Baseball, Business, and Beyond: Thinking Outside Yourself
Baseball, Business, and Beyond: Thinking Outside Yourself

Baseball, Business, and Beyond: Thinking Outside Yourself

Review: Hugh Heclo, On Thinking Institutionally.
Following tradition blindly is a dangerous game. But armed with a moral compass, we gain far more than we risk from the legacy of our institutions.
September 1 st 2013
Appears in Fall 2013

Ryne Sandberg was a legendary infielder for the Chicago Cubs. He won nine consecutive Gold Gloves, made ten straight All-Star game appearances, and still holds Major League Baseball's fielding percentage record for second base. Yet stardom seemed to have little effect on "Ryno." At his 2005 Hall of Fame induction speech, he said:

I was in awe every time I walked onto the field. That's respect. Make a great play, act like you've done it before; get a big hit, look for the third base coach and get ready to run the bases. . . . These guys sitting up here [in the Baseball Hall of Fame] did not pave the way for the rest of us so that players could swing for the fences every time up and forget how to move a runner over to third. It's disrespectful to them, to you, and to the game of baseball that we all played growing up.

It wasn't that Sandberg was the rare self-effacing athlete; it was that he thought differently. He respected the game and those who went before him. He not only valued his team over personal glory, but he deeply believed in the institution of baseball.

Today, such belief in institutions is rare, if not suspect. North Americans like to exalt the right of individuals to live as they please, apart from external constraints on individual liberty. Institutions, including business, government, and even baseball, feel like straitjackets. As modern media magnifies corporate and political scandals, distrust of institutions blossoms even further. Jean-Jacques Rousseau put this popular sentiment well: "Civil man is born, lives, and dies in slavery. At his birth he is sewed in swaddling clothes; at his death he is nailed in a coffin. So long as he keeps his human shape, he is enchained by institutions."

In stark contrast, Hugh Heclo, a professor at George Mason University, believes institutions are not only necessary, but integral to human life. From education to business to the family, our individual lives are bound together with institutions. Heclo proposes an old (even ancient) solution to heal the contemporary tension between individual liberty and social responsibility. He suggests, like Ryne Sandberg, we start thinking institutionally.

Thinking Institutionally

Perhaps the best starting place for defining a cryptic phrase like "thinking institutionally" is by stating what it does not mean. This is not thinking bureaucratically and becoming William Whyte's "organization man" who sells his soul to a heartless corporation. Nor is it merely thinking about institutions, as do social scientists who dispassionately analyze institutions through the academic lenses of rational choice, social systems, or organizational behaviour.

Instead, thinking institutionally depends on Heclo's definition of institutions, which are "inheritances of valued purpose with attendant rules and moral obligations." For Heclo, institutions are, first, inherited from the past, second, focused on larger, shared purposes, and third, suggest moral norms that guide present action. He analyzes the five main schools of thought with regard to institutions: the statist school (which defines institutions as legally defined structures), the social systems school (integrating individual behaviour into social functions), the historical-institutionalist school (political bodies and their interaction with social groups), the rationalist choice school (social ways to pursue self-interest), and the cognitive school (socially constructed patterns of thought). He pushes against all of these and concludes institutions have a normative quality to them—they represent shared moral aspirations, not just social patterns or mere organizations.

So are institutions only ideas or something incarnated? It seems Heclo would argue for both. They are moral purposes (not just ideas) that are incarnated in organizations and shared practices. Ryne Sandberg, for example, wasn't just committed to the Chicago Cubs (the organization), but to the purposes of the game of baseball, including team play, hard work, and technical excellence. Employees at a recreation centre fold towels and clean locker rooms as a part of an organization but they participate in an institution when they commit to the purposes of the recreation centre, namely building a healthy community. Heclo stresses moral attachments and institutional values, both "ideas," but ideas with ethical direction.

Thinking institutionally, then, is a "respectin- depth" for inherited institutional values. This deep respect can be defined with three characteristics of institutional thinking: faithful reception, infusions of value, and "stretching of time horizons." Those who think institutionally open themselves to faithfully receiving worthy traditions of the past; they infuse daily activities with value beyond the technical requirements of the task (because they are expressing the "valueladen attachments" that are core to participating in institutional purposes); and they think long-term by considering the legacy they'll leave for future generations.

George Washington is a good example of an institutional thinker. During the winter of 1778, Washington's army nearly froze to death at Valley Forge. Because his forces held together solely through personal loyalty to him, Washington was in a strong position to become America's new king. But instead of assuming unchecked power, Washington chose to stay dependent on an unreliable Congress, consulting them before acting and not overstepping his authority. He chose to not only serve an "organization" (Congress), but instead the idea that the organization represented: republican selfgovernment. Washington had a respect-indepth for the inherited institutional values of republicanism, and acted in view of "posterity" (as the Founders like to say) by deferring to Congress with respect to military action and thus establishing civilian rule. His actions were "infused with value" because he stewarded a great tradition and committed himself to a larger purpose. Washington thought institutionally.

Yet institutional thinking is not only for great leaders; it can be done amid the decisions of daily life. The scientist thinks institutionally when she commits herself to uphold the inherited values of seeking truth through empirical investigation. The teenager thinks institutionally when he skips dinner out with friends and instead opts to uphold the long-standing family tradition of Sunday evening pizza night. The Christian couple thinks institutionally when they ask not, "What do we think about sex before marriage?" but, "What does my Church think?" In each case, a respect for inherited institutional values at times trumps personal self-interest. It is not that personal selfinterest is completely obliterated; it is simply not the only factor to consider. The wisdom of predecessors, the legacy we leave for heirs, and a larger social good all play into institutional thinking.

Institutional thinking is a critique of the individualism that champions individual reason or individual self-expression over received authority and commitment to institutional values. Enlightenment and Romantic thinkers, like Rousseau, for example, don't have this respect-in-depth for institutions because they largely turned away from institutional authority and placed all authority in the self. While protecting individual freedom is certainly good, Heclo critiques what this unbounded individualism ultimately produces: a pervasive distrust of any authority outside the self. Such distrust leaves us "perplexed, burdened, and looking for fixed points of reference." Without sources of good authority, we become rootless wanderers in search of meaning and social connectedness.

In contrast, the institutional thinker exercises a qualified trust in authority and gratefully acknowledges the labour of previous generations. She sees herself, as the poet John Donne wrote, as "at once receiver and the legacy." When accused of being a traditionalist or a relic from the past, the institutionalist happily agrees, for thinking institutionally was the habit of Augustine, Cicero, and even the Apostle Paul, who received the same gospel he faithfully passed on to others (1 Corinthians 15:1-2; 2 Timothy 2:2). Thinking institutionally is indeed old-fashioned; so old it has been nearly forgotten.

Respect for the Game

Thinking institutionally is not all noble stewardship of lost traditions; it has potential drawbacks. Tradition can become an idol. In Japanese culture, for example, traditions of honour and family legacy can give meaning, but they can also exalt themselves as ultimate, binding individual aspiration in the process. Heclo recognizes this danger, which is why he argues that "institutions ought to be doing what is good for us and human beings." But followers of the Reformation might question whether most can either recognize what is genuinely good in institutions or commit themselves to such high ideals. Paul doesn't seem very optimistic that fallen people will jump at the chance to commit themselves to high moral purposes on their own (Romans 3:9- 20). Moreover, some traditions—such as Nazism or apartheid—shouldn't be passed on. Trusting in authority needs to be qualified with an attuned moral compass, one perhaps stronger than what natural law can bestow.

But for those with such a moral compass, the benefits of institutional thinking far outweigh potential pitfalls. The first reason is cultural: thinking institutionally humbles our pervasive individualism. We live in a culture where politicians exalt individual rights and personal freedom over shared responsibility; where philosophers herald individual reason as courageous, and faith in traditional authority as naive; and where retailers design products to ever-more refined individual desires. Even evangelical subculture tends to exalt the celebrity and serve the religious consumer. But institutional thinking challenges the cult of the individual by asking simple questions: "Is there a tradition of wisdom outside myself to draw from? Is there a community to which I owe allegiance? Is there a purpose larger than myself that calls for my commitment?" Institutional thinking reminds those of us who swim in a sea of self-preoccupation to occasionally surface and see a world outside ourselves.

Also, institutional thinking raises our view of work. In contrast to a "job," which entails mere task-completion for a stated wage, the institutional thinker considers the high purposes of a profession. For example, the institutionally minded business manager would subvert the goal of occupying a corner office to crafting quality products, setting fair prices, and mentoring employees. He may even consider his work an "office"—a social duty to perform his work for his community's welfare. And when making decisions, he would consider his organization's history and legacy, not only profit margins and shareholder wealth. He would quietly refuse resume-padding and career-building for "outdated," pre-modern ideas of profession, office, and stewardship.

Finally, institutional thinking can make high conversations of social renewal deeply practical. The challenge with "renewing the social architecture of North America," a core commitment of Comment, is that such a task can seem grandiose and isolated from daily life. But institutional thinking moves from thinking about institutions to reframing everyday decisions. Should I scour the internet for a discount for my child's preschool tuition or pay full-price to support the school's mission? Does my lawn need another gallon of water, or might the water be better preserved for other purposes? Should I deposit my money into a corporate bank or into a nonprofit credit union with fewer services but more social impact? When personal interest no longer reigns supreme, new questions emerge, questions that challenge both producer and consumer, teacher and student, employer and employee.

Since Ryne Sandberg's induction to the Hall of Fame, his career as a baseball coach has been anything but privileged. As a coach of minor league teams from obscure places like Peoria and Lehigh Valley, he has stayed in cheap hotels, endured long bus rides, and been passed over for major league head coaching positions. Many wondered if the hall-of-famer would become bitter. "I couldn't be happier," the fifty-three-year-old said in a recent interview, "with the path I've been on." Manager or not, Sandberg is content to simply be a part of the game he loves. It's time more Christian leaders follow Sandberg's example and spread a deep respect for institutions worth loving.

Jeff Haanen
Jeff Haanen

Jeff Haanen is the executive director of Denver Institute for Faith & Work and the founder of, a free Christian learning platform for working men and women. He’s also the author of An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life.


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