The Difference Between Good and Great Teams: The Captain

Outside of my mentors and defining moments, books have accelerated my learning both professionally and personally, and I truly believe that reading is the single most important thing you can do to better yourself.  In light of this, on Monday’s I will be reviewing a book that has impacted me.

Today’s book is The Captain Class: A New Theory on Leadership by Sam Walker

Summary of Book:

Sam Walker is a well-respected reporter, columnist, and today the deputy editor for the Wall Street Journal. In his book, he had one goal which was to figure out what was the greatest sports team ever assembled, and what was the common trait that made them all so elite. To do this, he set up an elaborate formula that breaks down all teams across all sports, with very specific criteria to determine which teams were the best of all time. Ultimately what he discovers is that financial health, great coaches, and having once in a generation player on your team do not catapult a team to success.  What he finds is that the one single thing they all had in common was the skills and leadership abilities of their captain. Here are the seven traits he uncovered along with my takeaways from each:

Seven Traits of a Captain:

  1. Extreme doggedness and focus on 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

Relentlessly pursue goals

Through his research what Sam found is that the teams who he identified as the greatest of all time were not that way because of one sole player, but rather due to having a teammate who was not the most gifted, but no matter what relentlessly pursued the goal of winning. The very first trait of a captain is their ability ”to just keep coming” as Sam describes in the book. 

In many teams, and groups there can be a misconception about how humans accomplish a goal which is characterized as “Social Loafing.” Teams and most superstars of those teams fall into this trap and believe that they can only do a specific task on their own, and don’t need the help of others. This thought process is typically what leads to disruption on the field which results in losing. However, in his research, he discovered that a team captain, someone who cares so deeply to win at all costs, can galvanize people to come together to perform at levels they didn’t think were possible. Out of the 100+ teams he researched, he found that the top 17 greatest teams ever had a captain who no matter what gave it his/her all for the team. 

Think differently

In every sport, there are rules to allow the game to be played fair, and make sure that there is no discrepancy in who is the winner or loser. However, Sam found that captains who were on these great teams found ways to push the boundaries. In his research, Sam finds that many captains tend to intentionally push the boundaries of what is fair and what is not. Now, they rarely “broke the rules”, but they came close. At times, they acted in aggressive manners to bend the rules, and some might have felt like it was unfair. However, they used this as fuel to help motivate and push their teams. 

Be great at the fundamentals

In today’s world more than ever, we see the team captain as the “star” and they are followed by all the fame and glory. However, for the captains in the most elite teams, they shy away from the attention. They focused on roles that helped the team win, as Sam refers to “Carried the Water”. There focus was on trying to do whatever was needed to help the team, not themselves be successful. Further research found that the captains of these teams were great at building relationships with all levels of the team and nurturing those relationships to feel more relatable. So, it wasn’t about taking the last shot that was most important to them, but it was about making sure the team felt good especially in the toughest of moments.

Uses action, and NON-verbal displays to lead 

When people think of “Captains”, and great teams. They think of legendary speeches, and the star player giving one last pep talk before the team takes the field. Well, for the captains of these great teams, that is simply not the truth. What Sam found was that the captains didn’t use many words or big speeches. They simply used their actions, and non-verbal cues to help motivate their teammates. The reason this worked so well, is due to the open flow of communication. They never felt the need to be the only one who can speak in certain situations. They made sure that team communication was very democratic, and everyone had the ability to speak up when necessary. A low-key, practical and democratic communication style

It’s not about being right, but about doing the right thing

As Sam puts its a teams worst nightmare is “Locker Room Drama”. It can lead to destructive team chemistry and ultimately ruin an entire season for a team. What he found was interesting though that the Captain of these great teams tends to push the boundaries with their ideas, and thoughts. Now, what is important to note is there is a certain type of conflict that was good, and actually resulted in helping the team. But it is clearly true that the captain of the team is the one who is defiant, and always trying to test the boundaries of what is the right thing to do. 

Ability to manage the chaos

When the going gets tough, or the team seems to be shaken by a specific play or moment. The captain is the one who everyone looks to for guidance. They have this unique ability as Sam refers to it as a “Kill Switch”, that no matter what just happened, they can switch their mindset to be in complete control of their emotions. This ability is one of the most important for all captains because when everything feels like it is breaking down around them they are left standing ready to fight, and lead the team to victory.

Now, Wake Up! It’s Day One. If you enjoyed learning about the seven traits of a Captain, I would highly recommend you read the book as it uncovers data to back up his argument. Buy the book here.

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