Leadership Lessons from the Houston Astros

Updated: Jan 22, 2020

Today’s news about the suspension and subsequent firing of the Houston Astros General Manager and Team Manager, Jeff Luhnow and A.J. Hinch, has been a real shocker for Houstonians and sports fans alike. If you haven’t heard, the issue is a scheme/system of sign-stealing during the 2017 season. Not street signs (which is the vision that popped into my mind when I saw the first headline) rather the pitching signs (hand signals, etc.) shared between pitcher and catcher. What I particularly find interesting is that both Luhnow and Hinch were suspended by the MLB and fired by the Astros “despite neither having involvement with the scheme”.


Initially, I was taken aback that they were suspended by MLB, while the players who were actively involved in the scheme (sending signals to the hitter after the pitcher-catcher sign interpretation), were mostly unnamed and untouched. And, reading these signs in and of itself is not illegal. Learning to read the catcher’s signs is part of baseball fundamentals. In this instance, it appears the use of technology and the depth to which the Astros organization went to get this information, is at issue. (Want to know more about the actual details. The full MLB report is available here.

https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/6631427/Astros-MLB-investigation-findings.pdf)


As the news sank in, I realized that this is a bold statement by the MLB about leadership, norms and standards. And, the decision by Astros owner Jim Crane to fire both Hinch and Luhnow was swift and decisive, which other organizations under fire could learn from.


1. A leader sets the tone for his/her organization.

Leadership and culture starts at the top. A leader defines the rules, culture and behavioral norms in his/her team and overall organization. The MLB finding states that neither Luhnow nor Hinch had involvement in the scheme. It doesn’t say that they didn’t know about it. Clearly, they did. And they let it continue.

Silence is consent.


In overlooking and allowing the sign-stealing scheme to continue, Luhnow implicitly, if not explicitly, said that it was okay. I’m certain there were opportunities during the season to speak up, stop it and shut it down. That didn’t happen during the 2017 season. (It did stop in 2018 and after, allegedly because players weren’t finding it beneficial.)


We’ve all seen this in companies we’ve worked in. It’s a choice by leadership to allow and enable the behaviors (good and bad) in an organization. I’ve said it myself, when a friend or colleague bemoans a new (harsher, unethical or just different than the group norms) style or behavior that seems to prevail in (typically) newer members of the organization (in this instance, Alex Cora[1]): “This is what leadership wants. They are allowing and rewarding this behavior.”


It should be noted that Jeff Luhnow denies any knowledge of this scheme. Yet it continued under his leadership. And, it is quite possible that the team thought this scheme was condoned by him.


If that wasn’t the intention, then…


2. When you know something is wrong, speak up, take action, and have courage.

Allegedly, AJ Hinch tried to stop the sign-stealing a time or two, going so far as to damage the monitor being used by the players in the scheme. Apparently, that didn’t change anything.


We don’t know what other interventions Hinch tried to take. In a corporation, there are usually other ways to pursue change or right a wrong. Going to a different senior leader with the issue. Approaching HR (who many times has an obligation to investigate potentially illegal activities).


It takes a lot of courage and fortitude to be the person trying to make the change and push the issue. After all…


3. Culture is hard to change

By many accounts, the culture of the Astros organization is/was toxic. Management was based on fear. And, boundaries were pushed in the quest to be a winning and financially lucrative team. Raising a concern about behaviors and strategies (the sign-stealing scheme) in a “winner take all” culture is not easy. Especially when those behaviors and strategies are “winning”.


In the end, it took an external force


In the end, it took an external force, facilitated by the recent article in The Athletic and undertaken by the MLB Commissioner, which has knocked down a few pillars of the Astros organization and set a path for a leadership and cultural change.


4. Take swift action

Within an hour of the Commissioner announcing the suspension of Hinch and Luhnow from the MLB for the 2020 season, Jim Crane, owner of the Houston Astros, announced that they were both fired.


Whether you agree or disagree with these actions, they make a bold statement. A statement of what’s acceptable and unacceptable in the organization. Without lingering and wondering and watching what will happen. We know. We know now. And now, the team and the Astros organization can move forward.


5. “Never let a good crisis go to waste”

This quote is often attributed to Winston Churchill. The originator is irrelevant, but the meaning behind it is important.

Never let a good crisis go to waste.


The Astros now have the opportunity and the impetus to chart a new course and make changes to their structure, organization and culture that would perhaps have taken years to implement and effect. The MLB investigation was thorough and overturned a few rocks along the way.


Jim Crane and the Astros organization can now move to action --- to set a new standard for the Astros leadership, front-office staff, players, media and business partners.


And their fans. Because baseball is still the great American pastime, and the Astros fans, their customers, still need to believe in the club, its cause and its future.



As for me, I’m sad that this happened to my beloved Astros. I’m going to be watching eagerly to see what changes occur in leadership, organization and culture. And, I’ll be looking forward to Opening Day and the first exclamation of “Play Ball”.



Footnote:

[1] Alex Cora, the bench coach for the Astros during the 2017 season, was integral in the scheme. The official MLB findings and discipline for Cora have yet to be announced and I won’t speculate. But, middle management (Cora) is still management and can appear to speak and act on behalf of senior leadership. In this case, condoning the behaviors taking place.

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