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  • Writer's pictureMark Cheney

The Key to Great Teams

It’s only mid-August, but fall is coming. The NFL is in training camp, NCAA athletes are reporting back to campus, and high school teams are starting to establish their rosters. With most teams, the process of building a team also involves selecting captains. People may imagine that the ideal captain is someone like Michael Jordan, Derek Jeter, or Mia Hamm. They may envision the following characteristics for the captain:





A great speech-maker

Many athletes view the captain’s role as the “right” of an older, experienced player. They might see it as a reward for their loyalty to the program. I’ve even had players who wanted to be captain simply so they could put it on their resume.

A recently released book, The Captain Class, by Sam Walker, dispels all of this “conventional” wisdom. After surveying the great teams in history, Walker identified the best 16. It is an eclectic mix of teams, to say the least. The teams range from sports popular in America (football, baseball, basketball, and soccer) to the more obscure (Australian rules football, women’s volleyball, and team handball). What did these teams have in common? The presence of a singular leader with a unique skill set. Over and over, Walker found that the leaders were not the type who would star in a Hollywood sports movie. Instead, he found seven common traits that distinguish these leaders (p. 91):

  1. Extreme doggedness and focus.

  2. Aggressive play that tests the limits of the rules.

  3. A willingness to do a thankless job 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.

Some of the leaders are well-known, but most are not. They often weren’t the most famous player on their team, but it was their leadership that enabled their team to enjoy outstanding and sustained dominance within their sport. The 16 leaders were:

Syd Coventry, Collingwood Magpies, Australian rules football, 1927-1930

Yogi Berra, New York Yankees, Major League Baseball, 1949-1953

Ferenc Puskas, Hungary International Men’s Soccer, 1950-1955

Maurice Richard, Montreal Canadiens, National Hockey League, 1955-1960

Bill Russell, Boston Celtics, National Basketball Association, 1956-1959

Hilderaldo Bellini, Brazil International Men’s Soccer, 1958-1962

Jack Lambert, Pittsburgh Steelers, National Football League, 1974-1980

Valeri Vasiliev, Soviet Union International Men’s Hockey, 1980-1984

Wayne Shelford, New Zealand All Blacks, International Rugby Union, 1986-1990

Mireya Luis, Cuba International Women’s Volleyball, 1991-2000

Rechelle Hawkes, Australia International Women’s Field Hockey, 1993-2000

Carla Overbeck, United States International Women’s Soccer, 1996-1999

Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs, National Basketball Association, 1997-2016

Carles Puyol, Barcelona, Professional Soccer, 2008-2013

Jerome Fernandez, France international Men’s Handball, 2008-2015

Richie McCaw, New Zealand All Blacks, International Rugby Union, 2011-2015

Walker sums up the actions of these captains with the following analogy (p. 265) “Captains are like the verb in a sentence. The verb may not be as memorable as the nouns, as evocative as the adjectives, or as expressive as the punctuation. But it’s the verb that does the yeoman’s work-unifying disparate parts and creating the forward momentum. In the closed unit of a great sentence, it’s the only essential component.”

The Captain Class is an outstanding read. The backstories about each team are as fascinating as the seven methods of elite leaders. Sam Walker convincingly demonstrates that leadership of this type is the only common denominator among great teams. He concludes with a section on leadership mistakes and misperceptions that should be required reading for everyone involved in sport. I would encourage anyone associated with a team or organization to read this book and then reflect deeply on the selection of team leaders.

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