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The Captain Class – A Contrarian Look at Leadership

posted Kevin Penner on 29 September 2017
The Captain Class – A Contrarian Look at Leadership

We all have teams we want to succeed, a group of people united by a common cause, trying to achieve a common goal.  We root for them, monitor their progress, celebrate their victories and analyze their failures. We all have experienced the seeming never ending cycle of good times and bad times.

Every once in a while, a team comes along that seems to rise above the up and down cycle the rest of us are caught in.  Not only do they succeed in a big way, but they are able to do it year after year.  They are teams that experience ‘freakish’ success, as defined by Sam Walker in his book The Captain Class: The Hidden Force behind the World’s Greatest Teams

Intrigued by these teams, Walker set out to determine what characteristics these teams had in common and what led to their success. He began with an arduous process to define the “best” teams in sports history and narrowed the field to sixteen “tier one” teams including the 1956-1969 Boston Celtics, the 1980-1984 Russian men’s ice hockey team, the 1991-2000 Cuban women’s volleyball team, the 1949-1953 New York Yankees, the 1997-2016 San Antonio Spurs and the 1986-1990 New Zealand All Blacks.

Over his years as a sports reporter, Walker had collected five frequently cited qualities that conventional wisdom tells us are the key to superior teams including the presence of a superstar player, a high level of overall talent, deep financial resources, a long tradition of institutional excellence and superior coaching.

But none of these qualities held across all sixteen tier one teams.

It was only when he looked at the tenure of the players that he found his commonality.  Every tier one team’s freakish success time frame corresponded in some way to the arrival and departure of one particular player, and with eerie regularity, that was, or would eventually become, the captain. And that is how this became a book about leadership.

Few subjects have been written about as much as leadership. As time passes, the prevailing perceptions of great leadership ebb and flow. Casting a great vision, providing inspiration, communicating clearly and eloquently, and possessing great skill are among the attributes associated with great leadership today.

Walker dug deep into analyzing the captains of the tier one teams and defined the “Seven Methods of Elite Leaders” and they are not what we currently believe. The author not only chronicles his research into these freakishly successful teams, but through stories, he demonstrates and explains the seven methods of these team captains.

Elite leaders just keep coming. They have an unflagging commitment to playing at their maximum capability.  Often they were not the superior athletes, but their doggedness puts pressure on their teammates to match their commitment.  They are the antidote to social loafing - the tendency we have to put forth less effort when we are part of a group.

Elite leaders play to the edge of the rules.  They do not wantonly disregard the rules, but they will push against them and bend them in the pursuit of their goals.  Although this sometimes brought a backlash, they were more concerned with winning than with what the public thought of them.

Elite leaders lead from the back.  They are rarely the stars of the team and certainly did not act like stars.  Instead they shunned the attention and instead assumed functional roles of serving the team, both on and off the field.  They are water carriers and this service gives them the moral authority to drive the team forward in tough moments.

Elite leaders practice practical communication. Though often lousy and inarticulate in interviews, in the private confines of the team, they demonstrate an adept ability to communicate with their teammates in their own way, verbally as well as nonverbally.

Elite leaders use calculated risks.  Sometimes words are not enough to make the deep, powerful, fast-acting, and emotional connections that energize and galvanize team efforts.  The elite leaders would do something dramatic, bizarre, and sometimes frightening during or even before competitions to make an intentional and clear statement to their team.

Elite leaders have the courage to stand apart.  The captains of the greatest teams in sports not only did defiant, dissenting, and potentially divisive things, they did them regularly.  When these captains ‘broke china’, they either did so to defend their teammates against management or to make a practical point about what the team was doing wrong.  They were not acts of petulance driven by ego.

Elite leaders regulate their emotions.  These leaders experienced all the same negative and destructive emotions that we all do, but they developed a kill switch for negative emotions, walling them off so that they could continue playing and serving the interests of the team.

Looking at these Seven Methods, we get the feeling that these elite leaders are not the docile, party line, get along with everyone people we like to have working for us.  They can be disruptive, not willing to accept the status quo but, instead, shaking up our good teams and trying to make them better.  They can drive away good people, not willing to accept mediocrity in their performance but always demanding peak performance.  So, is it even worth it to find and hire this type of person?

Buck Shelford was the captain for the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team, one of the top tier teams.  In 1987, the All Blacks won the World Cup, outscoring their opponents by large margins.  After the World Cup, the All Black coaches named Buck the team’s captain.  From that moment until he was controversially dropped from the team in 1990, the All Blacks never lost a game, not once.

Like all things business, there are benefits and costs, and our job as business leaders is to weigh them and choose the paths that have the greatest chance of success.  Walker has given us a compelling image of the type of person who can take our teams to the next level and, in the process, bring success to themselves, their teams and our businesses.

The Captain Class is a compelling read as many of us connect well with the stories and travails of sports teams and it provides thought provoking concepts as we continue to pursue the development of elite leadership.