Although he had taken two notoriously losing teams to World Series Championships by the age of 43, Theo Epstein, general manager of the Chicago Cubs, is a humble man.
He credits his success to a love of baseball at an early age, good timing when he started in the front office as an intern at the Baltimore Orioles, and good luck and great co-workers and mentors when he was general manager of the Boston Red Sox and then the Chicago Cubs.
Interviewed by historian and “Team of Rivals” author Doris Kearns Goodwin, Epstein was the cleanup keynote speaker at the Schwab Impact conference in Chicago last week.
He spoke about his own development, what he looks for in players and teams and what he sees as key leadership traits. He said baseball is “based on adversity, failure is inherent in the game; the best hitter will fail 7 out of 10 times; and being successful in baseball requires you to be able to handle failure the right way and learn from it and move forward stronger. The same is true of life. Out of facing failure often springs great narratives.”
It’s how that failure is handled that Epstein puts emphasis on when selecting teams. “There isn’t a big leaguer who hasn’t failed dramatically and then handles it in a way to grow stronger and go forward,” he said. “I believe in it so strongly that when we are looking for young players, we ask the scouts for three examples of how a potential player faced and responded to adversity on and off the field. If they haven’t demonstrated a strong record of handling adversity and failure in a productive way, how will they handle the trials and tribulations of life in baseball?”
He told the story of how at age 28 he became general manager of the Boston Red Sox, which hadn’t won a World Series in 85 years. As assistant general manager, he was put in charge of finding a new general manager. His first choice decided to stay where he was, and his second choice was Billy Beane, GM of the Oakland Athletics and famous for implementing the “Moneyball” method, who quickly turned down the Red Sox. So “with my tail between my legs I went back to the office and said I’d start a new search, and they just said, ‘we’d like you to do it.’”
The rest is history, as the Boston Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 and in 2007, and after those feathers in his cap, he went to save the Chicago Cubs, who hadn’t won’ a series in 108 years, a dusty drought broken when they won the 2016 World Series.
“In a lot of ways I still don’t feel I’m a qualified leader, because by definition leadership means if you’re a great leader you’re but part of a great team, and that’s what I connect more to, the affiliations with people I admire and respect and learn from and my leadership style takes from that.”