The Human Touch Is Essential

Theo Epstein’s leadership created world champions in Chicago and Boston.

Fortune Magazine released its list of the world’s 50 best leaders recently,.

It’s a diverse list—from a variety of professions—and includes 25 women among the top leaders, which is very cool.

Topping the list is Theo Epstein– the architect of the Chicago Cubs’ World Series win–which broke a 108 year “curse”/ drought for Cubs fans. Epstein was also at the helm when the Red Sox ended their decades long curse in 2004 with a World Series win.

The profile of Epstein was fascinating to read.

Sports Illustrated senior baseball writer Tom Verducci describes the evolution of a man whose understanding of important human qualities among his players—the character, discipline and chemistry that turn skilled athletes into leaders—enabled him to engineer one of the most remarkable turnarounds in sports history.

It’s an important message in an era where it seems like we are being overwhelmed by technological change all of which seems to be displacing humans. Machine learning, artificial intelligence, data analytics, augmented reality, automated driving, robotics—all have some wonderful attributes but you can’t help but feel that people may be rendered obsolete by all these “advancements.” As Bruce Springsteen sings:  “I just want something to hold on to…and a little of that Human Touch.”

A tech blogger recently surveyed Silicon Valley “disruptors” to determine where they see all this going. The prevailing sentiment is that we will become a society in which a few amazing minds will render everyone else unemployable through technology that replaces jobs. Nice.

These tech geniuses—said to be benevolent—will make enormous sums of money and governments will be forced to tax them heavily to pay for the rest of us to sit around and consume. Next time you have a moment; search Google for “universal basic income” and you’ll learn more. You may not sleep again, but at least you’ll be informed.

This is why it’s great to see that leaders like Theo Epstein succeed by valuing what makes us human.

Sure, he has numbers crunchers looking at how players perform with two strikes, a man on base, in humid conditions on the road against southpaws who throw wicked curveballs. But Epstein also values character, chemistry and discipline.

From the Fortune piece:

“A few weeks before spring training of 2012, in the ballroom of a budget hotel in Mesa, Ariz., Theo Epstein stood before nearly every person connected with the baseball operations of the Chicago Cubs and told them how the Cubs were going to win the World Series.

Epstein devoted the first three days of the session to on-field strategy: hitting philosophy, pitching philosophy, defense, and baserunning. But the entire last day was devoted to character. The Cubs, Epstein insisted, would acquire only players with outstanding makeup. Even Epstein realized himself how far he had evolved since he put so much faith in numbers when he began as general manager of the Red Sox. Now character did not just matter. It was essential to Epstein’s blueprint to win the World Series.

There was a reason character loomed so large in Epstein’s thinking, a reason that helped explain why Epstein was spending spring training in Arizona with the Cubs and not in Florida with the Red Sox. Epstein’s devotion to a Moneyball ­approach—data-driven analysis that helped teams identify and accumulate players with little-noticed but crucial strengths—had succeeded inestimably in Boston, where he steered the team to six playoff appearances and two World Series titles in nine seasons as general manager, helping the team break its own 86-year-old championship drought along the way.

But character and chemistry were strengths that a “quant” approach couldn’t capture, and in 2011, in what turned out to be Epstein’s final season in Boston, their absence was painfully clear as the team underwent a late-season collapse. The more the team lost, the more it broke apart from within. Players ­feuded with one another. The egos that had created cracks in the clubhouse while they were winning caused deep fissures as they lost.”

This story resonated with me on a deep level.

We’ve all been part of winning organizations that soured under the weight of ego and hubris (fatal arrogance).

As Delray Beach was making its ascent, former City Manager David Harden would warn that the biggest challenge would be “surviving success.”

I have to admit, I didn’t understand that sentiment, until I saw it play out.

When businesses, organizations, agencies and cities reach a certain level of “success” there’s a tendency for one or more of the following afflictions to crop up: complacency, arrogance, egomania, fear.

The worst thing to assume is to think you’re bullet proof or that the cash register will always ring because it happens to be ringing now.

Despite our sometimes heated discussions—that always end amicably and usually with laughter—I have learned a lot from Fran Marincola, who owns Caffe Luna Rosa. Fran is part owner– with me and three others –of Four Story Media Group which publishes the Delray and Boca Newspaper. As he might put it, he owns enough to have a voice, but not enough to insist that something he suggests actually gets done. But despite his lack of voting power, he has influence. Why?

Because he makes sense and because he has succeeded in a very tough business over a long period of time.

Fran sweats the details and he’s constantly trying to get better. Paper or cloth for the tables, how much do the forks weigh (seriously), menu tweaks, where photos are hung in the place and on and on and on. No detail is too small, because Fran believes it all counts and it does. He’s the opposite of complacent and that’s why he’s successful.

I’m sure there are analytics and data out there that you can purchase to try and build a successful restaurant. But there’s just no substitute for judgment and experience. The human touch…

It has worked for the Cubs…it works for cities, schools, non-profits and for just about any sustainable business or organization you can find.

Even Google is going to learn that lesson.

Thanks to “programmatic” ad buying by automation, major companies saw their web ads placed on websites next to hate speech including sites promoting the Islamic State—embarrassing the companies and creating revenue for the hate and terrorist groups. It’s shocking and terrible.

So AT&T, Verizon, Johnson & Johnson and others said enough. Take our ads off You Tube and off these sites—we’re done with you Google, until you find humans who can fix  the problem.  Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc., will lose tens of millions of dollars as a result and will be forced to address the issue by hiring people—what a concept.

Let’s hope humanity spreads because it’s truly irreplaceable and needed now more than ever.

Said Epstein, “ If we can’t find the next technological breakthrough, well, maybe we can be better than anyone else with how we treat our players and how we connect with players and the relationships we develop and how we put them in positions to succeed. Maybe our environment will be the best in the game, maybe our vibe will be the best in the game, maybe our players will be the loosest, and maybe they’ll have the most fun, and maybe they’ll care the most.”

So where would you rather, play, work, live? A place that values and honors humanity or a cold, purely analytical environment?

 

 

More from the Fortune piece.

What Business Can Learn From the Cubs’ History-Making Win

 

  1. Hire for character

How employees treat one another or cope with adversity can be more important to your success than their sales numbers or skill sets.

  1. See data’s limits

A statistics-driven strategy won’t help you if all your competitors are using similar techniques with similar data. Do you truly have an analytical edge?

  1. Foster connections

Epstein credits the Cubs’ success in part to the years-long relationships among their core players. “People don’t like working in isolation,” he says.

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Bern Ryan says:

    Love the Bruce quote!

    I don’t buy in that Jetson version of the future! New jobs will emerge from new technologies, plumbers will still plumb, police will still police and you damn well know we are never getting rid of lawyers!

    I have faith in humanity and refuse to become a Luddite!

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