A Semi-Off-Topic Post for a Friday

The off-topic part is that it involves baseball. The “semi-” part is that it’s about leadership, an all-too-rare quality.

Morgan Ensberg is a former slightly-above-average infielder for the Houston Astros and a few other teams. But he’s also a keen observer of the game.

(Related question: Why do great players rarely make great managers? There are exceptions — Joe Torre in baseball and Phil Jackson in basketball were above average though not great players — but by and large, the most successful managers or coaches were mediocre as players. And yes, this is a relevant question, your honor.)

He describes a baseball problem in part 1 of this two-parter. If you’re into baseball, read it because it’s a really good problem. If you think baseball is a simple game where the sole tactical issue is figuring when to bring in a relief pitcher, read it because it offers a good look into how complex tactically the game really is when played at this level.

He offers the answer — at least, his answer — in part 2. If you’re curious about the tactical problem he posed in part 1, read it all. If you want a great insight into leadership, skip down to the heading “What I Really Just Did….”

The manager’s real job in this situation is to instill confidence, to remind the players to believe in themselves and their abilities, to move quickly and surely and not second-guess themselves. Having a manager watch over your shoulder, ready to pounce on any mistake, is the surest way to make mistakes — maybe not the particular mistakes the manager is watching for, but the mistake of withdrawing, the mistake of trying-not-to-fail rather than striving-to-succeed-and-risking-failure.

The prosecutor who brags about never having lost a case in court makes sure that only slam-dunk cases go to trial; how many miscreants go free or plead to minor crimes because this prosecutor is unwilling to place the mission of determining facts in the hands of the jurors? The manager who claims never to have made a bad hire may never had made a great hire, either, because great hires are often risks. (That said, good managers will have more success with all of their hires, and good prosecutors will win cases that bad prosecutors lose.)

Why Don’t Great Players Make Great Managers (Coaches)?

Ensberg was never a great player. There are two ways to make it at the big league level. One way, the one everyone sees, is to have enormous talent. The other is to be of average talent but become a student of the game, taking advantage of situational knowledge and small mistakes. (Exhibit A, 47-year-old pitcher Jamie Moyer still getting folks out with a fastball that is “fast” only in that it’s not as slow as his other pitches.) One of those situations, incidentally, is getting along with other players, especially those more talented than you.

Come time to manage, and your athletic skills don’t matter. What does matter is your knowledge of the game, the ability to apply and transmit that knowledge, and your ability to get along with and motivate highly talented — and highly paid — athletes. Who’s more likely to be a successful manager, a superstar like Alex Rodriguez or a player like Morgan Ensberg?

The same is true in business. Many people who are enormously effective as managers weren’t necessarily the best salesperson, the best programmer, the best attorney. People management is a skill, and an art, that is not necessarily correlated with the manager’s skill in the area being managed.

To get the worst of both worlds, take your most productive individual contributor and make her a manager, simply because she’s so productive. All of a sudden she won’t be as productive because she now spends time managing rather than producing, and there’s not certainty she’ll be able to teach or inspire others to produce at a higher level.

It’s hard for many organizations to recognize that leadership is a special skill, not something you simply glue onto a top producer. Both managerial and leadership skills can be taught, and learned, but they don’t necessarily come with the original package; they’re extras.

They’re extras well worth paying for, however.

As Ensberg’s “manager” says, “Alright guys.  No problem here.”

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