Theo Epstein named 'world's greatest leader,' but he's not so sure

When you think about the world’s greatest leaders, what kind of people come to mind? Political figures? Religious leaders? Philanthropists? Well, according to Fortune, you’re missing one very important category: president of a baseball team.

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Fortune released its fourth annual “World’s Greatest Leaders” list on Thursday, and guess who sat at the top? Theo Epstein, president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs. Just a few months removed from leading the franchise to their legendary curse-breaking World Series win, Fortune has named Epstein as No. 1 (out of 50) on its list of the world’s greatest leaders. Here’s Fortune’s brief description of the list:

In business, government, philanthropy and the arts, and all over the globe, these men and women are transforming the world and inspiring others to do the same.

Theo Epstein is the world’s greatest leader. (Getty Images)
Theo Epstein is the world’s greatest leader. (Getty Images)

In that top spot, Epstein is ahead of Pope Francis, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, philanthropist Melinda Gates, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau and LeBron James. It’s a very diverse list, but Fortune says Epstein tops them all. All the leaders on their list must teach these three lessons: 

  • “Acknowledge reality and offer hope”

  • “Bring followers physically together”

  • “Build bridges”

Looking at the Cubs’ five-year transformation, it’s easy to see those three lessons. But the man himself isn’t sure he agrees with the magazine’s assessment. From ESPN, here’s a text Epstein sent to Buster Olney about the list.

In a text to ESPN’s Buster Olney, Epstein said, “Um, I can’t even get my dog to stop peeing in the house. That is ridiculous. The whole thing is patently ridiculous. It’s baseball — a pastime involving a lot of chance. If [Ben] Zobrist’s ball is three inches farther off the line, I’m on the hot seat for a failed five-year plan. And I’m not even the best leader in our organization; our players are.”

Epstein makes a good point, but “house training your dog” isn’t one of the leadership qualities they grade on.

It does feel a little weird to see Theo Epstein at the top of this list, because, as he points out, the players are the real leaders. They’re the ones who play the game. But Theo is the guy who actually put the players there.

It’s weird because as much as a baseball team is “led” by one person, it’s an incredibly collaborative effort from top to bottom. Everyone contributes: the players, the clubhouse staff, the vendors, all of the vice presidents and assistants, the list goes on and on. It’s called a team, after all. But it’s a good bet that Theo Epstein knows this. A baseball team is never just one person, even if a magazine wants to honor just one guy.

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Liz Roscher is a writer for Big League Stew on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email her at or follow her on twitter! Follow @lizroscher

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