Here are my notes, quotes, and thoughts from The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams, by Sam Walker. It’s one of the books on my 2017 Reading List.
Sports is a great mechanism to study leadership because teams cannot hide their techniques. They are out in the open. Any team that takes on the world’s toughest opponents and wins abundantly is doing something remarkable.
Through a series of tests and observations, Harris concludes that the world’s most elite teams include the New York Yankees from 1949-1953, Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics, The Pittsburg Steelers from 1974-1980, The Soviet Ice Hockey Team from the 80s, US Women’s Soccer from 1996-1999, The New Zealand All Blacks (twice), the San Antonio Spurs during the Tim Duncan era, and a few others.
Harris argues the determining factor in these team’s success was not a star player or a coach, but a captain. After all, once the game begins, the manager no longer influences the outcome but one influential player can unify a team.
The Seven Traits of Elite Captains
#1 – Extreme doggedness and focus in competition. “One of the highest compliments coaches can pay athletes is to describe them as relentless, to say that they just keep coming. Not every star has this quality.” Carol Dweck’s research shows that in most cases, ability has less to do with accomplishment than a person’s reaction to failure. “Winning is difficult, but to win again is much more difficult – because egos appear. Most people who win once have already achieved what they wanted and don’t have any more ambition.” – Carles Puyol
#2 – Aggressive play that tests the limits of rules. One the greatest teams in history, captains pushed the rules to the breaking point and did so intentionally. Hostile aggression is intended to do hard by instrumental aggression is employed in pursuit of a worthwhile goal.
#3 – A willingness to do thankless jobs in the shadows. “Superior leadership is just as likely (if not more so) to come from the team’s rear quarters than to emanate from its frontline superstar.” “One of the great paradoxes of management is that the people who pursue leadership positions most ardently are often the wrong people for the job. They are motivated by the prestige the role conveys rather than a desire to promote the goals and values of the organization.” The easiest way to lead is to serve.
#4 – A low-key, practical, and democratic communication style. MIT researchers found the key factor to team productivity is “energy and engagement” displayed in social settings outside formal meetings. Teams that talk intently among themselves int eh break room are more likely to achieve superior results at work. On the best teams, speaking time is doled out equitably – no single person hogs the floor and nobody shrinks from the conversation. “Everyone talks and listens in roughly equal measure, keeping contributions short and sweet. Tier One captains don’t think of communication as theater but as a never-ending parade of boxing ears, delivering hugs, and wiping noses.
#5 – Motivates others with passionate nonverbal displays. Words are not required for communication to take place. Tier One captains often do dramatic, bizarre or even frightening things before an important competition.
#6 – Strong convictions and the courage to stand apart. To avoid groupthink, some put together a “red team” to make the more forceful argument they can muster for why an idea on the table is a bad one. As much as we might fear it, dissent inside a team can be a powerful force for good. Great captains have to be willing to stand apart when they believe it is necessary. “A leader who isn’t afraid to take on the boss, or the boss’s boss, or just stand up in the middle of a team meeting and say, “Here is what we’re doing wrong,” is an essential component of excellence.”
#7 – Ironclad emotional control. When flooded with negativity, Tier One captains engage in some kind of mechanism that shuts the emotions off before they have deleterious effects.