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What the all-time greatest sports teams can teach us about leadership

The author of a new book explains why the 49ers of the 1980s made his list, but today’s Patriots didn’t.

By Amy MacMillan Bankson  |  June 21, 2017

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What do the most elite sports teams have in common?

In his new book, “The Captain Class,” Wall Street Journal deputy editor for enterprise Sam Walker claims to have determined the 16 best sports teams of all time. Some of the entries seem obvious — who could argue with the 1956-69 Boston Celtics? — but we wouldn’t have called the Collingwood Magpies of the 1930s. Not over the New England Patriots, anyway.

But look past the arguments and there’s a lot to learn about leadership, humility, presentation, and drive. Every team has a leader, and these teams and captains offer a chance to examine the traits that drive success.  

Walker recently explained how sports can determine what makes a great leader, why charisma isn’t important, and why Tom Brady didn’t make the list.

You set out to identify the best teams in sports history. Yet, the New England Patriots don’t make the cut. And Tom Brady isn’t listed as one of your “Tier One” captains. What gives?
You’ll be happy to hear that since “The Captain Class” was published, I’ve gotten an earful about the Patriots [not making the list], especially after this year’s Super Bowl.

But I’m sticking to my guns.

To be clear: The 2001–17 Patriots are a shining example of the kind of team dynamics I’m talking about. Tom Brady absolutely embodies the seven traits of the world’s elite sports captains. If this team wins another Super Bowl, they’ll absolutely make the list.

But to identify the “freak” teams in sports history — the true outliers — I decided to use eight tests. And the Patriots just came up short on one of them — their achievements were not unique to their sport. The 1981-95 San Francisco 49ers also won five Super Bowls over a long stretch of consistent dominance.    

You write that the seven traits of elite sports captains include “extreme doggedness,” “aggressive play that tests the limits,” an ability to “motivate others with nonverbal displays,” and a “low-key democratic communication style.”Are these the traits that carry over into the business world and define strong leaders? 

2017-walkerAuthor Sam Walker
Photo: Elena Seibert

I think the dynamics I’ve observed in elite sports teams are absolutely relevant in other fields. Teams that perform together under pressure, in areas where the results are clear and decisive such as an airplane cockpit crew or an emergency-room surgical unit are the best fit. But these kinds of behaviors are universally valuable. At the end of the day, teams are teams.

In your words, baseball pro Yogi Berra had some “shaky beginnings,” but went on to win 14 league titles with the New York Yankees, in part because of his “extreme doggedness.” Who are some business leaders who demonstrate this trait?
Any business leader who takes something from a kernel of an idea and turns it into a giant culture-altering business would have to have that kind of drive. It certainly seems true of Walt Disney, who struggled a bit before Mickey Mouse came along, or Billy Durant, the father of General Motors who was pushed out only to claw his way back, or even Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.  

You write that Steve Jobs was seen by many as a “cruel taskmaster,” yet he transformed Apple. Do companies today really need someone cruel at the top to be successful?
Scientists who’ve studied athletes have observed something they call the “game frame.” They’ve found that on the field, athletes believe the rules of sport should govern their behavior. Off the field, though, they believe the rules of polite society prevail. So during competition, they might do aggressive, ugly things they would never do off the field.  

Steve Jobs could be cruel. He sometimes pushed the rules of civility in business to the breaking point. But his goal was to make better products. He didn’t do these things to injure people, although feelings were sometimes hurt along the way.

In the book, you cite top-tier athletes like Tim Duncan, former captain of the San Antonio Spurs, and Carla Overbeck, former captain of the U.S. women’s national soccer team, who don’t appear to have charisma. How can leadership ability not include charisma?
I had a hard time believing this was true. But Duncan and Overbeck, in particular, left no doubt in my mind that it is. Both seemed allergic to the spotlight. In public, their teammates were the bright lights and that was fine with them. In competition, they did the spadework. Duncan switched positions and sacrificed scoring chances to help the team. Overbeck passed the ball to teammates as fast as she could and on road trips, used to carry everyone’s bags from the bus to their hotel rooms.

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In other words, leadership wasn’t a matter of grand gestures. It wasn’t correlated to the force of someone’s personality, either. It was a matter of doing whatever needed to be done for the team in every minute of every day, no matter how unglamorous.  

What are the top three traits hiring managers should look for when hiring at a high level?
Truly great leaders will not “wow” you in an interview. They are not going to charm their way into a big promotion. If anything, they’re liable to deflect credit and downplay their skills. First, watch them working with a team. If you can’t do that … lean on their references.

Second, the best leaders have emotional maturity. That’s tough to see, but if a person has had some setbacks in life and has powered through them, that’s a very good sign. Be wary of bon vivants. Third, I’d suggest asking [job candidates] to walk you through all the steps of some instance where they took a team from point A to point B. Listen closely. Look for signs of dissent and relentlessness and whether they rolled up their sleeves and did the grunt work.  

There’s a perception that captains aren’t needed anymore, and some sports teams have eliminated them. Is a flat organization ever good for business?
It’s tempting to think we’ve evolved beyond the point where we need hierarchies. But I don’t think it’s true. I don’t think flat structures are scalable. People need structure and hierarchy, especially in tough times. The captains on my sports teams repeatedly pulled their units through in the darkest hours. That’s when you really need leadership.