Baseball, Politics, and Leadership

The San Francisco Giants celebrate after winning Game 4 of baseball's World Series against the Detroit Tigers Sunday, Oct. 28
The San Francisco Giants celebrate after winning Game 4 of baseball's World Series against the Detroit Tigers Sunday, Oct. 28, 2012, in Detroit. The Giants won 4-3 to win the series. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya )

The Giants' amazing performance in the World Series has got me thinking -- baseball is a pretty interesting game on a lot of counts. For one thing, while playing the game requires a team of nine players, a baseball club is not a team in the same way that teams occur in other sports. Soccer, hockey, rugby, basketball are what I would call true team sports. While in all those games players have assigned roles, they require ongoing coordination among the players. In baseball coordination is required only on defense, and then usually between two or at most three players. The pitcher and catcher must coordinate ongoingly, but others only occasionally and some not at all. On offense, baseball reverts to individual contests -- batter against pitcher, base runner against pitcher or catcher or the infielder barring his slide.

It may be the high requirement for individual performance that has us love baseball in the first place. The same Americans who disparage soccer for its supposed lack of action (read: lack of scoring) find baseball balletic and interesting even though soccer is 90 minutes of non-stop action and a 3 hour baseball game may see 45 minutes of actual action, widely dispersed.

In soccer or any of what I'm calling "true team sports," the individual's performance is subsumed in the team's. There are stars, but even a Pele or Ronaldo can't force a win if the team is not playing. In baseball one player can make a difference, whether it's by pitching a no-hitter, by a superior batting performance, or by spectacular fielding, and I think that individuality is what makes baseball the quintessential American game.

We Americans love team effort and collective achievement, but we prize individual accomplishment more than perhaps any other people in the world. We want to believe that one person, on their own, can lead us to glory or save the day. Our political system, our business culture, and our social milieu all reflect this, and it is the demand we make, implicitly or explicitly on those who volunteer for leadership positions at every level from local government to our schools, to the presidency, and everything in between.

At the same time we are rarely surprised when these idols we look to to lead us turn out to have feet of clay. When a Barry Bonds or Lance Armstrong or Melky Cabrera are found to be grasping an unfair advantage through use of performance-enhancing drugs, when a businessman like Bernie Madoff turns out to be a crook, when an entertainer like Charlie Sheen comes a cropper, we are disappointed but not really shocked. With the hunger for individuality and leadership comes the secret resentment that we are not the individual who is leading, and a degree of schadenfreude when they topple.

I believe that it's this culture of individual achievement that is the key to America's success, not some mystical exceptionalism that we somehow carry with us, and this culture is also what limits us as a nation. We claim to place a high value, particularly in the business world, on teamwork, but it is the highly visible, big ego executive we venerate, despite a lot of compelling evidence that the most effective leaders, particularly CEOs, keep a low profile and make sure that the credit and glory goes to those who report to them.

I'm not saying there is no place for individual excellence -- to the contrary, extraordinary individuals obviously contribute to high performance -- I do say that when it becomes all about the star, performance suffers, and when we ignore the importance of true teamwork -- a high level of coordination and collaboration that often requires subordination of ego and personal credit to the larger interests of the enterprise -- we lose important access to what makes companies, organizations, and governments perform at a high level.

When I see political leaders who are criticized for being thoughtful, for listening to points of view other than their own and their party's, for actually seeking to find common ground rather than to capitalize on differences, I'm not surprised that the culture of America looks like it does. Hopefully, we will change that on November 6.