When Sam Walker, founding editor of the Wall Street Journal’s sports section, set out to analyze the 17 most dominant teams in history across a wide range of sports, he found that their one shared characteristic was not the stars, coaching, money, or strategy. Their dominance always coincided with the tenure of one captain. But the more surprising finding, which became the topic of his best-selling book The Captain Class: A New Theory of Leadership, was that none of these captains fit the picture of a charismatic, confident, commanding presence who welcomed the pressure of making the big play when the game was on the line. Instead, they led in service of their team.
Making sure the team’s best scorers got the ball as often as possible.
Carrying water bottles or delivering luggage from the bus or picking up balls after practice.
Accepting less money than their market value to create salary cap space for stars.
Arriving early to practice and staying late.
Setting the example of how to work and sacrifice in pursuit of team goals.
Choosing private words of encouragement and constructive criticism over inspirational speeches to the entire team.
Demonstrating at every turn their willingness to do the often unglamorous work of putting the team and its success first.
Theirs is not the kind of leadership that makes for Hollywood portrayals. But on each of these 17 dominant teams, and on more than 100 others that achieved almost as much success, the success overlapped with the comparatively quiet captain at the helm and often ended when that captain’s tenure was complete.
The most successful teams, sports and otherwise, have both stars and leaders, and those roles are not inherently linked. Leadership doesn’t depend on your genetics to bestow you with elusive traits that leave you born to lead. Your talent and title are irrelevant. You just have to make the decision, every day, to lead in service of the team.