Leaders of Men

Related to (Eliezer Yudkowsky): Inadequacy and Modesty

Epistemic Status: Confident. No sports knowledge required.

In 2005, Willie Randolph became manager of the New York Mets.

In his first five games as manager, all of which he lost, Willie made more decisions wrong than I thought possible. If he needed to change pitchers, he waited. Other times he changed pitchers for no reason. Starting lineups made zero sense. Position players bunted. And so on. He cost us at least one of those games. My friend Seth and I called for Willie’s head.

He would go on to an excellent 97 win season in 2006, come in second in manager-of-the-year voting, get a contract extension, and only get fired after wearing out our starting pitchers so much that we experienced one of the most epic late season collapses in baseball history in 2007, followed by a horrible 2008.

Willie’s in-game decisions did not improve. If anything, they got worse.

Despite this, we came to understand why Willie got and kept his job.

Willie Randolph was a leader of men.

Players liked Willie. They wanted to play for him, work hard for him, be the best they could be. They put the team first. He created a positive clubhouse atmosphere. He inspired good performances, spotted ways players could improve.

That is what counts in baseball.

Do bad in-game decisions cost games? Absolutely. But not that many games. Maybe they lose you 4 a year out of 162.

If the lineup makes your players unhappy, that costs a lot more. If your pitchers lose motivation or have their rhythms disrupted, that matters more than getting high leverage for your best reliever. Maybe bunting inspires team unity. The reason we hate bunting so much isn’t because it’s a huge mistake. It’s an obvious mistake. A pure mistake. An arithmetic error.

Plenty of people could get those technical decisions right. I could do it.

What most of us can’t do is lead men. Leading men is what counts. That’s the real job, but it comes with these other tasks.

Sometimes these other tasks land in good hands, at other times they land in terrible hands. Those who do the little things right do succeed more, but you can still win championships without them. If you can lead men.

Other sports follow the pattern. Why do football teams employ Andy Reid, who could not manage a two-minute drill if his life depended on it? Why do highly successful basketball players refuse to cooperate with their teammates or practice key skills?

Because those are small mistakes. The things those people do right matter more.

Could Willie Randolph hire someone to micromanage the game? Could Andy Reid hire someone to manage his two minute drills?

No. The people who are capable of that, are not leaders of men, and how they make those decisions is part of how they lead men.

Even if you could do that, fixing such penny-ante problems is too disruptive. You want their eyes on the prize. 

This generalizes.

If a position calls for a leader of men, you often find a leader of men. If it instead requires super high levels of another skill, whether it’s coding, raising money, lifting weights, intricate chemistry or proving theorems, you’ll find that. However, if you need rare levels of such skills compared to what you can offer,  you won’t select for anything else. You can’t demand ordinary competence in insufficiently important areas. There aren’t enough qualified applicants. Plus it wouldn’t be worth the distraction.

This helps explain why people in unique positions are often uniquely terrible. They’re not replaceable. Some incompetence and shenanigans are acceptable, so long as they deliver the goods.

The same goes for other groups, organizations, religions, software and most anything else.

If a system has unique big advantages, they’re not effectively competing on less big things. They might be optimizing small things, but they don’t have to, so you can’t assume such things are optimized at all. Even when a system does not have unique advantages, anything insufficiently central is likely not optimized because it’s not worthy of attention.

It is much, much easier to pick out a way in which a system is sub-optimal, than it is to implement or run that system at anything like its current level of optimization.

Thus I generally believe the following two things:

It is relatively easy to find ways in which almost anything could be improved on the margin, were one able to implement isolated changes. Well thought-out such ideas are often correct.

and also

The person making such a correct suggestion would likely be hopelessly lost trying to implement this change let alone running the relevant systems.




This entry was posted in Economics, Rationality, Sports. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Leaders of Men

  1. c0rw1n says:

    That’s “all that counts” for natural-tribe-sized structures where the Leader has immediate human contact with the people they lead. It Does Not Matter in civilization-sized processes such as stock markets. In Eliezer’s example, having a Charismatic Leader Of Men at the head of the Bank Of Japan would not have Solved The Problem.

    YOU PERSONALLY have a Pet Theory Of Everything because your model is that everything is monkey status and that nothing else matters, but some of us are literally clinically missing the mechanisms to comprehend those structures, notwithstanding your absolute inability to comprehend that Different World. I find it hilarious that you need a literal autist to tell you to lrn2TheoryOfMind.

    I don’t expect you to update anyway because you seem to me to be way too invested in that lens you’re using to even accept to see that flaw in it when it’s pointed to you.

    And no, this is not me trying to make a status move on you, I’m too low-profile and invisible in this tribe for that to even register in people’s models of me since the overwhelming majority don’t even know I exist; this is me trying to correct someone who Keeps Being Wrong On The Internet and I’m too lazy, bad at communication, and angry at your failure of Theory Of Mind, to reword it in more polite terms. Deal with it and UPDATE.

    • benquo says:

      It seems to me that if your reading of Zvi implies that he’s quite naïve about how financial markets work, this reflects more on the accuracy of your reading than on Zvi’s post.

    • TheZvi says:

      This misunderstanding is likely my not being clear. I am not claiming that this is what counts in each and every instance. I am claiming that in these examples, that it what counts. I certainly don’t think it’s all that matters in stock markets. I will edit to clarify.

      That said, I do think this is insanely uncharitable. If you think that my model is that everything is monkey status and nothing else matters based on this post alone, that’s jumping to quite the conclusion. If it’s based on a more general reading of my writing, I don’t know what to tell you except that it isn’t my model and I’m confused how you think my writing overall reflects such a model.

    • TheZvi says:

      I added “in baseball” to the line you quoted, which is definitely a natural-tribe-sized structure if there ever was one (25 man roster plus coaches), and instead to the line about what you will find when you need things, to make it VERY clear that I’m not saying you always and everywhere need leaders of men or that nothing else matters. I still don’t know how you came to that reading, but it’s worth three words to make it clearer.

      Also, for heaven’s sake, I know this isn’t you making a status move.

      • c0rw1n says:

        Alright, I was being uncharitable, admitted. I had gotten the impression that your model of “the impossibility to avoid playing status games” was more strongly applied than it is; I have updated on that after reading these comments and rereading the previous one that made me think that you were applying it as The Definite Theory Of Everything People Do.

        (also updated my model of how charitable I actually tend to be when reading things that pattern-match to models of a wrongness that makes me angry. Funny how that works)

    • TheZvi says:

      Ah, I see how the comment you’re referring to could give that impression, especially with this being the next thing I write after writing that. Makes sense.

  2. benquo says:

    Are these your core claims?

    (1) The selection processes for the most consequential decisionmaking positions are often extremely sensitive to one dimension.
    (2) Because of 1, it is not surprising that people occupying those positions will be suboptimal along other dimensions.
    (3) In particular, many positions require leadership, which makes delegation very difficult.
    (4) Because of 1,2,3, such inefficiencies may not be avoidable by the underlying decisionmaking process, which can’t apply unbounded optimization power, but instead only gets to pick one human decisionmaker person for each position, out of the set of already-existing boundedly-rational humans.

    This seems true but slightly too rosy, as it doesn’t take into account divergence between supposed and actual intent. A baseball team may hire the coach who engages fans the most, which includes but is not limited to propensity to win games. The governors of the Bank of Japan are selected by a political process by politicians who want to have made a defensible choice in a way which interacts complexly with incentives in academia etc.

    • benquo says:

      3 also seems sketchy, as some sorts of leadership skill are *about* proper delegation.

    • TheZvi says:

      Strongly agree with your observation that the selection process isn’t just optimized for the superficial target thing like ‘winning games’ or ‘good monetary policy’, and this in fact is a lot of what makes things difficult. The dimension/goal we’re being sensitive towards is often not the one you’d think. And often they’re very sensitive on several dimensions all of which are important, which makes things that much harder on any other dimension.

      (1) Agreed, although one could say “one to several” instead of one, but often it’s one.
      (2) Agreed.
      (3) Doesn’t feel quite right. I’d say something more like, it is often not practical to delegate the areas in which one does poorly.
      (4) Agreed, both that such mistakes may not be avoidable, and that you shouldn’t be surprised to find them. That being able to do some of a job better than its current occupant, even if you’re not that special, isn’t that strange.

      My wording of #3 is kind of question-begging or at least requires further explanation, but it comes down to a mix of among other things:
      3A) The complexity cost of delegation is often high.
      3B) The type of person who has the skills required by #1 often will be disinclined to delegate areas where they are weak.
      3C) The activities you are weak in are often areas that you can’t delegate because they have to be done by the same person. A CEO often can’t send someone else to a meeting because that person would not be seen as credible or authoritative.
      3D) There are large agency problems with delegation – you need to be good enough at the thing in order to safely delegate it. Delegation is a skill, and it requires some of the skill you’re delegating, also. Both are things you might not be able to optimize for enough.
      3E) Delegating certain decisions interferes with your ability to lead. Sometimes simply because such delegation would look weird, but often because it would actually interfere.
      3F) Delegating the real/hard decisions often isn’t possible because people would appeal the decision to you anyway, even if you can delegate day-to-day operations.

      The delegation thing got tried in MLB, actually; Billy Beane put an earpiece on his manager and told the manager what to do. This proved not sustainable because players and managers both strongly disliked it. In some cases, there is indeed a ‘math guy’ on staff to help with some things, but they never get anything like what they want. I know someone who works for a soccer team, and basically anyone the team finds who can manage the players refuses to listen to most of his advice on how to make obvious improvements. Delegation of decisions that results in decisions you think are WRONG is really hard!

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  4. sniffnoy says:

    So OK — sometimes leaders make bad decisions because they’ve been selected instead for leadership, and there’s not much that can be done about that. It seems to me though that there are a number of people who have made it into these sorts of leader positions who not only make bad decisions, but can’t lead either, and are despised by the people working under them. That has to be for a different reason — and I don’t think it’s based on selection for some good quality. Which raises the question if something can be done about that

    • TheZvi says:

      Indeed. The examples here are in an important sense ‘friendly’ examples, where the selection process is actually trying to accomplish reasonable things but needs to prioritize. In many real situations, the selection process selects for… other extreme traits. Politics is an obvious example of this, but it can be as simple as optimizing for “dating the boss’ daughter,” A lot of the mechanisms are the same, you select for the thing you care about, except now it’s not a thing you should have cared about in some sense, and things go very badly.

      How to fix that? I mean, better selection methods, mumble mumble, huge general problem, mumble mumble, beyond scope mumble?

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