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The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World's Greatest Teams Hardcover – May 16, 2017
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“Wildly entertaining and thought-provoking . . . makes you reexamine long-held beliefs about leadership and the glue that binds winning teams together.”—Theo Epstein, president of baseball operations, Chicago Cubs
“If you care about leadership, talent development, or the art of competition, you need to read this immediately.”—Daniel Coyle, author of The Culture Code
“The insights in this book are tremendous.”—Bob Myers, general manager, Golden State Warriors
“An awesome book . . . I find myself relating a lot to its portrayal of the out-of the-norm leader.”—Carli Lloyd, co-captain, U.S. Soccer Women’s National Team
“A great read . . . Sam Walker used data and a systems approach to reach some original and unconventional conclusions about the kinds of leaders that foster enduring success. Most business and leadership books lapse into clichés. This one is fresh.”—Jeff Immelt, chairman and former CEO, General Electric
“I can’t tell you how much I loved The Captain Class. It identifies something many people who’ve been around successful teams have felt but were never able to articulate. It has deeply affected my thoughts around how we build our culture.”—Derek Falvey, chief baseball officer, Minnesota Twins
“The Captain Class really resonated with me. It will absolutely be part of my thought process as we continue to build our roster.”—Ryan Pace, general manager, Chicago Bears
“I’ve been involved with an undefeated high school team, an undefeated college team, and coached in two Super Bowls. The Captain Class made me think back to those teams. The captains were indeed characters with a bit of uniqueness and a certain grittiness.”—Pat Ruel, offensive line coach, Seattle Seahawks
“The best book I’ve read this year.”—Mike Dunlap, head basketball coach, Loyola Marymount University
“I couldn’t agree more with the premise of The Captain Class. Like the greatest athletic teams, every elite team and fighting unit I’ve seen in the military that has displayed consistent excellence over time has a leader like Sam Walker describes.”—Jason Armagost, U.S. Air Force brigadier general, commander of the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar
“The most fabulous book on freakish sporting success and leadership traits commonly shared across the greatest teams of all time.”—Rich Buchanan, performance director, Swansea City FC (English Premier League)
“A stunning mix of research and narrative.”—Susan Cain, bestselling author of Quiet
“I’m not even a sports nut and I couldn't put it down.”—Dan Heath, co-author of the New York Times bestseller Made to Stick
“One of the most surprising, best-written—and fun—sports books published in recent years.”—Don Van Natta Jr., Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times bestselling author of First Off the Tee
About the Author
- Item Weight : 1.25 pounds
- Hardcover : 352 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0812997190
- ISBN-13 : 978-0812997194
- Product Dimensions : 6.5 x 1.1 x 9.5 inches
- Publisher : Random House; 1st Edition (May 16, 2017)
- Language: : English
- Best Sellers Rank: #103,134 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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Truth be told, I feel like he succeeded in all of his missions but the important part is that he did not go down some well-trod paths. For that I am eternally grateful.
Part I of the book describes the process by which he takes all the successful sports teams, from many time periods, from almost all sports, and he applies various sieves to disqualify candidates so that he has a manageable number of candidates to analyze. This alone is a large job, and a contentious one that would involve just about every denizen of every sports bar and pub the world over. I won’t get into his process, needless to say it will be the start of many a conversation, and his reasoning and explanation should be read and thought over by the reader.
The author comes up with sixteen teams. Sixteen iconic teams that the author labeled as his Tier One teams; by the way, he helpfully lists the Tier One teams and the Tier two teams in the appendix of the book, i.e. those teams that barely missed being tier one. This appendix will be well thumbed in the future by this reader.
The next daunting task is to examine at all the teams and to come to a conclusion as what made these teams Tier one, what drove them to being so salient amongst the many, which factor defined the success of that team. This is yet another impossible task, one that will also be debated ad infinitum. Once again, the author does an admirable and thoughtful job of considering a large number of factors and then writing an erudite defense of his analysis. Again, this is argument fodder amongst the denizens of the bars and pubs as well as the denizens of board rooms, think tanks, B schools, and consulting firms.
His conclusion is that what drives the bus for these teams, are the captains of these teams, a throwback position in our entitlement society, a society that disdains hierarchy and a position that serves the greater good of the team. He explains why he moved past the mythical and iconoclastic belief in the coach, or the idolatry of the superstar athlete and settled on the water carrying captain. Again, I won’t repeat his arguments from the book because he does a much better job than I ever will, since he carried the water for the book and I think his argument, the way he phrased it, is important for the reader to absorb and consider.
Part II of the book lists seven qualities that the author feel are unique and defining for a Tier one captain. He describes in depth, using anecdotes and extensive interviews with those captains, the unique and critical qualities that make these men and women so very successful and so very unique. Each chapter is a cogent explanation of each quality that the author feels is crucial for the success of each of these captains.
Part III is the counterexample. The story of the Tier 2 captains, who had all the necessary qualities, except for that one critical quality which doomed them to Tier 2 rather than Tier 1, a cautionary tale.
The well-trod path that the author did not go down is the path of the ubiquitous and trite path of the vast majority of business books. This book could very easily have become a mish mash retelling of the same points and sold as a formulaic recipe for success. The bane of the modern day business world is this formulaic grinding out of uninteresting and useless tomes detailing simplistic recitations of some Powerpoint bullets.
Sam Walker has too much respect for the subject; more importantly, he appreciates the complexity and coupled nature of the successful captaincy. He has lain out what he feels is super salient about these captains and he is smart enough to not lead the reader to believe that the results of the great captain can be duplicated simplistically. He leaves it to us to try to put the facts together, to think about the ramifications of what we can do to develop those seven qualities, either for ourselves or as a coach or teacher for a student.
As I finished the book, I was actually hoping for some pithy summation for my convenience, but in the end, I was grateful that he avoided the clichéd business school content. Now I can think deeply and critically on his arguments.
To be fair, the author does reiterate the major points that he wanted to make at the end of each chapter, but it is a re-statement of the argument and not a how-to guide.
Whether you are a sports fan, a coach, a consultant, or anyone having to do with developing people into leaders, this is an excellent and challenging addition to your library.
After reading this book, the idea of a team captain seems CRITICAL in the development of a great team. Great teams are led by elite team captains and knowing what to look for isn't always what you might think. Most team captains are picked based on popularity or seniority, but after reading this book the selection of our team captain will change dramatically.
As a coach, I learned a lot from this book but as a fan of the game, I found the stories and research fascinating. Very enjoyable read.
As a team building speaker, I read over a dozen books this summer, and actually put this book on the bottom of the stack – much like saving a delicious dessert as something to look forward to – and I was not disappointed! Sam Walker does an incredible job of laying our his case that the most impactful “Tier One” captains and performers are often those we might not at first have assumed. From a Fordham University Study on shouting to a MIT study of corporate communications, the fact is that ONE person can have a tremendous influence on a team’s success… and that person is not always the most talented or famous in the group.
If you are a team leader – in athletics or in business – you will benefit from the take-aways and surprising conclusions that The Captain Class offers. Not every Winning Teammate is a "Tier One Captain"... but every "Tier One Captain" will help to inspire the development of winning teammates!
Top reviews from other countries
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.
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.
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 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 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.
They lacked superstar talent.
They were not fond of the spotlight.
They didn’t “lead” in the traditional sense.
They were not angels.
They did potentially divisive things.
They weren’t the usual suspects.
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:
Extreme doggedness and focus in competition.
Aggressive play that tests the limits of the rules.
A willingness to do thankless jobs in the shadows.
A low-key, practical, and democratic communication style.
Motivates others with passionate nonverbal displays.
Strong convictions and the courage to stand apart.
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.
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.
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. Focussing becoming indispensable. Leading through hundreds of small acts of service and management. You cannot make a difference with a single move.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
I absolutely loved reading about great teams in sports that I would never have known about! A personal favourite was the Cuban volleyball team.