John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Moneyball? What Role Loyalty (versus money)?

October 17, 2011John N. GardnerInsights0
John Gardner
President

I was out for dinner and a movie this past Saturday night, with two very smart women, one of whom is my wife, Betsy Barefoot. They selected the movie and we went to see Moneyball, with Brad Pitt. I didn’t look at him like they did but I noted that he reminded me of graceful aging and taking on some resemblance to Robert Redford. But I didn’t come away from the film primarily thinking about the lead actor. Instead, I found myself focusing on what is the role of “loyalty” to the concept of “team” in today’s world, for which major league revenue sports is such a grand metaphor.

As most of my readers will probably know, this movie is really about the need to challenges one’s cherished assumptions about how your “game” really works. In this case the “game” is professional baseball, and in particular, the Oakland Athletics in the early twenty-first century—how they moved out of the cellar and accomplished an historic winning streak.

I did get caught up in the story line and the drama. But what really stayed with me was my thoughts about the players who can be bought, sold, traded, moved up or “sent down” at any time. They appeared to have absolutely no certainty, and no control over their own fates. And they were moved around incessantly by the protagonist, the manager Billy Beane, played by Robert Redford.

So I found myself asking: what motivates these guys? Money? In this kind of a culture how could you possibly generate loyalty to the team? So what else would motivate them?

I must admit, I have told students what they have to do in the era of the fast economy is to learn a body of knowledge and skills that makes them both unique and perpetually marketable. I know I cannot tell them what my father told me: “Son, find a good company and stick with it.” Actually, I am a paradox for I really did both. I learned a body of information, knowledge, wisdom, coupled with my skills, which combined to give me value in an information based economy—and value no longer tied to any one employer. Yet I had one employer for 32.5 years and was very loyal. And my loyalty was a very powerful motivator, significantly moreso than my compensation. A few years ago I actually had a work colleague  tell me that I was still so fixated on loyalty that “you would have made a great manager in the 50’s.” Actually, I became a higher ed manager in the mid 70’s, and have remained one to this day, still trying to act like he is in the 50’s. But back to Moneyball.

Moneyball made me think about how this film must speak to traditional aged college students, thinking about pursuing careers for money, not loyalty, while being completely dispensable to their employing organizations. And some of our students don’t like this prospect, which is why some of them are joining the OCCUPY Wall Street movement. I’m betting that this protest movement just might make a difference. It is certainly speaking to me, even though by the standard of capitalism I have it made.

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