The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World's Greatest Teams

Book Cover
Sam Walker
4
Thursday, Aug 2, 2018

When it comes to a competition, most people believe that the leader of a team is the person who does something spectacular when the chips are down. The leader is the one who takes the buzzer-beating shot. A team member who performs acts of humility off the field, or who assists others in making these decisive plays, is, by definition, a supporting player. The captains in this book suggest we've got the picture backward. The great captains lowered themselves in relation to the group whenever possible in order to earn the moral authority to drive them forward in tough moments. The person at the back, feeding the ball to others, may look like a servant--but that person is actually creating dependency. The easiest way to lead, it turns out, is to serve.

This is an absolutely fascinating book.

Walker starts with a question: What makes great sports teams great? He came up with a criteria and looked at the history of athletic teams--national and international, men's and women's, all varieties, so long as they were a cooperative venture--and identified the most dominant dynasties of their eras. He found 122 teams that met the basic criteria, then identified 16 that stood out as the best of the best. He dubbed the 16 as Tier One and the remaining 106 as Tier Two.

Then he looked at the 16 teams to see if he could identify anything they had in common as a shared secret of their success. He noticed that the span of success for one team coincided with the membership of a particular player. Then he looked at the others. [They] weren't the only team whose Tier One performance corresponded in some way to the arrival and departure of one particular player. In fact, they all did. And with an eerie regularity that person was, or would eventually become, the captain. The more he looked, the more he found similarities between all of those figures, until he eventually had to conclude that the most crucial ingredient in a team that achieves and sustains historic greatness is the character of the player who leads it.

And it was character that mattered. These weren't necessarily the big stars, top scorers, or media darlings; in fact, many had poor relationships with the media. But they all did particular things that drove their teams to greater success than the most famous individual achievers did. In his acknowledgements, Walker summarizes those character traits as:

1. Extreme doggedness and focus in competition.
2. Aggressive play that tests the limits of the rules.
3. A willingness to do thankless jobs in the shadows.
4. A low-key, practical, and democratic communication style.
5. Motivates others with passionate nonverbal displays.
6. Strong convictions and the courage to stand apart.
7. Ironclad emotional control.

These players inspired teammates with their single-minded intensity and will to win, shunned outside attention while focusing on task-oriented internal communication, and made sure everyone in the group was cared for and included.

It is Walker's exploration of each of those traits that composes the bulk of the book and what I found most fascinating. He offers lengthy examples of each from the playing lives of the 16 elite captains--plus a handful of supporting examples from the other 106. And though he remains firmly in the realm of sports, specialized knowledge is not required to understand or appreciate them. His writing is accessible and informal, focusing on what the anecdotes demonstrate rather than geeking out about the athletic feats.

One thing Walker leaves to readers is transferring the book's knowledge to non-sport contexts. It can be particularly hard at a glance to come up with parallels for non-competitive settings. Still, there is wisdom to be gleaned with reflection about leadership principles. I'm still pondering just what lessons I can take away from it.

Which is always a sign of a good book.

A few more passages that stood out to me:

While common sense suggests that a person's natural ability should inspire self-confidence, . . . research showed that in most cases, ability has very little to do with it. A person's reaction to failure is everything.

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Having a captain who was publicly reserved but privately voluble helped to create an inclusive dynamic. Most Tier One teams had open, talkative cultures in which grievances were aired, strategies discussed, and crticisms leveled without delay. These groups encouraged everybody to speak up.

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One of the great scientific discoveries about effective teams is that their members talk to one another. They do it democratically, with each person taking a turn. The leaders of these kinds of teams circulated widely, talking to everyone with enthusiasm and energy. The teams in Tier One had talkative cultures like this, too--and the person who fostered and sustained that culture was the captain. Despite their lack of enthusiasm for talking publicly, most of these captains, inside the private confines of their teams, talked all the time and strengthened their messages with gestures, stares, touches, and other forms of body language. The secret to effective team communication isn't grandiosity. It's a stream of chatter that is practical, physical, and consistent.

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On the field, the captains in Tier One shared [Michael] Jordan's relentless drive. Off the field, however, they were basically homebodies--intense competition seemed to be the last thing on their agendas. Early in his career, Bill Russell retreated to his basement after games to play with his model trains. Maurice Richard spent nearly all of his free time with his family and sometimes slept twelve hours a night. Jack Lambert's teammates accused him of being antisocial on road trips because he spent so much time buried in a book. Carles Puyol, no fan of nightlife, once said: "I consider myself a very quiet, family-oriented person. There are many things that can make you lose focus, and so I have tried to avoid all of that."

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On the Tier One Teams I studied, the typical pecking order put the coach at the top, the talent at the bottom, and a water-carrying captain in the middle who served as an independent mediator between them.

Chris K.

Written by Chris K.

Fun fact: Experts estimate that the average cruising airspeed velocity of an unladen European Swallow is roughly 11 meters per second, or 24 miles an hour.