Our next blog series is on The Captain Class: A New Theory of Leadership by Sam Walker. We all know the importance of leadership for high performance; however, it is often difficult to describe what leadership is and specifically, how it affects performance. Walker describes himself as having an “ache to be part of a great team.” This passion fueled his desire to learn what elite teams have in common and simply, what separates the best from the rest. When Walker embarked on this project, he expected to uncover multiple traits the most elite teams had in common. Much to his surprise, he found that they all had exactly one common trait – “the most crucial ingredient in a team that achieves and sustains historic greatness is the character of the player who leads it.”
Walker’s research included identifying the teams who, throughout history, were considered elite. Most importantly, these teams were able to sustain elite status for a period of time, which is difficult to do in sports. He developed a complex system to differentiate who belonged in his “Tier 1” category of teams that are in the top 10% of the 1% of best teams. Basic qualifications included: the team having five more members, members interact with the opponent, members interact with each other, the team played a “major” sport, the team played against the world’s top competition, the dominance stretched over many years, the team had sufficient opportunity to prove itself, and the team’s record stands alone. Using these qualifiers, Walker ended up with seventeen teams he believed were the best of best. By examining these seventeen teams, Walker concluded that each team’s success correlated with one specific person’s arrival or departure, the captain
Walker discusses how we often have preconceived notions about what personality traits a leader should have. In particular, we expect that the leader “stands out” and their ability is obvious. However, what Walker found when examining the captains of these seventeen teams was the leaders lacked superstar talent, avoided the spotlight, didn’t lead in traditional ways, were not always well-behaved, did controversial actions, and weren’t the “usual suspects.” Further research into these captains dispelled some of Walker’s other previous assumptions, namely that overall talent or the organization’s financial resources would trump any captain’s influence. Walker argues that the coach’s role on these seventeen teams was actually very inconsistent and there were no unifying coach related themes that could explain the team’s immense success. Walker hypothesizes that the best coaches might have possessed great tactical strategies, or perhaps, been former elite captains themselves, which influenced their coaching style. However, he concluded the role of the coach can only be as effective as the captain’s influence.
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