Want to be a leader? Carry the team’s bags
If you ask a leader what qualities are critical for effective leadership, you will likely receive as many answers as the number of leaders you ask. We all have characteristics and experiences that come to mind. We might use words like confidence, intelligence, integrity, transparency, or dedication.
But sometimes the most important qualities are the ones we least expect. That’s what prizewinning Wall Street Journal columnist Sam Walker found in his book, “The Captain Class”, which explores the common traits shared by captains of history’s greatest sports teams.
Sam and I recently sat down to discuss his work and how it relates to effective leadership. Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.
Cathy: Sam, it’s great to have this conversation. I am fascinated by some of these things you found about leadership characteristics as demonstrated through sports and team captains, such as that they weren’t fond of the spotlight. That was me. I was a two-sport captain in college, three-sport captain in high school. I was the point guard. I was the one dishing off to everybody. I was a centre in lacrosse, which carried with it the same role.
Sam: Well, let me just say, when I learned your background, the connection as an athlete made sense right away.
My study of the commonalities of great captains grew out of the time I spent with the 2004 Boston Red Sox. I had covered so many elite teams, and the Red Sox at the start of that season just didn’t look like a championship team. But then, in August, they just clicked — the vibe of the team changed, and they started winning. Obviously, the rest is history. It became a historic team, right in front of my eyes, and I didn’t see it coming.
So that was the original spark. I wanted to understand how elite teams make that transition. Who are these teams, what did they do, and how? I thought this would be a column, not a book. But one question led to another, and by the end I had looked at more than 1,200 teams across the world in 37 major sports, going all the way back to the 1880s.
And here’s what I found. For teams that have freakishly incredible runs of success, in every case, it matched up in some way to the arrival and departure of one particular player: the captain.
Cathy: It was fascinating how some things didn’t matter—what the great teams didn’t have in common. It was not having the greatest-of-all-time (or “GOAT” as my kids have taught me!) athlete and not the money.
Sam: Yes, and it was not strategy and not the coach.
Cathy: I imagine you’ve gotten challenged on that a little bit. Is that really true?
Sam: There is such a cult of coaching, especially now because we like to assign them blame and credit for everything that happens on the field, pitch, or court. But what I learned was that to have a great team, you need all of these things. You need great coaching, you need talent and you need strategy. You need some combination of all of those things. But to sustain a great team, the single thing that you absolutely must have is a certain kind of captain. Even taking the great coaches — Vince Lombardi, Alex Ferguson, Bill Belichick, Gregg Popovich, and on down the list — it’s interesting that if you look at their peak periods of success, they had that stand-out captain.
But it wasn’t the relationship that we think. Take Belichick. Everyone thinks Belichick is a genius, but what’s interesting is that his relationship with Tom Brady is more of a partnership, and there is a lot of give and take and a lot of combat at times. What I realized was that for coaches to have elite success, they have to have that partner, and who their captain is and how they relate to that person is absolutely crucial. It’s probably one of the most important decisions they make. And I think too often it’s one of the last or least thought out.
Cathy: Do you think that the concept of a captain has shifted over time? In my day, it was usually one of your best players. Some teams obviously let the players elect the captain. Sometimes coaches pick the captain. It wasn’t necessarily the best leader. So do you think that has shifted, especially in big-time sports?
Sam: The default position right now, I think, is that your superstar is the captain. That has to do partly with big money, and the pressure of ratings, and the power of stars. Sometimes today the captaincy is used by teams in contract negotiations as a sweetener. Or, teams don’t have captains at all.
If you look at the great captains, they stood between the coach and the players and they would take independent stands against either one if they thought they needed to. That independence may not be as important when everything is going well, but it can make a huge difference under pressure. In the book, I looked at examples where great dynasties were about to fall apart. That’s when those captains stepped in and held both sides together and acted independently and made adjustments, and used the skills that I’ve outlined to hold the team when it could have crumbled.
Cathy: I am fascinated by the seven traits of elite captains. I’ve got my favourite. What is yours?
Sam: If I could only talk about one, I think I would talk about carrying water and being the water carrier.
Cathy: That’s exactly mine—a willingness to do thankless jobs in the shadows.
Sam: Yes. The great captains shunned attention. They carried the water. And by the way, that, in turn, gave them the credibility to drive the team hard in tough moments. The easiest way to lead, it turns out, is to serve.
Cathy: It made me think of my time at Lehigh University. I actually got my role as starting point guard on the basketball team because, behind the scenes, we had a player who was having a very tough personal matter. So I supported her and did a couple of different things to show I cared about her well-being and forgot sports for the moment. Now I didn’t even know anybody was aware of this, but later people told me my coach noticed that I was not worried about my starting position. I was empathizing and helping this young woman who was going through a very difficult personal time. And I am pretty sure that’s how I got my starting role to lead the team as point guard. It was in the shadows, and I didn’t even know people were watching.
Sam: That’s a great story because it shows that your coach was paying attention. Your coach could discern these qualities in you through your actions. Lots of coaches will notice what people do, but what are their motivations? It’s important to see that there are differences. A classic sign is whether a player is team-focused, or focused on personal gain.
That’s one of the takeaways for business: the people who will be your great captains are often hard to spot—they are not obvious. By design, they are rarely stars, they are not necessarily charismatic and they don’t seek out attention and approval. In fact, they should get visibly uncomfortable if you start heaping praise on them. I just saw this great interview with Richie McCaw, the incredible former captain of the New Zealand All Blacks, and that’s exactly what happened as the interviewer was heaping praise on him. He hated it.
Cathy: So for leaders who are coming into a new role, what’s your advice on finding those people? You’re saying that figuring out who your captain ought to be is a crucial leadership decision but also non-obvious. An executive’s leadership team members are all highly talented and they are superstars in their own right, but who is the captain?
Sam: Well, first, there are more of these kinds of people out there than we realize. We’re just not looking in the right direction. So that’s a good thing.
I do like the idea of taking a candidate and heaping praise on them in an interview, just to see how they react. If they don’t deflect the credit and talk about the team and get uncomfortable, it’s a sign they might not be the right choice.
Here’s another simple tactic to help you get started. When your team is working together in some kind of informal setting, pretend that you just walked in the door and don’t know these people. Ask yourself, ‘who is the least likely person to be the captain? Who is the least likely person to be a leader of this group, just at a glance?’ It’s probably not going to be that person, but I think you’ll be a lot closer to the right answer than you would be if you started with the person who fits the most stereotypical image of a leader.
Cathy: Because I think intuitively we do the opposite.
Sam: We do! It’s human nature. We think leadership is some obvious thing that’s given to us or that we’re born with. When people interact in a group setting, the leader isn’t the loudest voice in the room. It’s the person who talks intently one-on-one and listens as much as they talk to other people.
Here’s another interesting commonality. When we interview people, there is this natural assumption to look at the accomplished person who may be very active in a lot of things outside of work. But what I found over and over again with these captains was that they were so dull when they went home. They were boring, and that’s okay.
I would also point to the chapter on ironclad emotional control and how important that is. That’s something that is hard to see, but I do think that we should give people extra credit for having gone through difficult life events and come out the other side.
Cathy: I totally agree. That is something I want to see in a leader. This is a tough world right now, and there is so much divisiveness. You have to take the emotion out of it and be able to lead and make those choices. I call it ‘grace under pressure.’
Changing subjects, everybody talks about the work of the future and jobs of the future. I am curious — what does the team of the future look like?
Sam: My sense is that as automation and systems do more of the things people used to do, then the soft skills are going to become more important — the intangible things about leadership and teamwork that you see with great teams.
You can draw a parallel with the analytical revolution that has happened in sports. It’s the Moneyball revolution, and as statistics were embraced, it changed perceptions in a good way. Athletes who had been overlooked became more important and valuable.
Teams are getting so good at training, practice, strategy and analytics. So now they’re starting to focus on intangible things like team chemistry. Even Theo Epstein, who is known as one of the most analytical general managers in sports, is out there talking about “soft” skills and character. That’s what I’m hearing from great discussions with people like Theo at the Chicago Cubs, and leaders from the Minnesota Twins and Seattle Seahawks.
Cathy: How do you prepare the next generation of leaders to either adopt those traits that they don’t have, or maybe they do, but they just haven’t been fostered?
Sam: It’s a great question. I have been talking about this with groups from business and the military to youth coaching. I’m doing more research on this, but my advice today is that you just have to start somewhere. You really only need one of these people to change the culture on a team, and if you don’t have one right now, you need to focus your sights on who could be that person. I think the people who make good captains are very receptive to these ideas because it allows them to be themselves. And once you put one of them in charge, the culture really spreads. The great teams I’ve studied all have the same DNA.
Cathy: Thank you, Sam! For everyone watching the Super Bowl this weekend and the team sports at this year’s Winter Olympics, it will definitely be interesting to watch for the players with these captain traits. They’ll be the leaders who really elevate the whole team’s game.
Mr Walker’s participation in this article is solely for educational purposes based on his knowledge of the subject, and the views expressed by him are solely his own
For more insights on business and the work of the future, follow Cathy on Twitter @CathyEngelbert.