The Captain Class: The Driving Force Behind the World’s Greatest Teams

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  1. Sam Walker does an in depth analysis of the best sports teams in history and comes to the somewhat surprising conclusion that the overriding factor in each team’s sustained dominance was their captain. 

Key Takeaways 

  1. In a great team, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. The teams can go “all-in” and trust each other which lead to non-linear outcomes
  2. The captains serve as glue, uniting the team to reach greater heights than they otherwise would. A competent leader is one of the rarest commodities on earth and we are hard wired to seek it out and follow it 
  3. Individual commitment for group success 
  4. The teams studied:
    1. The Collingwood Magpies (Australian rules football)
    2. The New York Yankees (MLB)
    3. Hungary’s International Men’s Soccer Team
    4. The Montreal Canadiens (NHL)
    5. The Boston Celtics (NBA)
    6. Brazil’s International Men’s Soccer Team
    7. The Pittsburgh Steelers (NFL)
    8. The Soviet Union’s International Men’s Hockey Team
    9. The New Zealand All Blacks (Rugby, 1986-1990)
    10. Cuba’s International Women’s Volleyball Team
    11. Australia’s International Women’s Field Hockey Team
    12. The United States’ International Women’s Soccer Team
    13. The San Antonio Spurs (NBA)
    14. The New England Patriots (NFL)
    15. Barcelona’s Professional Men’s Soccer Team
    16. France’s International Men’s Handball Team
    17. The New Zealand All Blacks (Rugby, 2011-2015)
  5. The captains exhibited qualities one would not typically associate with the stereotypical “captain”
    1. They lack superstar talent. In fact, clusters of talent did not correlate to better teams. The superstars knew they wouldn’t be captains and the captains knew they wouldn’t be superstars 
    2. Weren’t fond of the spotlight 
    3. They didn’t lead in the traditional sense – they were subservient to superstars and often didn’t take the “big shot”
    4. They were not angels – they played to the edge of the rules, sometimes berating opponents and even teammates in order to win
    5. They did potentially divisive things 
    6. They weren’t the usual suspects (Jordan, Jeter, etc.). They preferred to lead from the shadows 
  6. Barcelona is an outlier in spending as most of the Tier 1 teams were most dominant when they were relatively poor. Lavish spending gets you more wins but not necessarily more titles 
  7. Management and ownership is important but also not purely correlated to the greatest teams in history 
  8. Despite the three national championships and the endless accolades he received as one of the leagues best defensive ends, Willie Davis always played as if he was just above the cut line. The Green Bay packers always played as if they were clamoring for recognition 
  9. Coaching was not responsible for this success either. There was no correlation between the coach, their strategy, tactics, temperament, or anything else 
  10. It was a secret for nearly 40 years why Bill Russell never accepted his hall of fame stature but recently he revealed why. He thought of the award as an individual achievement when he wanted his career remembered as a symbol of team play. He was solely focused on internal culture and how many titles they won. He needed no recognition and in fact actively dismissed it. His atypical leadership style was not often connected to the atypical success the team had. All great captains shared this. Their seemingly erratic behavior brought their teams closer together and got them to play better 
  11. 7 traits of elite captains 
    1. Extreme doggedness and focus in the heat of competition 
    2. Aggressive play which tests the limits of the rules 
    3. A willingness to do thankless jobs in the shadows 
    4. Motivates others with passionate nonverbal displays 
    5. Ironclad emotional control 
    6. A low key, practical, and democratic communication style
    7. Strong convictions and the courage to stand apart 
  12. Tim Duncan is another elite example and his humility and how low key he was was a big part of his success. By lowering himself, he was able to coax the most out of his teammates. He was a “functional leader”, willing to do whatever was needed in order to win, even carrying water 
  13. The easiest way to lead is to serve 
  14. The best teams communicate enthusiastically outside of formal and competitive environments and talking time is doled out evenly. Most captains communicate little with the public but talk a lot with their team and foster constant communication. 
  15. These leaders are charismatic connectors – having energized and focused conversations, listening more than they talk, talking to everyone, and communicate well (and constantly) with words but even more so with their nonverbal cues. Styles differentiate but they’re all energetic, find styles that work for them and work on understanding their team and how to best approach each person
  16. Mirror neurons prove that mind and physical connections are contagious and the best leaders can infect their team with their enthusiasm, work ethic, confidence, etc 
  17. Some disagreement is good and the best captains protect their teammates and stand up to coaches and management when needed. Leaders must operate on the margin of what the team likes and wants rather than at the center of the collective consensus – often putting them in the middle of heated and difficult arguments. This type of positive dissent takes courage and was hugely important. Truth is more important than tranquility when told by a captain who protects his team and avoids personal attacks. It was never driven out of ego but for the desire to win 
  18. Emotional resilience and extreme emotional control is extremely important for overcoming adversity 
  19. We are programmed to respond to strong, steadfast, courageous and generous leaders 
  20. An Israeli study of decorated war vets lead to a leadership formula. Leadership = potential x motivation x development
  21. None of the great captains were named leaders early on. They were given a chance to study others and prove themselves 
  22. People actually get more power by slightly underplaying their skill – humility 
  23. Famous vs heroes – do something because others will approve vs doing something because it is the right thing to do
  24. Avoid a posture culture where people posture for the leadership position but rather one where the leader is chosen due to his ability to “carry water”, support others, have courage, and lead others, doing whatever it takes to get it right even if, especially if, it’s disapproved of by others 
  25. Great leaders do not need to be glamorous. They only need a solid idea of what success looks like and a road to get there. They do not need publicity and in fact often give the impression that they’re not worthy of leading at all 

What I got out of it

  1. “Extremes in outcome – both good and bad – often instruct best.” – Charlie Munger. Sam Walker appreciates this and his deep dive into the best teams brings about some fascinating insights on elite captain’s traits and some of their counterintuitive aspects 

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