Being right doesn’t matter if no one believes you

A passionate radio host captures a city

I might love Philadelphia sports talk radio more than I love Philadelphia sports, and if you’ve seen our teams as of late, you might get the idea why. I think I just like talking too. So I call in to 94 WIP a few times a year to offer my opinion when I have the time to stay on hold for an eternity. But I’ve been listening to the same station since Allen Iverson was a Sixers, so I have developed a kinship with some of the hosts. They are really like my family because I love them despite their warts. And one Angelo Cataldi, the long-time morning show host on WIP, has been impressing me for years with his ability to captivate his audience, speak to and for them, as well. He is not the greatest analyst, but he is an impressive broadcaster. I don’t always agree with him, but I admire his passion.

I gained favor for Angelo during the late Andy Reid era of the Eagles. Andy, to whom I am quite sympathetic after Chip Kelly stole my allotted ire for Philadelphia football coaches, coached the Eagles for fourteen years. And we have very little to show for it. Toward the end of his career, his redundant play calling and failure to adjust, led to so many frustrating losses and press conferences, Angelo repeatedly let him have it. And it was cathartic to listen to Angelo’s rage because it spoke to my own frustration at the abysmal performance of the Eagles. And with the Eagles looking to have a significant Super Bowl hangover this season, I welcome Angelo’s frustrated screeds.

A disgruntled fanbase versus a cloying manager

After the Phillies had a very disappointing September when they were in the pennant race and missed the playoffs, I wasn’t surprised how angry our fanbase was. We are a tempermental group, I have to say, so we didn’t give the new coach, Gabe Kapler, a lot of room to grow, admittedly. His penchant for sport science reminded us of Chip Kelly and his tendency toward analytics reminded us of Sam Hinkie. The fanbase in general has difficulty breaking from tradition, so Kapler and the ownership group’s new strategy was already a hard sell.

Angelo wrote a column for the Philly Voice tearing apart the Phillies’ General Manager Matt Klentak calling him incompetent. Gabe Kapler, who regularly is interviewed by Angelo, called in the radio show to defend his bosses. What followed was an incredible exchange in terms of sports radio, but also an illuminating one. Entertaining and edifying. I agree with Glen Macnow’s take, another sports radio all-star.

The two had a low-stakes argument that was heated enough to really showcase their disagreement. These things rarely happen in sports talk radio, but Angelo has a masterful ability to engage in a debate without escalating it into a shouting fest. Kapler defended his team and defended the organization. Despite the complete meltdown, Kapler had a defense.

Angelo’s point was that it didn’t matter because the team lost, the fanbase was confused and disinterested, and barely attended the games during the race. The team had added only two long-term building blocks during the tenure of the general manager and had little else to show for it (meanwhile, Klentak, in corporate speak, told the fanbase how every player was worth keeping, potentially). Furthermore, any defense of analytics or sports science is lost on a fanbase that doesn’t seem to care too much about how the Phils are trying to win, but rather why they aren’t.

Two different leadership styles

Now the Phillies managed to improve in the win column, but they also managed to blow a 15-game-above-.500 record in August to end with a losing season. That is a frustrating reality and it points to incompetence. Angelo’s making sense to me.

To Kapler’s credit, he did acknowledge that the team sucked and needs to improve. But his general attitude during the year was too positive. Too positive for our fanbase, but too positive considering all the bad news of the team. And that brings me to where I want to go.

I know, you are not as interested, likely, in the Phillies as I am, or even in sport talk radio, but the difference between leadership styles between Angelo and Kapler is noteworthy to me.

Angelo speaks for the fans, passionately, and with authority. He speaks to hundreds of them a week and has no problem channeling their feelings. His ability to do this has led to his success as a radio host for decades. He’s not always right, and neither are the fans, but he knows how they feel and can express their feelings. That’s what good leaders do: they actively listen and empathize with their constituency.

Gabe Kapler, on the other hand, may very well be a brilliant manager. He made the most of a team with a very limited amount of talent. His baseball managing tactics lead to endless games, but they often resulted in a win last year against unsurmountable odds. The Phillies had more wins than they do talent and that’s the result of Kapler’s leadership, in my opinion.

If no one is listening, you aren’t leading

But what good is it to be right if no one can understand it? Smug “correctness” isn’t good enough. It doesn’t matter if you’re right if you can’t deliver your message. That’s where the trouble lies. I actually think, in terms of baseball strategy, Kapler’s makes more sense than Angelo’s. Angelo’s job, however, isn’t to win baseball games, it’s to gain radio listeners. Ultimately, the Phillies’ job isn’t to fill their stadium and turn a profit (I know, I know, it sounds so cynical). My fear is that Kapler will actually win baseball games but the fans won’t care.

Bad leaders can be right, but if it’s lost on the people they are leading, it is useless. Being right is overrated. Leaders aren’t just “right,” they have followers, by definition. Angelo is wrong in some instances, but captures the hearts and minds of people (and yes, he has of mine). He sounds like the old man yelling at a cloud when he dismisses the value of analytics, for example; and he sounded the same way when he dismissed Hinkie and the Process. But his populist technique garners him support and favor.

Kapler needs to take a page out of that playbook. Kapler’s problem isn’t smugness, although overconfident leaders tend to be smug and sarcastic, especially when reducing their constituency to simple people who would never get the complexities of their job and strategy. His problem is that he acts like everything is fine and everything will be fine. We don’t know that it will. The Phillies look terrible. And he barely empathizes, and goes on the radio to defend his boss. Leaders that do that fail. Empathize with me and then lead me somewhere better. That’s how you’ll convince us you’re right.

The most cherished managers and coaches in Philly history are the ones that the fans knew, and could relate to, and loved. I don’t think that leaders should only strive for the affirmation and approval of their constituents, but not being able to convince your fanbase of your winning strategy is a major failure. Leaders are responsible, then, for the reactions of their fans. Angelo has gained a following through empathy; he has managed to succeed as a radio host as a result. Kapler may have a winning strategy, but it won’t matter if we don’t believe it.

Go Phillies.

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