What do backyard baseball & business have in common?

October 11, 2022

There’s nothing like time away, disconnecting from the day-to-day, to gain a fresh perspective. I recently had the opportunity to spend 10 days “out west” with my wife Lindsey Nix and two older boys (6 and 8). We are very blessed with willing and able parents who offered to keep our 20-month-old. While we certainly missed him, this was a great decision. It afforded us the opportunity to spend quality time with our other two, void of the distractions that come along with any toddler. Herein lies the evidence.

A few days into our trip which included Jackson Hole, Grand Teton National Park, Cody, WY, Yellowstone National Park, West Yellowstone, MT, and Bozeman, MT, we were visiting Teton Village for dinner. There was live music, plenty of refreshments, and places to eat outside. It was a beautiful summer evening in the mountains, and we were dining on the outdoor patio. Just beside us in the grassy area, an impromptu wiffle ball game broke out amongst several kids. We encouraged our boys to join. Partly because we want to encourage them to get out of their comfort zone. They need to build the character and confidence to go up to strangers and ask to be a part of the game. And of course, partly because we wanted some peace and quiet to enjoy a couple of drinks and appetizers together.

Fortunately, the boys did join the game and we did our best not to be helicopter parents. As I was watching the informal game, I noticed something interesting. Although the game was impromptu, with a random group of kids who did not know each other, it quickly developed into a reasonably structured and predictable pattern. First, there were hula-hoops placed on the ground as bases. Second, there was a group of older/bigger kids who took the field, and a line of many smaller/younger kids formed behind home plate waiting their turn to bat. It was wiffle ball, no one was keeping score, and there was certainly no pregame briefing to set the rules, yet the rules seemed fairly established, intuitive, and reasonably well followed, even in the absence of an umpire. That is, at least for the first part of the game, but we will get to that next.

As I mentioned, the first part of the game had the “big kids” playing the field. As anyone who’s played a backyard baseball game knows, the team in the field controls the pace of the game and generally serves as the ‘ump’ as well. While this group was in the field, the game moved along swiftly, predictably, and reasonably governed. But, once this group switched places with the younger/smaller kids, the game began to slowly fall apart. I asked myself what changed.

Here’s what I observed. When the “big kids” were in the field, very early on there were a couple of “tough calls” made on the youngsters. At first, a parent’s (or that kid’s) response might reasonably have been “don’t be so mean, let him/her get on base, it’s just a backyard game”. I’ll admit that feeling crossed my mind as well. The shortstop was especially tough and bordered on the edge of a bully. He was well built and well put together. He was dressed in proper khaki shorts and a polo shirt with what looked to be a private school crest neatly embroidered on it. He was clearly being raised to lead and take charge and he looked the part. If it was left to him, I’m doubtful the little kids would have continued playing (voluntarily I might add). However, this shortstop was perfectly balanced by his peer, the pitcher. The pitcher was tall and lanky. Equally well dressed and put together, but you could tell just by looking at him he was “softer”. He too liked the structure of the game and valued it being orderly, but on at least one occasion he rebutted the shortstop’s call against one of the youngsters and called them safe instead of out. Even though he was “softer” than the shortstop, he inherently commanded respect, and the two balanced each other as the quasi-team captains. With the two of them leading the tempo of the game, firm adherence to lawful but fair play was key. Once the youngsters took the field, with no clear, commanding leader(s), the game was left to the laws of physics, atrophy, or regression to the mean. The game slowly and predictably fell apart, so that kids eventually lost interest and began to depart one by one until there were no longer enough kids to play a proper backyard baseball game.

My takeaway: In business, just like backyard baseball, we as human beings crave structure. No matter how much we might try to avoid or deny it, we need law and order. We need clearly defined “rules”, values, systems, and processes to govern by. We need firm but fair adherence to these. And most importantly, as soon as we back off these standards, even for what seems to be “being nice” at that moment, we begin to undermine the integrity of the game. If left uncorrected, the game will slowly, but surely cease to exist.

As leaders these decisions are hard. It might involve holding another senior leader who’s a top performer accountable to certain standards. It might mean letting a top sales producer go because they can’t live up to the values of the organization. These things almost always come at the worst times. There’s always a valid excuse not to make the hard decision. But each time we do this, we can rest assured, others are watching, and those we want to stay engaged are slowly becoming less and less interested in playing the game. Soon, they will go find another team and another game where they agree with the clearly defined rules upfront and most importantly, a place where the rules are upheld. They may even do this subconsciously.

Now, my having witnessed, acknowledged, and written this, doesn’t mean I’m the least bit immune to making these same mistakes. It’s not lost on me that my team likely thinks (more times than I care to admit) that I’m acting like the shortstop in this story. “Would he just ease up already?” Or, other times, I’m acting like the pitcher in the story, where I’m looking the other way when people aren’t living up to our values and letting people off easy when they are underperforming. The best I can do is try to acknowledge it in retrospect, work to improve, and most importantly empower my team to be that teammate that counterbalances whichever side of the equation I error on. Together, we can create a culture and environment where the Mission and Values are clearly established, and the standards are upheld. There, the game lives on!