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A Do Nothing! Lesson from Baseball

Don’t think of a purple chicken.

Odds are, you can’t help yourself: you are thinking of a purple chicken.

Once an idea jumps into your head, it can be very difficult to get rid of it. That’s why it’s critically important for leaders to have a sounding board – someone who will willingly listen to their ideas and make sure that they are not totally cockamamie.

In this Sunday’s New York Times (August 19, 2012), Stuart Miller wrote a great article on the emergence of bench coaches in baseball. Almost every manager now has a bench coach who sits next to him during the game and provides ideas and a welcome ear.

It wasn’t always this way. As the article notes, the emergence of bench coaches as a regular part of a team’s coaching staff only began to flourish in the 1990s. Before then, a manager was pretty much on his own; statistics were nowhere near as sophisticated as they are now; and having a ‘feel’ seemed to dominate big decisions. This kind of intuitive decision making was informed by a wealth of experience but very little hard data.

Those days are gone. With the advent of sabermetrics, teams and their leaders now have enormous amounts of data to help them make better decisions. Bill James was the leader in emphasizing the value of statistics for decision making in baseball, and Michael Lewis helped make Billy Beane, the general manager of the over-achieving Oakland Athletics, famous for his use of statistics in Moneyball. Other teams soon followed suit, to varying degrees, but every team now uses reams of data to help them make key, moment-to-moment decisions.

Bench coaches are a wonderful result of this movement. First and foremost, they are important because the demands on baseball’s managers – for interviews before and after a game, for other media appearances, and because their counterparts are also so well informed – have grown. It’s tough for one person to be on top of everything.

They are also important because they can take over and coordinate the more routine tasks that don’t need a manager’s hand. Thus, many bench coaches run the fundamental drills that fill spring training as well as batting practice and exercise sessions prior to each game. Taking over these more routine responsibilities lets managers do the less routine but important things, like strategizing, motivating, and inspiring.

Most of all from a leadership standpoint, however, the beauty of having a bench coach is their ability to ‘sit on the balcony,’ i.e., to be a bit more dispassionate and look down at the events that are transpiring in real time from the vantage point of the big picture. This way bench coaches can be less deeply enmeshed in any one play or any one game. Instead, they can pay attention to the forest as well as many of the trees: rather than worrying about when to take a laboring starting pitcher out of a game or whether to call a hit-and-run, for instance, bench coaches can keep track of how many innings the bullpen pitchers have put in lately and how many left-handed hitters the opposing team has waiting on their bench to pinch-hit. They can focus on behind-the-scenes details that can rear up and bit an unsuspecting manager if he is not careful.

Presidents and other politicians are also renowned for having back-room advisers, people who will keep them focused on the big picture and help them stay in tune with their philosophies and their goals.

Why isn’t this the case for leaders and executives? Executive coaching has certainly grown in popularity, but it is far from universal. Especially when the stakes increase, leaders could benefit tremendously from having a bench coach. In the current economy, this would also provide a tremendous part-time role for sage executives who might want to step away from the everyday action, but not entirely.

I’ve actually had a long-running coaching role with an executive in Australia. We’ve only met once. Since then, whenever he has a big negotiation – either for his company or for himself – he calls me and we talk strategy. I’m not the only coach that he uses. He pays us well but he benefits even more by avoiding costly missteps. There are no purple chickens in his career. How many leaders can you think of who can make that claim?

What makes a good coach? Ideas, questions, insights, and a willingness to step away and let the real leader do their thing. In simple terms – wise ones (who, by the way, don’t always get everything right either).

Most leaders don’t use them enough. If they did, they could do less, strategize more, and achieve the nirvana-like state of doing nothing – sooner!



One thought on “A Do Nothing! Lesson from Baseball

  1. Great stuff Professor. Many companies adopt the “chief of staff” approach, which sometimes is not the best approach.

    Anyway, great insights. Keep it up the good work.

    Cheers from Brazil!


    Posted by Thomas camargo | September 6, 2012, 12:55 pm

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Do Nothing by J. Keith Murnighan

“Do Nothing! will stand out as among the most imaginative, fun, and useful leadership books ever published. Murnighan uses rigorous research to provide detailed advice that will help leaders do their jobs better, develop more adept and committed followers, and to suffer from less stress and overwork. Even though most business books present new wine in old bottles, Do Nothing! is the rare book that provides a refreshing perspective and tangible advice that isn’t available anyplace else.”

Robert I. Sutton, Author of THE NO ASSHOLE RULE: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't

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