“That is ridiculous. The whole thing is patently ridiculous. It’s baseball–a pastime involving a lot of chance. If [Ben] Zobrist’s ball is three inches farther off the line, I’m on the hot seat for a failed five-year plan.”
—-Theo Epstein, president of the Major League Baseball’s 2016 World Champion Chicago Cubs, upon learning that Fortune Magazine had chosen him #1 among “The World’s Greatest Leaders” in a click-bait list released last week.
Thank-you, Theo, for explaining moral luck and the perils of consequentialism to the public. When it came down to the final innings of Game 7 in last year’s World Series, it looked for a while like Cubs manager Joe Maddon was about to blow the chance to win an elusive title after over a century of frustration by keeping his clearly gassed closer on the game. That his risky decision didn’t make Maddon a goat for the ages and Epstein one more name in the long list of Cubs saviors was pure moral luck—the element of chance that often distinguished heroes from villains. winners from losers and geniuses from fools in the public’s mind—and gross consequentialism, judging decisions by their uncontrollable results rather than their objectively judged wisdom and ethics at the time they were made.
If the Cleveland Indians had won that crucial game in extra-inning, no matter how, Epstein might have made Fortune’s list (I doubt it), but he would have been nowhere near the top.
I won’t blame Epstein for not saying so, but he’s been a dubious leader in the past. He came to the Cubs announcing his “five year plan” to finally break the “Billy Goat curse” after abruptly resigning as General Manager of the Boston Red Sox in 2011, following the debacle of that team’s September collapse that saw it blow a large lead to miss the play-offs on the final day of the regular season. (Ironically, Terry Francona, the manager of the Cleveland Indians team Epstein’s Cubs defeated in last year’s Series, was Epstein’s manager that captained Boston onto the rocks.) It was three ill-considered long term contracts—yes, moral luck again—Theo had committed to that led to the collapse, and finding some way out of them was a daunting challenge on which the future of the Boston team depended. Rather than stay and address the consequences of his own miscalculations, his responsibility as a leader, Epstein quit with a year remaining on his five year contract to take a richer deal and a bigger job with the desperate Cubs.
Still, Epstein had the integrity and modesty to reject Fortune’s unjustified assessment, and the wisdom to explain why it was unjustified. While we will always judge leaders on results—well, everyone but Robert E. Lee and Barack Obama—-whether their leadership is successful of not is often beyond their control.