Cubs’ Theo Epstein a leader among leaders

Theo Epstein gave a classy response to Fortune’s honor.
Theo Epstein gave a classy response to Fortune’s honor. AP

Being named the world’s greatest leader might go to some people’s heads. Not the Chicago Cubs’ Theo Epstein, who helped bring home the club’s first World Series championship in 108 years.

Late last week, Fortune Magazine came out with its annual ranking of the people it calls the best leaders in the world, putting Epstein first on the list. But Epstein didn’t seem impressed. ESPN senior writer Buster Olney wrote that he received this text from the much-heralded baseball executive: “Um, I can’t even get my dog to stop peeing in my house,” Epstein wrote him. “This is ridiculous. The whole thing is patently ridiculous.”

“It’s baseball – a pastime involving a lot of chance,” he continued. “If [second baseman Ben] Zobrist’s ball is three inches farther off the line, I’m on the hot seat for a failed five-year plan. And I’m not even the best leader in our organization; our players are.”

It might be the response one would expect to hear from an Ivy League-educated analytical guy now known as baseball’s wunderkind-turned-sage. But at a moment when the U.S. president wonders aloud whether he holds the record on Time magazine covers, it’s also a refreshing answer that shows exactly why Epstein is a leader worth the attention, even if he doesn’t like it.

For one, he doesn’t take himself too seriously. Cracking a joke about his dog and saying it’s absurd that a guy who picks baseball players for a living gets named the greatest leader in the world shows he has perspective about what he does, and the reach and impact that he has.

Moreover, it shows he has a sense of humility. Recognizing how much chance plays a role in his game makes it clear he knows the team’s record isn’t due to any one person.

Most of all, he gives the credit to the people who work for him – the players – shifting the spotlight away from himself and onto the people who make things happen on the front lines.

Of course, Epstein is being modest: What he achieved with the Cubs is remarkable, even if he may think it’s not the kind of record that should have him above the pope on any list.

In its excerpt of sports writer Tom Verducci’s new book “The Cubs Way,” Fortune highlights how Epstein recognized he had to evolve as a leader. The data-driven, ‘Moneyball’ approach that had worked so well for him in Boston had shown its limits, and he wanted to elevate how much scouts scrutinized players’ character, too. “On every prospect,” Verducci writes, “he wanted the area scout to give three examples of how that player responded to adversity on the field and three examples of how that player responded to adversity off the field.”

“They were to dig into the player’s makeup by talking to just about anybody who knew him: parents, guidance counselors, teammates, girlfriends, siblings,” he said. “He wanted as many questions answered as possible: What’s the family situation like? How does he treat people when no one’s looking? What do his friends say about him? What do his enemies say about him...What motivates him?”

As Epstein said in the excerpt, “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.”

He may think it’s “ridiculous” to be named the world’s greatest leader. But by talking down of the honor, it’s a reminder of why he’s at least a great one.