Our current 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 determined there were seven methods that all elite leaders utilized. In this blog, we will discuss the first three.
Walker suggests that the best compliment a coach can pay an athlete is that he or she is relentless, or they “just keep coming.” Walker determined that all of the athletes in his Tier 1 category displayed a unique sense of doggedness. Walker cites the work of Carol Dweck to explain how athletes with a fixed mindset tend to shrink the face of challenge, while those with a mastery (or growth) mindset, tend to love the challenge. Check out our introductory module on the UpsideDown Performance website to learn more about the importance of a growth/mastery mindset. Walker elaborates further on this concept by emphasizing that the not only does the captain need to have a growth/mastery mindset, this attitude needs to be contagious so their teammates also exemplify this important mindset. Ideally, this will decrease the chances of “social loafing,” or when individuals tend to decrease their effort in a group compared to working alone.
Intelligent fouls, or playing to the edge of the rules is the second method that Walker describes as integral to being an elite captain. Captains are often judged to a higher standard and expected to behave even better than their teammates. However, Tier 1 captains consistently demonstrated strategic testing of boundaries with the intent of helping their teams succeed. These behaviors were not aggressive acts meant to cause harm. Rather, they were instrumental, assertive behaviors to achieve a goal. These captains were certainly criticized for these behaviors by others for violating typical codes of sportsmanship; however, these captains were more concerned about their team’s success than others’ perception of them.
The third method of elite captains is “carrying water,” or leading from the back. Society often sees the captain role as one that is exalted above his or her teammates and carries a sense of stardom. Tier 1 captains, however, tended to shy away from this fame, and were often considered “boring.” These “boring” behaviors were fueled by a desire to help the team win at whatever cost, even though the behaviors didn’t seem star quality. Walker used the example of Tim Duncan agreeing to be paid less than his market value so the team had more money under the salary cap to bring in other talent and improve their chances of winning an NBA championship. While foregoing money is an extreme case, these captains consistently “carried water” or did other unselfish acts for the greater good. Their flexibility and unselfishness gained them credibility with their teammates, who in turn, allowed these captains to lead them and enforce high standards. These captains were not supporting players, but were actually leading from the back.
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