Well, it’s that time of year again; graduations. Along with the graduations comes the well-worn practice of commencement speeches. Usually, these speeches are given by politicians or successful business leaders who share messages about how to reach success and how the speaker became a successful leader. This year was no different, but there was one commencement address that really caught my eye and should be shown to all graduates, including MBAs.
This exceptional speech was given by Theo Epstein, the head of baseball operations with the Chicago Cubs, at the Yale commencement where he was alum. It is 26 minutes long but the entire speech is well worth it.
Aside from talking about his own college experience, which included a heck of a lot of partying and what it was like developing the poor Chicago Cubbies, Theo also talked about his development as a leader.
This leadership discussion was different from all the others I had heard. This one talked about setting goals that transcended the traditional ones which usually focus primarily on the importance of measures of success. Theo talked about CHARACTER.
He tells the now famous story of how the Cubs were ahead in game 7 and on their way to winning the first World Series since 1908. That’s right over 100 years! In his speech, Theo shares how he was sitting in the stands with his son Jack whom he describes as “a big baseball fan and the math whiz of the family.” As he watched the game continue, his hopes were again tested as the Cubs went from leading by 3 runs—which his son Jack reported left them a 97% chance of winning—to giving up a home run that tied the game with 4 outs to go, leaving them with a 50% chance according to Jack. And just when things looked their bleakest, the heavens opened up and rain poured down causing a rain delay. An omen? More of the same? That is certainly what I felt and, as Theo explains it, really made him aware of the power of the moment.
Now you may think this is the highlight of the story as we all know what happened next. The Cubs went into the dugout, had a team meeting, the rain stopped; they came out and won the game. WORLD SERIES CHAMPS after 108 years. Wow!!
However, Theo’s commencement speech is not just the story of the Cubs big win; it’s about what he learned in that moment about leading and winning. “Keeping your head down” versus “Keeping your head up.”
In the former, you focus on tasks, statistics and individual accomplishments. He calls this the safe approach but he also talks about the other approach, “keeping your head up.” This he describes, “allows us to lead, and, every now and then, to be part of something bigger than ourselves, and, therefore, to truly triumph.”
Yes, talent matters as does learning and knowing your craft, but what really matters as we lead is the latter because here we connect and have empathy.
In that moment during the rain delay, in a very small room in the clubhouse, all of the Cubs players got together and shored each other up. They talked about what it was that got this team to this point. It was not just their talents; it was the strong connections to each other. At that moment, they came together.
What Theo doesn’t highlight enough though is his contribution. He found the talent and had the knack for turning a perennial loser into the best team in baseball. He, maybe unbeknownst to himself, picked players of character. The players on that 2016 World Series championship team rose above their talents. They kept their heads up because they were capable and had the right leadership to do just that.
So, how do you as leaders do the same thing? Remember, talent and skills are important but winners are made of character. So a big key is to create a culture where employees can rise above their talents and hire those with character.