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The Biggest Mistake The Houston Astros Made

I’m furious with the Houston Astros.

But I’m also grateful to that hot mess of an organization.

Sports has been a life-long classroom for me. From my earliest days, I have learned countless lessons from playing and watching sports.

My coaches taught me the importance of teamwork, commitment, hard work, discipline, accountability, and good sportsmanship. Those values, all of which apply well beyond the field or court, have been validated again and again by my sports heroes and favorite teams. I learn (or re-learn) something valuable every time an underdog prevails, a veteran athlete wills himself back from injury, or a once-struggling team establishes a dynasty.

And now, I’m getting a master-level refresher course on the importance of organizational culture from the Houston Astros scandal.

Throughout the 2017 season, the Astros used a video camera to steal their opponents’ pitch signals. This was a clear violation of Major League Baseball’s rules that gave Astro batters a tremendous edge during the team’s road to a World Series championship. In other words, they cheated. The Astros’ actions tainted their championship and may have adversely affected the careers of opposing pitchers and players.

Like most baseball fans, I’m angry with Astros not only for cheating but also for the team’s continued refusal to fully acknowledge the gravity of their actions or make real amends for their behavior. On the first day of the Astros’ 2020 spring training camp, a few players mumbled through prepared media statements expressing contrition. Team owner Jim Crane, the nominal leader of the organization, continued to downplay the cheating by insisting the Astros got no advantage from their sign stealing. More incredibly, he defended MLB’s decision not to punish Astros players who were involved, saying the scandal was a leadership failure that was adequately addressed by firing the team’s manager and GM. This despite MLB’s conclusion that Astros players initiated and executed the sign-stealing ring.

I beg to differ with Mr. Crane’s diagnosis. Yes, the Astros had a serious leadership issue, one that remains today. But the real underlying cause of the scandal is the Astros’ anemic organizational culture. Healthy, effective organizations operate with a well-established and ingrained set of values. These guideposts are embraced by all members of the team, from C-suite to maintenance shed, who hold each other accountable for upholding those standards.

This clearly does not describe the Astros’ operation. In a strong culture, team new-comer Carlos Beltran, the reported mastermind of the scheme, would not have been able to hijack the team. Yes, clubhouse dynamics are powerful, and the accomplished Beltran was held in awe by younger players. But a healthy organization’s immune system can fend off such outside threats to its functions. Every Astros player would have turned their back on Beltran’s devious plan if the organization had reinforced and supported what the players know in their hearts; cheating is wrong.

In a strong culture, Astros manager AJ Hinch would have done made more than half-hearted efforts to stop cheating. A leader operating in a better organization would not have hesitated to shut that nonsense down, knowing his actions would be fully supported at every level.

In a strong culture, the leadership would not have explored signal-stealing technology, as Astros management did before it abandoned the project.

And, most importantly, in a strong culture, the leader would face the organization’s stakeholders with humility and transparency as a first step toward repairing the damage done by members of the organization.

As a student of leadership, I have long understood the importance of establishing and constantly reinforcing an organization’s overarching purpose or (its “North Star”) and core values. Without these touchstones, it’s easy for a team to lose its way.

I’m grateful to the Astros for providing a tragic but indelible reminder of that truth.

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