What the Eagles and Phillies taught me about leading

We were talking about institutionalization at our rolling council meeting (we call it an Imaginarium) the other night and we were pondering how to get out of it. Institutionalism/zation is something of a pejorative word used to describe groups of people that have become less flexible and organic, and have been bound by supposed objectivity and rules that govern them.

We were brainstorming ways we could get out of the institution and move with the Spirit. One of the things my group was talking about was having leaders lead us into new territory despite the personal and relational conflict they may encounter. Sometimes we are so afraid of a fight that we won’t lead others to do something new. We might lose a friend, our cell might close, our friends might abandon us. So we stagnate. We make sure we never offend the people that are around us, and then we never do something new—and that ultimately logjams us. We try to preserve a system that is rotting.

Leaders don’t just fight to fight, though. But when they do something, a fight is bound to happen and they lead through it. There is anxiety that comes from this kind of tension, and the best leaders can lead despite it. They aren’t avoiders, nor are they tacklers, but if they need to do some pushing they will and are adept at it.

Of course, this all sounded familiar to me, since I am a fan of Philadelphia sports.

Two examples.

For years, DeSean Jackson, the infamous former-Eagles wide receiver, was known to be a “trouble maker.” That reputation was not really for his alleged gang connections—we can all admit that the NJ.com story was just some bad journalism that exposed the racism that undergirds much of the American media more than it did anything else. His reputation was more about just having a bad attitude and not being a hard worker. More trouble than he’s worth. He might be the first person in the world that admitted to blowing off his job because he didn’t get a raise one year, only to get that raise the following year.

Nevertheless, Chip Kelly finally cut DeSean after the aforementioned story broke—Chip says it was a football decision. He tried hard to trade him and when his trade value plummeted because of the smear campaign started Eliot Shorr-Parks, the team cut him. DeSean was coming off of the best season of his career! Most people thought this was suicide and their trust in Kelly’s coaching (who led the Eagles from 4-12 to 10-6) decreased. I’m not sure it was the best choice, but Kelly has a vision and he led through it, and that’s given me confidence as a fan. Kelly did the thing that he thought was right and withstood an assault of criticism from his fanbase and the media. Chip knows his objective: winning. His path to doing that has little to do with pleasing the fans or reporters.

That’s a lesson that Ruben Amaro, Jr. needs to learn. His team owns three of the six highest paid players in the MLB this year. And I don’t blame him: Cliff Lee, Ryan Howard, and Cole Hamels are great players and great attractions. Two of them were on the 2008 World Series team. Other notables from that team that are still with us are Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley (both of whom also have fat contracts attached to their numbers). It seems to me that Ruben’s signing of those players has less to do with their performance and more to do with the fact that he’s trying to keep a team that has a lot of nostalgic value together. He’s afraid of making big decisions like not re-signing Jimmy Rollins, because he’s afraid of offending his fanbase and subsequently losing money. Unlike Tony La Russa,  who didn’t resign Albert Pujols after the Cardinals won the World Series. The best antidote to to the pain of losing a loved player is a team that keeps winning.

The result is a fanbase that is disillusioned anyway (one that’s certainly more interested in Chip Kelly’s Eagles, actually). The Phillies’ sellout streak is long over and attendance of their games is increasingly bad. There’s only so long one can say, “remember 2008,” when 2014 is so different. Same players, different story.

Ruben’s big move last year was firing Charlie Manuel after he filed his 1,000th win with the Phillies. That was another move for which he was criticized, but it seems like he is learning. It takes guts to fire a loving, caring manager like Charlie Manuel was, especially when he brought the town a World Series. It took the Eagles much longer to fire Andy Reid—and he didn’t have a single championship to his name.

But the result of Ruben’s nerve is a team that is playing a little better. The Phillies new manager, Ryne Sandberg, isn’t afraid to bench Ryan Howard or Jimmy Rollins if the former is not playing defense or if the latter won’t hustle. But it might too little too late. Ruben’s already gutted our minor league system in an effort to win now. And so he’s left with overpaid players who are talented but too old to be reliable. Sandberg is doing the best with what he’s been given.

There is little that isn’t institutional about the MLB and the NFL. It’s all about money and making it. But what gets a fanbase excited is a team that is increasingly successful and moving. Part of doing that is making hard choices that are initially unattractive—cutting DeSean, firing Charlie Manuel, and even not resigning players that have a high level of nostalgic value in this town. You might lose some fans as a result of your hard choices, but you’ll gain them back when your good leadership results in a better product.

Church planters would do well to learn from my favorite sports’ team mistakes. Go ahead and have the conflict that your vision requires of you. You might take a hit in attendance or something, but ultimately you might benefit from a more organic system that isn’t hindered by myriad institutional encumbrances.

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