The Science of People

Sports and the Valuable Lessons in Leadership

Winning Team

Almost twenty years ago, I had the privilege of attending a talk given by Ken Dryden, president of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey club at the time, where he shared his perspective on leadership. One concept that has stayed with me since that event was his theory of “the right best player.” He said there are two types of superstars:

  •  Those who have all the skills, talents and abilities to excel but whose innate behaviors lead to team dysfunction, even destruction; and
  • Those who have all the same superstar talents but bring natural behaviors to bear that bring out the best in rest of the team.

As a result of that talk, throughout the rest of my career, I have looked for and hired the “right best players” — people who will bring their incredible talents to their role AND make the team (and ultimately the company) better for it. This philosophy has served me very well as a leader.

So last week, as I sat down to listen to Mark Shapiro, President and CEO of the Toronto Blue Jays, speak about his guiding leadership principles, I was excited to see what profound insights I would glean this time around. And once again, I was struck by the knowing that great leadership is great leadership – whether in business or in baseball. Here are some of Shapiro’s insights that are well worth adopting:

  1. Always Be Learning

It is clear that Shapiro attributes a lot of his success to having a learning mindset. Throughout our hour-plus discussion, he casually threw out multiple titles of the books that he has recently read or is currently reading – and shared how he is leveraging insights from these books (even those that are not “business books” per se) in his work with the Jays. Titles mentioned include:

More importantly, though, Shapiro stressed the importance throughout his career of being a leader who creates a learning culture within his organizations, someone who encourages his teams to be reflective and to be focused on continuous improvement. For him, it comes down to the following philosophy:

“You’ll be the same person in five years… except for the people you’ll meet and the books you’ll read. So always be a learner.”

  1. Create A Winning Culture

It is clear that Shapiro sees leadership as a discipline where deliberate action creates deliberate results. At 26, he was given responsibility for the Cleveland Indians farm team and he recognized that the “throw talent into the deep end and let the cream rise to the top” method of player development did not create effective, reliable results. As a result, he has created a four-step system in which talent can thrive:

  1. Identify the best talent (with an emphasis on leveraging data to regress bias out of the process and make the best talent decisions);
  2. Successfully acquire that talent, with a focus on roster management (as described below);
  3. Focus on targeted, intentional development based on individual development needs; and
  4. Put the processes in place that are needed to excel

Applying this to the corporate environment, I think back on the leaders who have taken the “sink or swim” approach to talent and how much talent has been lost as a result. Very few people can teach themselves to swim… most need at least a lesson or two. A non-disciplined approach to talent development can be very costly to the organization.

  1. Look for Dependable, Reliable Players

Shapiro’s mentor Pat Gillick, coached him to identify “dependable, reliable players”. Similar to Dryden’s “right best player” philosophy, Shapiro sees “dependable, reliable players” as the secret to his team’s success. There are a lot of uncontrollable aspects in the game of baseball (as in business — and in life). As such, Shapiro looks for the players who have the discipline to control the controllable. The “reliable” players are those who focus on the building blocks that lead to success: sleeping well, eating right, doing the workouts, putting in the practice day in and day out — they control the factors that they can control and let the results take care of themselves.

  1. Manage Your Roster

Long-term success does not happen by accident. Creating a winning franchise requires strategic planning and roster management. On every team, you need veterans, players who are in their prime, and young performers. The teams that are disciplined about maintaining appropriate ratios of each, create long-term competitive advantage. In our work, we see this too – the companies that are focused on leadership development and succession management are setting themselves up to win in future years, not just in the next quarter.

  1. Tap Data To Make Talent Management Decisions

During his talk, Shapiro emphasized his goal of continually regressing bias out of his teams’ talent processes and using data to make the best talent decisions possible. At SuccessFinder, we believe that business, like baseball, is a team sport. As such, the importance of leveraging objective data in talent decisions and separating out the influence of unconscious bias wherever possible, is critical to create winning teams and competitive advantage. Leveraging data throughout talent management (in hiring process, in the development process, in the succession process, etc.) leads to better decisions and better business results.

As I sat in the audience listening to Shapiro speak, I was struck by a memory of Jim Collin’s book: Good to Great. In it, he describes how “the essential ingredient for taking a company [or a sports franchise] to greatness is having a “Level 5” leader, an executive in whom extreme personal humility blends paradoxically with intense professional will.” After spending a few hours in Mark Shapiro’s company, I would say that the Blue Jays are in good hands – probably for many years to come. And I look forward to leveraging his insights in my own leadership approach.

Go Jays!


About the author: Susan Van Klink is the General Manager and Senior Vice President at SuccessFinder. A seasoned executive in the Human Resource software technology market, she has expertise in running operations, sales and strategy at leading companies including SuccessFactors, Taleo and Select Minds. A charismatic, driven and empathetic manager, Susan continues to build skills to support her innate behavioral DNA. She can be reached at



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