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The Captain Class - Notes

Central idea of the book the idea that a team achieves and sustains historic greatness is primarily due to the character of the player who leads it.

The first part of the book looks at the research methodology for identifying the most successful teams looking at multiple sports over the entire period for which historical data exists.

A team was defined as having more than five members, its members had to interact with an opponent and its members worked together, which discounts Olympic sports like wrestling boxing and gymnastics.

Next step identify the most successful teams: by definition they had to play a major sport, which will ruled out some obscure regional sports with a narrow fan base such as curling and American lacrosse. Finally the team’s dominance had to stretch over multiple years.

For a team to qualify as freakishly successful it had to have had sufficient opportunity to prove itself which implied major competitions against the very best opposition year after year.

Next the team’s record had to stand alone, by definition of cumulative wins all titles their results had to be peerless.

 After evaluating every team in sports history only 16 stood up to all eight of these questions tests subtests rules and claims. These teams were:

  • The Collingwood magpies Australian rules football 1927 to 30
  • The New York Yankees major-league baseball team 1949 to 53
  • Hungry international men’s football 1950 to 55
  • The Montréal Canadiens National Hockey League 1955 to 60
  • The Boston Caltex National basketball Association 1956 to 69
  • Brazil international men’s football 1958 to 62
  • The Pittsburgh Steelers National Football League 1974 to 80
  • Soviet union international men’s ice hockey 1980 – 84
  • The New Zealand all blacks rugby union 1986-90
  • Cuba International women’s volleyball 1991 2000
  • Australia international women’s field hockey 1993-2000
  • United States international women’s football 1996 to 99
  • San Antonio spurs National basketball Association 1997 twenty sixteen
  • Barcelona Fashion football 2008 to 13
  • France international men’s handball 2008 to 15
  • New Zealand all Blacks international rugby union 2011 2015

This list more or less equates to the top .001% of teams in history.

When the author started to investigate all the possible reasons that could explain the freakish success of these teams the only factor that he was able to isolate which correlated more or less precisely was that each teams performance overlapped exactly with the man or woman that captained the team. Their success begins at the point they take over and   ends at the point that they leave.

After some initial research into the history and biography of each of these team captains it seemed very unlikely that they could be the secret behind the performance of each of these teams none of them seemed to fit the profile of exemplary leaders FAQs the author identified eight reasons why they seemed unlikely to be the defining characteristic of great teams.

They lacked superstar talent, they were rarely the best player on the team

They weren’t fond of the spotlight, they didn’t enjoy the trappings of fame & rarely sought attention

They didn’t lead in the traditional sense, they generally played a subservient role to other players on the team.

They weren’t angels. These players went to the limits of the rules and sometimes did unsportsmanlike things.

They did potentially divisive things. On numerous occasions they disregarded the orders of coaches defied team rules and conducted interviews in which they spoke out against everyone from fans to teammates and coaches.

They were not the usual suspects. One of the most striking things about the list was who was not on it.

Nobody has ever mentioned this theory. As a sportswriter the author spoke with and interviewed hundreds of people - not one of them mentioned this idea

The captain isn’t the primary leader. In most sports teams the captain is not the highest position, there’s always the coach and management above them.

The next section of the book looks at alternative explanations for what may have driven the success of these teams.

Theory 1. It takes a standout player of exceptional quality - the greatest of all-time.

Theory 2 - It’s a matter of overall talent.   In other words was at particular times there have been clusters of exceptional talent.

Theory 3.  It’s the money

Theory 4. It's a question of management

Theory 5. It’s the coach

It is essential to understand that battles are primarily won in the hearts of men. Men respond to leadership in the most remarkable way, once you’ve won his heart he will follow you anywhere. Leadership is based on a spiritual quality, the power to inspire others to follow’. Vince Lombardi

Researching the influence and power of coaches it is clear that there are coaches who seem to have the ability to innovate build cultures and to move teams to do the remarkable. However the coaches who achieve the greatest success were those that had a player serving on the field as a proxy, in other words a partnership with the captain.

Compiling biographies of the 21 captains it became increasingly noticeable what they shared in common in terms of their leadership. There were 7 traits of these elite captains:

  1. Extreme doggedness and focus in competition
  2. Aggressive play that test the limits of the rules
  3. A willingness to do thankless jobs in the shadows
  4. Low key practical and democratic communication style stop
  5. Motivates others with passionate non-verbal displays
  6. Strong convictions on the courage to stand apart
  7. Ironclad emotional control

Second part of The book explores each of these leadership characteristics through specific examples from each of the captains.

Doggedness and its benefits

Each of the tier 1 captains was remarkable for their doggedness, sometimes this was expressed in terms of preparation and practice sometimes in their extreme focus during match play and often times in an utter unwillingness to succumb to injury, often refusing to leave the pitch despite serious wounds and blood injuries.

Carol Dwek's research would label each of these individuals as 'mastery orientated' with a strong tendency to view the abilities as malleable and with high motivation for learning improving. (Growth mindset)

The further remarkable part of this books research is the consistent pattern that the captain's doggedness appears to have had a contagious impact on the remainder of team.

Links this to ‘social loafing,’ a term psychologists use to describe the effects of effort in a group situation. The less identifiable one persons effort is, the less effort they put in. However the knowledge that a teammate is giving there all is enough to prompt people to give more themselves. The relentless tenacity the tier 1 captains appears to have had the positive impact on the overall effort of their team mates.

Playing to the edge of the rules. Numerous examples of tier 1 captains who played Beyond the margins of what would be commonly perceived as sportsmanlike behaviour. Each of these captains was totally focused on the goal winning.  They were more concerned with winning than with how the public perceived them.

‘Carrying water. The hidden part of leading from the back’

'One of the greatest paradoxes of management is that the people who pursue leadership positions most rigorously are often the wrong people for the job'. Frequently motivated by the prestige the role conveys rather than a desire to promote the goals and values of the organization.

On a team you can’t only have architects. You also need bricklayers.’ Didier Deschamps, Capt of France Football 1998 World Cup 2000 Euro Champions.

The tier 1 captains were exemplary supporting players, both on and off the field. Great captains lowered themselves in relation to the group whenever possible in order to earn the moral authority to to drive the team forward during tough moments.

‘The easiest way to lead it turns out is to serve’

Practical communication

In Hollywood films of the big speech is the preferred motivational plot device to prepare a group for some prodigious challenge.  The leader is supposed to draw team members together and talk to them.

Most tier 1 teams had open talkative cultures in which grievances were aired, strategies discussed and criticisms levelled without delay. These groups allowed everybody to speak up. Captains who are publicly reserved but privately voluble helps create this inclusive dynamic.

‘During the San Antonio spurs 19 season streak of winning consistency, during which they won five NBA titles the Spurs where never the stars of the MBAs offence and defensive statistical tables. They were outliers in one category: Communication. They spent far more time talking amongst themselves mostly as a means of tightening their choreography’. This precisely matches the findings of MIT’s social behaviour research under sandy Pentland. (See Social Physics)

Tier 1 teams had talkative cultures where all the members talk to one another in an open and democratic way, the leaders of these teams circulate widely and Talk to everyone with enthusiasm and energy. T1 captains all fostered and sustained this communication culture despite their lack of enthusiasm for talking publicly.

The secret to effective team communication isn’t grandiosity. It’s a stream of chatter that its practical physical and consistent.’

One of the greatest myths that effective communication is that words have to be involved.   Neuroscience is now proving that our brains are capable of making deep and powerful fast acting and emotional connections with the brains of the people around us. (See research on Mirror neurons)

‘Throughout the research into the behaviour of these Tier 1 captains there were numerous examples of tier 1 captains who had done dramatic, bizarre and sometimes frightening things during or right before an important competition. The incidents had two things in common: first they did not involve words; second they were intentional’.

Courage to stand apart.   Richard Hackman is a Harvard organisational psychologist who studied performing teams. All of his research supported one strong conclusion. ‘In order to be effective the team leader must operate at the margins of what members presently like and want, rather than at the centre of the collective consensus.’

Dissenting from the norms was a form of courage.

Prof Karen Jen is one of the foremost authorities on group conflict.   She has observed that conflict in teams takes different forms. Sometimes this is a personal or relationship conflict, usually the manifestation of some personality clash. However this kind of dispute is distinct from another form she terms ‘task conflict’, which she defines as a disagreement that is focused on the actual execution of task.

In the research project that looked at over 8000 teams, those that engaging in personal conflict had shown significant decreases in trust, cohesion, satisfaction and commitment, all of which had a negative impact on performance.

Teams that engaged in task conflict saw a basically neutral impact on performance - but there was one exception. Teams that operated in highly pressurised environments. On teams like this, which received instant feedback through some system of scorekeeping the presence of class conflict wasn’t neutral at all. It made their performances about 40% better than the average.

Regulating emotion.

Leaders emotional control has the power to have a profound impact on the team particularly at decisive moments. All of the tier 1 captains had a demonstrated ability to bounce back from adversity. Some of this may be an inherent genetic trait some maybe due to learned behaviour. For example, there is good research to demonstrate that the brains of people who engage in regular meditation are more resilient to adversity and setback.

The reason that we don’t seem able to agree on a formula for elite team leadership is that we have potentially overcomplicated things.

‘Transformational leadership seems to have become a grab bag into which every imaginable positive trait has been thrown’.

In 1982 Reuven Gal an Israeli army colonel was allowed to review the personnel files of nearly 300 Israeli soldiers who won medals for gallantry during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war to see what qualities they shared.

The most obvious thing was how little they had in common some were young, some old, some officers some reservists, some were soldiers and some were NCOs. Their personalities came from every part of the spectrum.

Gal went home to develop a formula for leadership which he expressed as:

Leadership = potential x motivation x development

The most important thing that each of the 16 tier 1 teams teachers us is that leadership matters.

Richard Hackman late Harvard social and organisational psychologist who spent decades observing teams of all kinds.   Hackman has a theory of 4-principles, which distinguishes the personal qualities that appear to distinguish excellent team leaders from those for whom leadership is a struggle.

  1. Effective leaders know some things. They have a vision of the way things to be
  2. Effective leaders know how to do some things.   Former situations these leaders knew how to close the gap between the teams current state the One that needed to reach in order to succeed.
  3. effective leaders should be emotionally mature.   Leaders have to manage their own anxieties whilst coping with the feelings of others.
  4. Effective leaders need a measure of personal courage.   To push a team forward the leader must disrupt its routines and challenges definition of what is normal or acceptable.   Since this often generates resistance and even anger leaders must have the courage to stand apart.

‘To Hackman the chief trait of a superior leader wasn’t what they were like but what he did on a daily basis.’

The truth is that leadership is a ceaseless burden. It’s not something people should do for the self reflective glory, or even because they have oodles of charisma or surpassing talent. It’s something they should do because they have the humility and fortitude to set aside the credit, and their own gratification and well-being, for the team, not just in pressure packed moments but in every minute of every day’.