What baseball players can teach politicians


Watching quite a few baseball games this summer, I couldn’t help but be struck by the scoreless heroes’ explanations for their batting exploits. They all say pretty much the same thing: “I haven’t tried to do too much. I stayed in me. I just took what they gave me and looked for an opening.

That’s good advice, but if you see a lot of games you know it’s mostly in the spotlight in the breach. Trying to do too much is exactly what most hitters do these days. They swing for the fences and end up with a few more homers, but a ton of strikeouts and a low batting average. Going hard for home runs works for some exceptional hitters, but for the average player it’s a mistake.

Taking what’s there for you and not going overboard is the best recipe for success, not only in baseball but in a wide range of activities in modern life. Most of the time, this is the best strategy for people who are elected to public office.


In the 2000s, I spent four years teaching in the Leadership Studies School of a major university. I enjoyed it and learned a lot, but found myself puzzled by the main purpose of the program – they were bright and courageous leaders who attempted the seemingly impossible and triumphed over them. one way or another. These were Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and, in this country, Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. He leaned on the liberal side; Ronald Reagan was not part of the standard program.

The more I taught there, the more I became convinced that the crucial challenges of leadership in government and politics are those that face leaders who are pretty much ordinary people, neither brilliant nor exceptionally talented. If I was asked to advise them (which I have never been) I would say don’t try to do too much – take what you are given and see if you can do something with it.

In my experience, most politicians who become mayors or governors do not pursue this strategy. They seek out the most intractable problems in their constituency and promise to solve them. Given a four-year tenure, they pledge to fix underperforming schools, end gang violence and restore racial harmony. Like hitters determined to swing for fences, they hit an embarrassing part of the time.

American public life would be better off if public leadership education was devoted a little more to showing elected officials how, as athletes say, to play within themselves. But there is not much written on this subject. This kind of advice goes against most of the shibboleths that political candidates have learned to campaign on over the years.

ONE OF A FEW RECENT POLITICAL LEADERS George Latimer, mayor of St. Paul for six terms in the 1970s and 1980s, championed a strategy of knowing your limits. When asked to give advice to new mayors across the country, he gave short, succinct advice: “Don’t look for problems, look for opportunities. In other words, don’t start by trying to achieve dramatic results in educational performance. or close the wealth gap. Start by finding fruit on hand. Plow the snow. Clean up the paperwork from the authorization process. Keep the buses running on time. Then you might be able to tackle some of the cosmic issues.

More recently, another accomplished mayor, Ralph Becker of Salt Lake City, who served from 2007 to 2015, offered a more detailed account of his successes, failures and lessons learned. Write in the Review of state and local governments, he recounted how he fought against gender discrimination, created an effective recycling program and built a new downtown theater, overcoming opposition from much of the local business community.

Many of Becker’s prescriptions are familiar, if not obvious: to foster broad participation in the community; pay particular attention to the ultimate costs of any initiative. But much of Becker’s advice goes directly back to Latimer’s philosophy. “Decide what can realistically be achieved, being ambitious but not wasting energy chasing impossible dreams. … When basic services are well provided… voters and taxpayers can see the results of investing in government, and trust is built.

For Becker as for Latimer, governing within limits is intimately linked to the notion of seeking consensus and reconciliation. Choose battles carefully. Cultivate your critiques rather than denigrate them. In this regard, Becker is following in the footsteps of iconic Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, who said much the same thing a little more bluntly. Daley built a reputation for himself as an autocratic political leader, and sometimes he was, but he was also keenly attuned to the need for civic consensus. “Don’t get into any fights you can’t win,” Daley used to say to his cronies. “Don’t take part in any fights you don’t need to win.”

MAYBE THE RECENT LEADER whose career best exemplifies all of these ideas is Jerry Brown, who was California’s youngest governor (1975-1983) and much later the oldest (2011-2019). When Brown first became governor, he dreamed of remaking state government in a dramatic style and almost immediately began to run for president. He had tangible achievements and won a second term, but by 1982 voters had had enough of him and he was beaten badly in a campaign for the US Senate.

The dark-haired man who returned to the Statehouse in 2011 at the age of 72 was a man fully prepared to implement the philosophy of limits he once promulgated but failed to observe. He was a negotiator like he had never been before. He stayed the course on questionable spending programs his fellow Democrats wanted to implement and successfully lobbied for an increase in income and sales taxes that brought the state to the brink of insolvency. tax to stable economic health. When he retired at the end of his fourth term, he was arguably the most successful governor in modern California history and one of America’s most admired politicians.

It is telling to compare Brown’s latest version with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who took office as governor of California when incumbent President Gray Davis was recalled in 2004. Schwarzenegger had no patience with modest goals. “Each governor is proposing to move boxes to reorganize the government,” Schwarzenegger said in his first State of State address. “I don’t want to move the boxes. I want to blow them up. A year later, he withdrew his reorganization plan, almost none of which was enacted.

THERE IS NO INFALLIBLE FORMULA to succeed in politics or government, and one can always find elected leaders who have disdained restraint and conciliation and succeeded in pushing forward an ambitious agenda. Margaret Thatcher is the holy matron of these leaders. She said she didn’t believe in consensus at all – that she was a “convinced politician”. As long as she had the voices to do what she wanted, she didn’t care what the other side thought. She not only survived 12 years as British Prime Minister, but also implemented a whole host of free market changes that will impact Britons for generations to come. Of course, she could behave this way because she was operating in a parliamentary system, which gave her almost unlimited legislative power; succeeding in this way in our two-party competitive environment is much more difficult, and sometimes impossible.

Nonetheless, some recent American politicians have been determined to play it Thatcher’s way and have had some success doing so. Scott Walker, Republican Governor of Wisconsin from 2011 to 2019 It is fair to call Walker Exhibit A in the use of Thatcherian politics in America during this century. Since his departure, Republican governors in a few other states have taken an equally hard-line approach, with mixed success.

But it’s also fair to say that these are exceptions. Most of the successful political leaders of recent times have, like the late-career version of Jerry Brown, prospered following the guidance of Latimer and Becker, carefully seeking openings rather than leaving, like Schwarzenegger, to cross the lines. barriers.

No one wants to take the romance away from political leadership. It is informative and often inspiring to study the careers of transformational leaders who face the seemingly impossible and manage to achieve it. But if you’re a leader with only ordinary human gifts, operating in ordinary times, it makes more sense to act like you’re at bat in the ninth inning of a tied baseball game: take what they get from you. give, look for openings, and try not to overdo it.


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