- Mark D. Smith/USA TODAY Sports
• An analysis of the greatest pro sports teams in history found captains are critical to a team’s success.
• The best captains play for their teams, not their egos.
• This effect may be just as applicable in the military or the office.
Think of your favorite professional sports teams: What made them great?
Reasons could include once-in-a-lifetime elite athletes, a brilliant coach, or an exceptional front office.
That’s what Wall Street Journal editor Sam Walker expected when he embarked on a research project to determine the commonalities of the world’s greatest professional sports teams throughout history. It started as a pet project 11 years ago, and by the time he was done, Walker had analyzed more than 1,200 teams dating back to the 1880s.
He found the most successful teams he analyzed had a common thread: a great captain.
His book “The Captain Class” is the culmination of his study, and guides the reader through the process that led to what he considered to be the 16 most dominant sports dynasties.
Not all teams have captains, but Walker’s observations are applicable to both those with the title and those without, who serve as the clear player-leader of the team.
“The most crucial ingredient in a team that achieves and sustains historic greatness is the character of the player who leads it,” Walker wrote.
Walker doesn’t discount the importance of the coach who oversees the team and sets its strategies. But he argues that history shows attaching a winning coach to a team with no internal leadership does not make much difference, and that team dynasties are more closely correlated to the quality of captains rather than coaches.
The greatest coaches may “have shown the ability to reframe the game with tactical innovations, to build cultures that are more powerful than any individual, or to move people to do spectacular things through their words, if not the force of their will,” Walker wrote. “In sports, however, these coaches only achieved their greatest success when they had a player serving as their proxy on the field.”
Similarly, spending millions of dollars compiling a team of the best players for each position isn’t effective if they can’t work together well, as Real Madrid realized in the early 2000s. After a few years of boosting its team’s success through this expensive strategy, management saw the accumulation of raw talent wasn’t enough, and abandoned the approach in 2007.
Walker’s top 16 teams had captains who played for their teams rather than their egos, embodied by players like Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs. Duncan sacrificed larger salaries, flashy stats, and media fanfare for the good of his team, Walker argued.
Walker determined that elite captains like Duncan have seven traits.
- They are extremely resilient. They play to the limits of the rules. They do thankless jobs. They communicate clearly with all members of their team. They motivate through nonverbal displays. They have strong convictions and aren’t afraid to be different. They have total control of their emotions.
While Walker’s thesis may surprise dedicated and casual sports fans alike, it’s a notion closely related to similar theories in the military and world of corporate management.
As former Navy SEAL platoon leader and “Extreme Ownership” author Leif Babin puts it: “There are no bad teams, only bad leaders.” It was a lesson he said was best captured in a SEAL training exercise he oversaw as an instructor.
Several teams of seven men were engaged grueling, incessant paddle boat races, and it didn’t take long for there to be a recurring first place and a recurring last place finisher. Babin and his fellow instructors decided to switch the captains of these two teams, and within a couple races, the teams swapped first and last place.
Babin noticed that all of the SEAL candidates were capable of performing well, but it was up to the leader to bring out the best or the worst in them through their level of communication and passion.
Renowned management consultant and “First, Break All the Rules” coauthor Marcus Buckingham has built his career on the notion that the single most important factor for a company’s success is not its CEO or top performers, but its team managers.
When compared to Walker’s theory, the role of manager aligns with the role of captain, and the role of CEO aligns with the role of coach. It’s up to the person in the thick of things to effectively communicate the directions from the top and fight alongside them to success.
It seems that Walker discovered fundamental truths about team dynamics, whether in pro sports teams or corporations: Strong leadership from the top is crucial, but only works when there’s a talented leader on the field.