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 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.

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 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.

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16 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:22 PM
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.

Key quote!

I actually... disagree, and I think it's important rather than pedantic. That quote is something I've heard a bunch of times across domains (although if that concept wasn't something salient in your mind it's certainly important).

The novel insight here (for me) seemed to be "when it's important to hire someone with rare skills, you won't be selecting for other basic competencies, and this can produce hires that are the right hires but which seem uniquely terrible from the outside."


Strongly agree with Raymond. The quote ESRogs points to is super important if you didn't already know that, or needed reminding, but it's not remotely original and I've seen similar statements in many places across domains.

I think the post could also be interpreted as saying, "when you select for rare levels of super-competence in one trait, you are selecting against competence in most other traits" or at least, "when you select for strong charisma and leadership ability, you are selecting for below average management ability." It's a little ambiguous about how far this is likely to generalize or just how strongly specific skills are expected to anti-correlate.

He would go on to a 97-65 record 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.

I take it ... that that's doing quite well? I don't know what 97 - 65 means, so I'm not actually clear if this is a very manipulative person who is well loved but usually fails anyway, or if he's actually successful.

Agreed. This post was hard to follow because I don't know anything about baseball.


Ah, that's my fault for not realizing what is and isn't clear to people. Made at least that sentence clearer ("excellent season" should be reasonably easy to understand?)

The first part seems very good. His first season was the team's best since 2001, and his second season was a league record.

I agree that the post would have been much clearer if this had been elaborated.

Edited your comment and accidentally broke the link in the process. Sorry. If you quickly post the link here, I will fix it, and am currently working on fixing Markdown links.

It was andmanaging career

(It's not pasting in well either, but you get the idea.)


I would argue that for larger, more complex projects, it seems crucial to have basic proficiency in supporting skills as well as the core skills. It is not uncommon for a person with extreme skill in one area to fail or experience diminishing marginal returns on their skill, because it is necessary but not sufficient to succeed in their goal.

Between a person with core skills for a project and one with supporting skills, the person with core skills will get better results. However, between a person with core skills and one with core and supporting skills or subordinates with supporting skills, I predict the latter has a good chance of doing better on a complex project even if their core skills are not as strong.

In the baseball example, the core skill seems to be eliciting effort from the team, and the supporting skill would be optimizing the allocation of that effort. They may not be inherently "core" and "supporting", though: it may just be that eliciting effort seems sufficient for victory (and therefore "core") because few other coaches have it. (I don't follow baseball, so I don't know how true that is.) Once the environment changes and standards for effort are raised, the Red Queen's race begins again, and optimization for effort yields huge returns since everyone's team is putting for close to peak effort.

If supporting skills seem to interfere with the core skills due to conflicting priorities or methods, to me that just means that those who can balance the two and make them work together will see even better results.


Moved to the frontpage.

This is sounding to me like the confidence vs competence discussion. Humans have a tendency to select confident leaders whether or not they are any good at a specific task or even leading itself.

The important detail in the post is that how people react to the leader is the metric for good leadership. If people respond to confidence, then projecting confidence is competence in any situation where it is important for people to respond.


Even if you take for granted that what you're pointing out - leadership ability - is the main driver of success above and beyond all other factors in baseball management, and that the correct choice of manager is one selected for this trait to the negligence of all others, I don't really understand why you'd even expect the Mets to succeed regularly in doing this. Are professional baseball teams really that good at identifying leadership ability as you're implying?