets and less by traditional scouting, Oakland's Moneyball system is born.

"Your goal shouldn't be to buy players. Your goal should be to buy wins," explains Brand. "In order to buy wins, you need to buy runs." Beane and Brand set out to rebuild the Oakland roster based on sabermetrics, the evidence and analysis-based system that drives the Moneyball strategy.

Fielding a team that is competitive and affordable is possible if Brand's metrics are to be believed. It will require two things: vision and the commitment to buck the system. "I believe there's a championship team we could afford because everyone else undervalues them," say Brand. "They're like an island of misfit toys."

Imagine the difference it might make if organizational leaders searched their own organizations for the undervalued contributors, and began to utilize them more effectively?

Meeting Resistance

What makes this film — and the real-life example on which it is based — so compelling is that change is not depicted as easy or instantaneous. The resistance of the Oakland A's organization to the notion that statistics, or "geek numbers," could open a new approach to building a competitive baseball team is almost universal.

The new Oakland A's, made up of misfits, castoffs and fading stars, flounders. Meanwhile, the baseball establishment, the media and the fans are incensed by Beane's approach. "How long is Billie Beane going to last?" asks the scornful voice of talk radio?

Even Beane's family is affected by the growing clamor over Moneyball. His daughter is especially worried and wonders if he will lose his job. He tries to reassure her that it is not in the cards and there is no cause for concern.

Like any visionary leader who is out to change the status quo — and who has no evidence to support his vision — Beane's private moments are visited by doubt. "This better work," say Beane to Brand with a rueful chuckle.

As the pressure mounts, things come to a crisis. Head scout, Grady Fuson, a baseball traditionalist, quits in disgust. "You're discounting what scouts have done for 150 years" he exclaims!

The A's Manager, Art Howe, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, openly resists putting the Moneyball team on the field. Instead, he chooses to ignore the new system and field the team in a way that he believes will do the least damage.

They lose and lose and lose.

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Overcoming Doubt and Removing Obstacles

Art Howe isn't the only on-field stumbling block to the vision. The players are also doubtful. Beane must convince them to buy-in to the system and, more importantly, to believe in themselves.

Some are asked to play positions that they have never played before. Others are asked to take on leadership roles that are unfamiliar. A dramatic locker-room scene depicts Beane chastising his players who appear to be celebrating after a loss. He decides that more drastic measures must be taken to advance the Moneyball vision.

Beane starts trading players to force Manager Howe and the team to comply. He moves players out that Howe favors, leaving only those who drive the new system.

"You can't start Pena at first tonight," Beane informs Howe. "You'll have to start Hatteberg."

"Why," asks Howe?

"He (Pena) plays for Detroit now."

Beane also trades the problem children on the roster, notably Jeremy Giambi, the hard-partying, underachieving brother of superstar Jason Giambi.

Organizational leaders who have had anything to do with leading change will find these circumstances eerily familiar. The old guard and the rebels are often the last to buy into change. Their support — or lack of it — can spell the difference between success and failure. And sometimes people have to go for the good of the team.

 

Enrolment 

 

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Beane and Brand are smart enough to recognize that buy-in is urgently required if they are to pull off their strategy. They begin to show the players the numbers, and why they are important. They also begin to apply analytics to individual performance, supporting their case for Moneyball.

The lesson here for leaders is not to wait for people to get it. Communicate the vision, the benefits and risks, early and often. That way, the vision has a fighting chance of being adopted with less resistance by those who must execute it.

Finally, even Art Howe begins to see that resistance is futile. He puts the team on the field the way that Beane and Brand envision it. With management, the coaches and the players on the same page, Moneyball takes off in Oakland.

 

Breakthrough

The Oakland A's fortunes turn for the better. They begin to win... and win... and win. The revitalized A's go on a 20-game tear between August 13th and September 4th, and go from league bums to World Series favorites.

Suddenly the Oakland Disaster becomes The Miracle in Oakland and fan frenzy replaces criticism and anger. The media crowns Art Howe a genius, not recognizing that the Moneyball system is the real reason Oakland's fortunes have changed so dramatically.

 

Spoiler Alert

The A's finish first in the American League West with 103 wins and 59 losses despite having lost stars Johnny Damon, Jason Giambi and Jason Isringhausen the previous season. Is a World Series in the cards for the Oakland A's?

If you haven't seen the movie, read the book, or followed big-league baseball circa 2002 you might be disappointed to learn that the A's went out in the American League Division playoff, losing to the Minnesota Twins, 3-2.

Beane is despondent. He believes that he has failed to make the case for Moneyball because he did not win the World Series.

Two extraordinary conversations change his mind.

The first is with owner of the Boston Red Sox, who offers Beane $12 million dollars to bring Moneyball to Boston. The second is between Beane and Brand, who points out that despite the loss, baseball has been changed forever.

The lesson here is that visionaries can lose perspective depending on how they define success. Looking at a smaller frame could lead to an assessment that the Oakland A's 2002 season was a disappointment. But the larger picture tells a very different story. Billy Beane and his island of misfit toys changed baseball forever.

Posted on February 1, 2012 .