In politics, people spend a great deal of time discussing, and complaining about, leadership. Fortunately, baseball can sometimes be less of a game than politics.
The leadership principles exemplified by the Kansas City Royals organization, which is led by General Manager Dayton Moore, show how to build a championship culture in any context. Moore’s style of leadership is built these four pillars:
1) A commitment to strong moral principles, including a devotion to family.
From Dayton Moore’s book “More than a Season: Building a Championship Culture”:
“Leaders shape the culture of their environment. That applies to all facets of life. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about a major league baseball team, a college athletic department, a Fortune 500 company, a church, or a family, the actions and attitudes of the leader shape all aspects of the organization and, most importantly, the people.”
“[This is] where it begins and ends with me: family. As much as I love the Kansas City Royals and our people within the organization, my favorite team is at home. I’ve always strived to make them a priority, second only to my relationship with Christ.”
Game 1 of the 2015 World Series was storybook drama from start to finish and was arguably the turning point in the Series. What happened on the field in the Royals’ marathon 14-inning, 5-4 victory was extraordinary. But what was happening off the field was more important.
Earlier in the day, the father of the Royals pitcher scheduled to start Game 1, Edinson Volquez, passed away. Volquez’s family gave Moore specific instructions that he not be informed until after his start was complete. He had worked his whole life to get to this point, they explained, and they didn’t want to take it away from him.
“It was hard for me to know what I know, and see the way he competed,” Royals Manager Ned Yost said after the game. “It was a sad situation. There was no road map. You just do what the family asked you to do. It was real special to them that Eddie goes out and pitches that game.’’
Mike Moustakas, who lost his mother to cancer in August, echoed the team’s core value. “We respect each other’s families. This is one huge family organization,” he said. “When someone loses a family member that takes priority over everything that happens. This game’s a phenomenal game. It’s the World Series. It’s phenomenal. But family takes over everything.”
Yost seem to struggle with withholding the news from Volquez. To observers, it seemed like a big risk. Would it even be possible to keep the news from him? What would happen if he found out between innings? Was it the right thing to do?
But not doing exactly what the family asked was never under consideration, even during the most important game of the season.
The one person Yost felt like he had to tell — and got permission to tell — was pitcher Chris Young. If Volquez learned of the news and couldn’t start, or had to leave suddenly, Yost needed a back-up plan. Young, who lost his own father earlier in the season, didn’t say a word to anyone, but was prepared. As the game stretched into extra innings, Young was called on in relief and held the Mets to three scoreless innings. Yost told the team, “Let’s win this for Eddie.” Not everyone even knew what Yost meant at that point but Young did. He gave Eddie his all.
Royals pitcher Edinson Volquez, right, talks with Manager Ned Yost during Game 5 of the World Series. Volquez learned after his start in Game 1 that his father had passed away. | Photo: AP
Volquez came to the team and gave it his all in Game 5. Even though the Royals trailed 2-0 when he left the game after the 6th inning, he kept the game close and allowed the Royals mount yet another improbable comeback to tie the game in the 9th inning and win it in the 12th.
Moore’s leadership style that gives family precedence over baseball isn’t a sentimental façade; it’s an often-counterculture system of priorities.
When House Speaker Paul Ryan told the members of the Republican caucus that a precondition of him serving as Speaker would be protecting his already limited time with his wife and three young children, he was pilloried — even by some conservatives.
Talk show host Laura Ingraham fired off a tweet: “Ryan’s ‘conditions’ for taking one of the most [important] positions in [government wouldn’t] be accepted by ANY Fortune 500 co. considering someone as CEO.”
Ryan didn’t budge. He told his colleagues, “I cannot and will not give up my family time.” Days later, he was elected Speaker and cheered on by his family.
The lesson from Moore and the Royals is that keeping one’s priorities straight can inspire superior performance on the field. If Moore could create a championship culture by respecting family, so can Paul Ryan.
House Speaker Paul Ryan at a Green Bay Packers game with his three children. | Photo: AP
2) A commitment to excellence and a drive to reach one’s ceiling,
From “More than a Season”:
“[This is] what allows you to be successful – undying belief and discipline to persevere. Commitment and talent have nothing to do with each other. You can have a lot of talent, but if you’re not committed, you’re not going to reach your ceiling.”
The Royals roster is full of players who are fighting to reach their ceiling. Mike Moustakas, MLB’s number-two overall draft pick in 2007, was humbled last season when he was sent down to AAA to work on his swing. He came back on fire. Moustakas had a stellar postseason in 2014 and became an all-star in 2015. Salvador Perez is another Royal who never stops practicing, studying and preparing. Perez was named the MVP of the 2015 World Series.
Meanwhile, the Royals defense was been a season-long highlight reel. The most memorable play was this ballet maneuver by Alcides Escobar and Omar Infante that has to be seen to be believed.
These great individual performances don’t “just happen”; they’re the product of thousands of hours of hard work, careful planning, and dedicated coaching. They reflect a championship culture.
American Enterprise Institute’s Arthur Brooks says the drive to do one’s best or reach one’s ceiling, regardless of one’s talents, leads to “the happiness that comes from earned success.” There was a lot of that in Royals dugout in 2015.
3) A humble desire to learn, listen and forgive.
From an interview with the Kansas City Business Journal:
“Good teams know how to debate. They know how to argue, and they do it in a healthy way. We talk a lot about organizational harmony. Harmony doesn’t mean we’re all sitting around holding hands and everyone’s good — it’s quite the opposite. Everyone’s opinion should be heard and tested.”
From “More than a Season”:
“[W]e’re all in this together. Everyone matters.”
“Transparency, I believe, is very important in all areas of life because it’s a great way to build trust. You’re going to get exposed in life anyway, so you might as well be open about your flaws and mistakes. You have to know what you don’t know.”
Two stories illustrate this principle.
In 2005, the Royals selected Alex Gordon in the first round. He was the second-round pick overall. In those days, the bottom-dweller Royals had a lot of high draft picks. Gordon was expected to become an all-star third baseman for the Royals, but he wasn’t clicking as a player.
In 2010, the Royals tried something unconventional and moved Gordon to left field. The rest is history. Gordon became an all-star, gold glove winner and hit the heroic game tying home run in Game 1 of the 2015 Series. Gordon’s humility and willingness to learn paid off.
In that same game, all-star and gold glove first baseman Eric Hosmer made an error that let the Mets take the lead late in the game. Immediately, the baseball world was wondering if Hosmer would be remembered as this generation’s Bill Buckner. Hosmer looked mortified and then relieved beyond words when Gordon tied the game.
There was a sense that the Royals metabolized adversity in the moment. Hosmer blew it, but the team got over it. Period. Move on. Clear your head. There was nothing to forgive.
In the bottom of the 14th inning, Hosmer had a chance to win the game when the bases were loaded. He came through with a sacrifice fly to give the Royals the win.
“Harmony doesn’t mean we’re all sitting around holding hands and everyone’s good — it’s quite the opposite. Everyone’s opinion should be heard and tested.”
4) A refusal to give up.
From “More than a Season”:
“The key to baseball is who manages failure the best. You will fail in baseball. Period. But the people and teams that manage it the best are able to reach their ceilings.”
Baseball is one the great “life lesson” sports because, like real life, it is full of not only adversity and failure, but often cruel and arbitrary breaks. A gust of wind or bad bounce can mean the difference between being a hero or goat.
And those hitters who are Hall of Fame material are those who fail 70 percent of the time. That’s a lot of failure.
One of the highlights of Moore’s book was what I call George Brett’s “Braveheart” speech he delivered to the team in 2013: “Don’t try to be someone else. Be the best player you can be. If you’re the best player you can be, and Eric Hosmer is the best player he can be, and Alex Gordon’s the best he can be, and so on, guess what — we’re pretty good.”
“[W]hen I played for the Royals, we expected to win every night,” he added, “We didn’t hope to win; we expected to win.”
“Looking back, George Brett rescued us mentally,” Moore says in his book.
Sport Illustrated recently declared the Royals the greatest postseason comeback team of all time. Two games stand out as particularly remarkable.
In the 2014 Wild Card playoff game, the Royals became the first team in playoff history to overcome a five-run deficit in the 8th inning of an elimination game and win. In 2015, they did it again when they beat the Houston Astros in Game 4 of the ALDS.
In the 2015 World Series they came back to win three times.
They’re a team that always believes and never, ever quits.
John Hart is Editor-in-Chief of Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @johnhart333.