The sixteen most dominant teams in sports history had one thing in common: Each employed the same type of captain—a singular leader with an unconventional set of skills and tendencies. Drawing on original interviews with athletes, general managers, coaches, and team-building experts, Sam Walker identifies the seven core qualities of the Captain Class—from extreme doggedness and emotional control to tactical aggression and the courage to stand apart. Told through riveting accounts of pressure-soaked moments in sports history, The Captain Class will challenge your assumptions of what inspired leadership looks like.
Seven truths about captains of the sixteen most dominant teams.
Truth #1 They lacked superstar talent.
The captains of dominant teams were not the best players on their teams, or even major stars. They often arrived with skill deficiencies and had been described by coaches as average players. Some had been forced to fight hard just to make it to the elite ranks and were at some point overlooked.
Truth #2 They weren’t fond of the spotlight.
The captains of dominant teams didn’t enjoy the trappings of fame and rarely sought attention. When it did find them, it seemed to make them uncomfortable. Off the field, they were often quiet, even introverted and in a few causes, famously inarticulate.
Truth #3 They didn’t lead in the traditional sense.
The captains of dominant teams relied heavily on the talents around them to carry the scoring burden. This is contrary to the belief that the leader has to take over the game in critical comments.
Truth #4 They were not angels.
The captains of dominant teams played to the edge of the rules, often did unsportsmanlike things or generally behaved in a way that seemed to threaten their team’s chance of winning. They weren’t afraid to berat officials, coaches or team executives. They were tough on the rivals too, tossing them on the ground, pinning them to the turf or calling them names.
Truth #5 They did potentially divisive things.
The captains of dominant teams tended to disregard the orders of coaches, defied team rules and strategies and gave candid feedback in which they’d spoken out against everyone from fans, teammates and coaches to the overlords of the sport.
Truth #6 They weren’t the usual suspects.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the list was who wasn’t on it. Some of the most glaring absences include Jordan, the co-captain of the Tier Two Chicago bulls, who is widely considered the greatest basketball player in history and Roy Keane, the captain of Manchester United team that also landed in Tier Two.
Truth #7 They weren’t the primary leaders.
On most teams, the highest position in the pecking order belongs to the coach or manager. After all, the coach usually appoints the captain. There’s another powerful stratum of management above the coach, too. Surely their contributions and willingness to spend money, played a significant role.
The importance of Glue-Guys
Every winning streak is bounded by two moments of transformation. One where it begins and one where it ends. For the most dominant teams in history, these moments had an uncanny correlation to one player’s arrival or departure, or both. This person not only displayed a fanatical commitment to the team, they also happened to be the captain.
Most of us believe leaders should possess a good combination of skills and personality traits that are considered to be superior than others. The leaders of the most dominant teams in history did not match this profile.
Do coaches matter?
One of the first lessons we learn as children is to respect authority. We look up to our parents, teachers with special powers. We believe they mold us. Sports fans project the same idea to coaches. The conventional wisdom is the coach rather than the players is the primary force behind success. On the most dominant teams, this wasn’t the case.
That said, coaches do matter. They’ve shown to reframe the game with tactical innovations, build cultures that are more powerful than any individuals. Many of the coaches including Guardiola, Blake, McHale had been highly decorated captains before becoming managers. This suggests the lessons these men learned on the field about the power of captaincy.
Captains. They Just keep coming.
One of the most confounding human nature is that when faced with a task, people will work harder alone than they will when they’re in a group. This is known as ‘social loafing’. There is however an antidote. It’s the presence of one person who leaves no doubt that they’re giving it everything they got.
The captains of the greatest teams in history had an unflagging commitment to playing at their maximum capacity. Although they were rarely superior athletes, they demonstrated an extreme level of doggedness in competition and in their preparing. They also put pressure on their teams to continue competing even when there are small chances of victory.
Intelligent fouls. Captains play to the edge of their rules.
Perhaps the most universally accepted code in sports is ‘sportsmanship’. We believe there’s a right way and a wrong way to win. In sports, the one player who is held to this standard more than any other is captain. On the most dominant teams, however, the captains were not immune to pushing the rules to the breaking point. Often they did so intentionally.
When it comes to aggressive behavior, there’s one thing people fail to understand. All aggression is not the same. There’s a hostile aggression that comes with harm and there’s an instrumental aggression that’s employed in the pursuit of a worthwhile goal. The leaders of these greatest teams are more concerned with winning than how the public perceives them.
Carrying water. The hidden art of leading from the back.
The captains from the most dominant teams rarely started, nor did they act like one. They shunned attention. They gravitate towards rather functional roles. They carried water.
When it comes to a competition, most believe the leader is a person who does something spectacular when the chips are down. The great captains lower 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 the one leading to serve.
Boxing ears and wiping noses. Practical communication.
Conventional wisdom tells us right words delivered in the perfect moments are key to motivation. The captains in most dominant teams simply didn’t prove this idea. They did not give speeches. They often gave lousy interviews and are often considered inarticulate or quiet. They led without fanfare.
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 communication isn’t grandiosity. It’s a stream of chatter that’s practical, physical and consistent.
Calculated acts. The power of nonverbal displays.
Effective communication doesn’t necessarily have to involve words. Our brains are capable of making deep, fast-acting and emotional connections with people around us. It happens automatically, whether we’re aware of or not.
The captains of dominant teams had done dramatic and sometimes bizarre during or right before a competition. These incidents had two things in common. First, they did not involve words. Second, they were intentional. They all seemed to understand that there were times when practical communication wasn’t enough.
Uncomfortable truths. The courage to stand apart.
Conventional wisdom says teams are fragile. A change in temperature of even a few degrees rearrange the teams’ chemistry in a way that renders them ineffective. Yet, the captains of the greatest teams did defiant, dissenting and potentially divisive things, often habitually.
Of course, it depends on the type of conflict we’re talking about. There are two basic kinds: personal conflict and task conflict which happens when an argument breaks out about the way it’s conducting its affairs. On teams in a competitive environment, personal conflict is the toxin, and that’s the kind elite captains avoided.
The kill switch. Regulating emotion.
There’s no doubt greatest captains use emotion to drive their teams. But like aggression and conflict, emotion comes in more than one flavor. During their careers, the greatest captains faced some issues that stirred up powerful negative emotions – an injury, a rebuke, a personal tragedy and even a climate of political injustice. These captains not only embraced these setbacks, also they excelled. They wallowed in the destructive emotions in order to serve the interests of their teams.
A person’s ability to regulate emotion is largely governed by the kind of brain wiring we’re born with. Nevertheless, our genes provide us with a little wiggle room and our brains do possess the ability to change over time.
False idols. Flawed captains and why we love them.
Roy Keane and Michael Jordan are both considered leadership icons. But a close examination shows the traits they’re most widely renowned for did not fit in the profile of captains from most dominant teams.
The problem with these flawed captains is they have distorted the picture of what enlightened leadership looks like. The danger is people who’re charged with choosing leaders could end up promoting people who have the wrong characteristics
Leadership’s decline and how to revive it.
Over the past decade, captains have fallen out of favor in sports. In some cases, teams have opted to use the title as a tool to build loyalty. In others, they’ve simply bestowed it on the highest-performing player. Some have even eliminated the role altogether. This trend mirrors an idea that has taken hold in businesses where some companies are experimenting with the ways of eliminating middle management to bring up top executives closer to star talent. These ideas are practical but there’s no indicator that they help create elite teams.
Scholars who study leadership have done a fine job of identifying positive traits all leaders aspire to but they’ve set a prohibitively high bar. The greatest captains in the history of sports were not abundantly talented or charismatic. Great leaders do not need to be glamorous. They only need a knowledge of what a successful effort looks like and a plan to get there. They do not need to remind people how great they are. If anything, they should give the impression that they don’t believe they’re worth leading at all.