Leadership in top sports teams and what you can learn from their captains

Leadership is the new black.

CEOs with lower pay run companies with better performance

In “Buddhist economics”, I read that a recent study of CEO pay (value of total annual compensation) and the performance of the CEO’s company shows that as CEO pay goes up, the company performance goes down. CEOs with lower pay run companies with better performance. Makes you think.

Celebrity leadership

I have always doubted the myth of the celebrity leader. There is is no “I” in team. The dictionary definition of “team” is about as bare-bones as it gets. It’s defined as any group that works together on a task. That is why I am fascinated by why family business work. Why businesses that operate as a family (read team) work.

Sport and military

I have also seen how leadership does not work in a lot of large corporations. Those CEOs could learn a lot from the world of sport and the military.

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

Hence “The Captain Class: The Hidden Force Behind the World’s Greatest Teams” by Sam Walker, a book that studies teams that have performed consistently at the highest level for a sustained period of time and the correlation with the leadership or captain in the team. He calls them Tier One teams. Teams like The Boston Celtics (basketball), The New York Yankees (baseball), Brazil (soccer), The Soviet Union (ice hockey), The Pittsburgh Steelers (American football), The All Blacks (rugby), Barcelona (soccer), Australia (hockey), and a few more.

Thin margins

Because the margins are so thin in sports, it is fair to say that any team that takes on the world’s toughest opponents and wins abundantly is doing something remarkable.

The glue

The notion that the most crucial ingredient in a team that achieves and sustains historic greatness is the character of the player who leads it. The author found that Tier One performance corresponded in some way to the arrival and departure of one particular player. In fact, they all did. With an eerie regularity, that person was, or would eventually become, the captain. Or as baseball managers say, the “glue guy”.

The captain

The captain is the figure who holds sway over the dressing room by speaking to teammates as a peer, counselling them on and off the field, motivating them, challenging them, protecting them, resolving disputes, enforcing standards, inspiring fear when necessary, and above all setting a tone with words and deeds. Yes, good old leading by example.

Would they pick you?

In your company, if you knew you were heading into the toughest fight of your life, whom would you choose to lead you? If you are a CEO reading this, I hope it is you.

The unusual suspects

He made a list of all of the reasons these men and women didn’t fit the profile of exemplary leaders and why it seemed unlikely that captains were the secret ingredients of great teams.

  1. They lacked superstar talent.
  2. They were not fond of the spotlight.
  3.  They didn’t “lead” in the traditional sense.
  4. They were not angels.
  5. They did potentially divisive things.
  6. They weren’t the usual suspects.
  7. The captain isn’t the primary leader.


The book dispels quite a lot of myths:

Theory 1: It takes a GOAT (the Greatest Of All Time).
Superstars unquestionably made their teams better. In most cases, the leader of the players was not a superstar.

Theory 2: Talent over team
For units roughly the size of basketball teams, the collective talent level, and the ability to work democratically turned out to be far more valuable than the isolated skill of one supreme achiever.

Theory 3: It’s the money, stupid.
When it came to freakish success, lavish spending seemed to have little to do with it.

Theory 4: It’s the coach.
Coaches don’t win many games and coaches don’t have a significant impact on player performance. Most of the coaches do not have a statistically significant effect on player performance relative to a generic coach. Sacking the coach was no more effective than simply riding it out. The only way to become a Tier One coach is to identify the perfect person to lead the players.


What are the seven characteristics of elective captains:

  1. Extreme doggedness and focus in 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.

High effort is transferrable

One of the highest compliments coaches can pay athletes is to describe them as relentless, to say that they just keep coming. The virtue of doggedness. When the going gets tough, they don’t get down on themselves. They view the unsolved problems as puzzles to be mastered through effort. Can a captain’s doggedness make an entire team play better? The answer is yes, the knowledge that a teammate is giving it their all is enough to prompt people to give more themselves. High effort, or just the perception of high effort, is transferable. The captains of the greatest teams in sports history had an unflagging commitment to playing at their maximum capability.

Bracketed morality

While competing, athletes exist in a “game frame” where they engage in “game reasoning” that allows them to adopt a code of behaviour different from the one that applies in the outside world. One of the things he noticed about the Tier One captains was how often they had pushed the frontiers of the rules in pressure situations, sometimes with ugly results. They called this phenomenon bracketed morality. The difference between a captain who upholds the principles of sportsmanship at all times and a captain who bends it to its edges is that the latter captain is more concerned with winning than with how the public perceives them.

Serving leadership

Superior leadership is more likely to come from the team’s rear quarters than to emanate from its frontline superstar. One of the great paradoxes of management is that the people who pursue leadership positions most ardently are often the wrong people for the job. They are motivated by the prestige the role conveys rather than a desire to promote the goals and values of the organisation. That is different from the serving leadership. Leading through hundreds of small acts of service and management. You cannot make a difference with a single move.

No speeches

We have the fervent belief that the right words delivered in a stirring tone will create a chemical reaction inside our bodies that lifts us to a heightened state. Tier One captains deviated the furthest from our image of what makes an eminent leader. These men and women were not silver-tongued orators or fiery motivators. They didn’t like giving speeches. They communicate with each of his teammates in much subtler ways.


Most Tier One teams had open, talkative cultures in which grievances were aired, strategies discussed, and criticisms levelled without delay. These groups encouraged everybody to speak up.


One of the oldest puzzles of human interaction is why some groups of people, but not all of them, learn to operate on the same wavelength—to think and act, as one. Scientists who study group dynamics have found some evidence that over time when a group of individuals become accustomed to performing a task together, they can develop something called shared cognition. Other researchers have shown that when a team begins to master “unconscious” communication, its overall performance improves significantly, even if the skill level of each individual member stays the same. In other words, it is possible for a team’s members to become so familiar with one another that they can predict, unconsciously, how the other members of the group will respond to just about any event. Members merge themselves into some sort of telepathic whole in which everyone knows what everyone else will do next.

Energy and engagement

A key factor was the level of “energy and engagement” the members displayed in social settings outside formal meetings. Circulating actively, engaging people, in short, high-energy conversations,” We call it ‘energised but focused listening.’ When it comes to being a successful communicator, words are an important part of the equation—but there’s a lot more to it. The power of body language. People who have high emotional fluency understand how to use “emotional information” to change their thinking and behaviour, which can help them perform better in settings where they have to interact with others. They didn’t think of communication as a form of theatre. They saw it as an unbroken flow of interactions, a never-ending parade of boxing ears, delivering hugs, and wiping noses.


On the field, they went out of his way to project extreme passion and emotion. An emotion can sweep rapidly and wordlessly through a group of people, creating an irresistible impulse to join in. It is called emotional contagion. Mirror neurones.
The discovery of these reactive cells, or mirror neurones, as the scientists called them, offered the first physical evidence that the phenomenon of brain interconnectedness that researchers had observed in groups might be the result of a complex, hardwired neurochemical system in our bodies.


In 2004, Science published an article based on the work of the University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Paul Whalen and his colleagues, who discovered that when it comes to looking at images that convey powerful emotions like fear, the human brain registers them and begins to buzz with activity in just seventeen milliseconds. Before we’re even aware that we’ve seen a fearful image, our brains are already processing it.

Bypass the conscious mind

Great leaders are the ones “whose behaviour powerfully leverages this system of brain interconnectedness.” Several laboratory experiments and field studies have shown that when team leaders display these deep emotions effectively, they can have a strong impact on the thoughts, emotions, and actions of subordinates. Strong leaders, if they are so inclined, can bypass the conscious minds of their followers and communicate directly with their brains. In a supercharged sporting environment, where the challenge to the athletes is both mental and physical, this deeper form of communication, based on displays rather than words, seems to have been a perfectly effective substitute.


Without passion, even the best teams won’t win, and the passion of one player can elevate the performance of an entire unit. When a leader does something dramatic on the field, it releases energies you didn’t even know you had. It is a pathway into the minds of human beings that bypasses consciousness and absorbs the emotions of others


All of the Tier One captains, to varying degrees, stood up to management during their careers. They helped the group navigate conflict. Conventional wisdom tells us that teams perform better when they enjoy a high level of mutual love and harmony. In fact, teams that had high levels of conflict were often more likely to engage in open discussions that helped them arrive at novel solutions to problems. Tranquillity isn’t more important than truth. You don’t have to be friends with your teammates.

Avoid groupthink

To avoid groupthink, some have adopted a method called “red teaming,” in which a team working on a project will designate one person, or a small group of people, to make the most forceful argument they can muster for why the idea that’s currently on the table is a bad one. By embracing dissent in this way, these companies believe they’re better able to protect themselves from thoughtless agreement and complacency.

No ego

When these men and women broke china, they either did so to defend their teammates against management or to make a practical point about what the team was doing wrong. These were not acts of petulance driven by ego. They were acts of personal courage aimed at helping the team play better together.

Regulating emotion

The captain’s signature moment was a selfless demonstration of emotional strength. Most of the Tier One captains had displayed the same level of mental stability early in their careers as they had at the end.

E Pluribus Unum, “Out of Many, One.”

Part of our desire to join a great collective stem from the desire to be nobly led. We want to be inspired. We are programmed to respond to brave, steadfast, and fiercely committed leadership—the kind we see on great sports teams.


The gap between what the author was learning about leadership and what was transpiring in the world led him back to a question he had first considered at the beginning of the process. After all this time, and all the energy we have spent on studying team leadership, why have we not figured it out? Why are we still tinkering with the formula?

Being famous

Famous people depend on what other people think of them to be who they are. A lot of people devote considerable energy to boasting about their talents and pretending to be great, even when they’re not. This posture culture is exactly the kind of mindset that has become tangled up with our views about captains.


The truth is that leadership is a ceaseless burden. It’s something you should do because they have the humility and fortitude to set aside the credit, and their own gratification and well-being, for the team


Great leaders, the canon says, show a talent for navigating complexities, promoting freedom of choice, practicing what they preach, appealing to reason, nurturing followers through coaching and mentorship, inspiring cooperation and harmony by showing genuine concern for others, and using “authentic, consistent means” to rally people to their point of view. The captains in Tier One displayed many of these traits.

Leading from the back

However, these men and women often lacked in talent and charisma. Rather than leading from the front, they avoided speeches, shunned the spotlight, and performed difficult and thankless jobs in the shadows. They weren’t always steadfast exemplars of virtue, either. The captains in Tier One, as a whole, did not convey the idea that they were born to lead. They didn’t have extreme talents that were readily apparent to everyone. They are not born heroes, either; they become heroes.

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 the disparate parts and creating the forward momentum. In the closed unit of a great sentence, it’s the only essential component.


A leader’s job is to help a team make the turn toward greatness. Be one of those captains. Lead by example

sensemaking cover


Sense making; morality, humanity, leadership and slow flow. A book about the 14 books about the impact and implications of technology on business and humanity.

Ron Immink

I help companies by developing an inspiring and clear future perspective, which creates better business models, higher productivity, more profit and a higher valuation. Best-selling author, speaker, writer.

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