The best leadership movie of the last decade has got to be Moneyball.

Brad Pitt stars as Billy Beane the real life General Manager of the Oakland A’s baseball team. In short, they suck.

Not because they aren’t trying hard, but because they have don’t have enough money to spend on players. With no salary cap in baseball, the wealthy teams like New York and L.A. outspend everyone else and take all the best players.

Billy has a problem. How do you outcompete the rich when you have little money and a crappy stadium?

The answer – Moneyball.

Beane might be cash-poor, but he is IQ-smart (plus he’s played by Brad Pitt, so let’s not feel too sorry for him). Billy spots that other teams choose their players less on smart metrics and more on how their scouts think a player looks:

“He’s got long fingers, high hands,” or “Tall, lean, grayhound-like body.”

He hates this approach. So he hires a Harvard-trained mathematician to help him analyze whether there are any better metrics that can tell him which players look bad (“ugly swing”) but are actually good. They discover there are, the most important of which is on-base percentage. Beane secretly starts using these metrics to stock his club with cheap, under-rated performers.

Though his teams look ugly and cheap, something strange starts to happen. They start winning…and winning…and winning (20 straight!)…all the way to the playoffs…where they lose narrowly to Minnesota. (Not even Brad Pitt could save them.)

The Leadership Lesson of Moneyball

Most people pay attention to the wrong things – stuff that looks important but really isn’t. (Hey, a new email!)

Because of this, they spread their resources too thin and get weak results. The key to Moneyball is to analyze the data to find the ‘vital few’ things that really make a difference and then put all your efforts into perfecting those. (For example, Warren Buffett does not believe in diversification. Instead, he spends a long time researching his stock picks, then puts all his eggs in one basket.)

I’m not a stock picker; I’m here to develop leaders. So I want to know – what is the Moneyball of leadership development?

The answer, I believe, is working out what are the 2-3 most difficult (and important) challenges that leaders face…and creating groundbreaking solutions for them.

Our Research on Challenges Faced by Managers

To do this, I partnered with CCL researchers Shannon Muhly and David Dinwoodie to find out:

1. What are the greatest challenges leaders face? And are we putting massive focus on them, i.e. are we playing Moneyball?

2. Do those challenges differ for leaders at different levels of the organization? We looked at data from 300 leaders across 3 levels of the organization: 100 from the C-suite, 100 senior executives, and 100 mid-level managers.

The leaders attended CCL open enrollment programs and came from more than 200 organizations. We asked each leader to identify his or her top 3 leadership challenges (so, 900 challenges total).

Here are their challenges, in order of level and frequency:

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I find these results fascinating for many reasons, but here are just two:

1. The higher you go, the less managers see their leadership skills or style as an issue. This could be for two reasons:

  • It really isn’t an issue. Senior managers are great leaders and know they are.
  • Or, the higher you go the less feedback you get. Hey, who wants to tell the CEO he doesn’t listen well (to feedback)?

2. Talent matters to everyone, but it’s no one’s highest priority. In the next blog, I’ll outline what the above tells you about how your leadership development programs should look.

I’d love to hear your reflections on the above. I don’t think most organizations are playing Moneyball. I think a lot of them are spending money on things that look important but aren’t.

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