in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: September 30, 2021

Podcast #405: The Power of Team Captains

What makes a great sports dynasty a great sports dynasty? We typically think it’s the result of amazing talent or coaching.

But my guest today argues that it all comes down to the often quiet, understated leadership of a team captain. His name is Sam Walker and he’s the author of the book The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams. Today on the show, Sam and I discuss his quest to uncover what makes great teams great and the unlikely answer he came up with. We then discuss the traits Sam found in the great team captains of sports history. Some of them you’d expect to see on a list about great leadership, including doggedness and humility, but a few of them, like the willingness to push the limits of the rules and engage in conflict with the players and the coach, might surprise you. Throughout the conversation, Sam shares insights on how leaders from all fields can apply these lessons in the teams they play on and work with. 

Show Highlights

  • How Sam went about compiling a data-centric list of history’s greatest sports teams 
  • How he whittled down 25,000 teams throughout history to the top 17 
  • Sussing out the defining factors of these successful teams 
  • What’s the difference between a coach and a team captain?
  • Why the Warriors are dominating the NBA right now 
  • How quickly do teams decline after the great captain departs?
  • The great team captains in history 
  • Why some of the best captains aren’t the best players or most well-known 
  • Why Michael Jordan wasn’t a very good captain/leader
  • What is doggedness? How is it different from talent?
  • The legendary story of rugby player Buck Shelford ripping open his scrotum
  • The phenomenon of social loafing
  • Why great team captains are always testing the limits of the rules
  • How a Cuban volleyball team used radically insensitive trash talk to win 
  • The two kinds of conflict that impact teams 
  • How great captains command from the back, and relieve superstars of the leadership burden 
  • Captains and speeches (or the lack thereof) 
  • Do team captains seek the job?

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

The captain class by Sam Walker book cover.

Connect With the Sam Walker

Sam’s website 

Sam on Twitter

Sam’s Wall Street Journal column 

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another addition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. What makes a great sports dynasty, a great sports dynasty? We typically think it’s the result of amazing talent or coaching, but my guest today argues that it all comes down to the often quiet, understated leadership of a team captain. His name is Sam Walker and he’s the author of the book ‘The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams.’

Today on the show, Sam and I discuss his quest to uncover what makes great teams great and the unlikely answer he came up with. We then discussed the traits Sam found in the great team captains of sport’s history. Some of them you’d expect to see on the list of great leadership, including doggedness and humility, but a few of them, like the willingness to push the limits of the rules and engage in conflict with the players and the coach, might surprise you. Throughout the conversation, Sam shares insights on how leaders from all fields can apply theses lessons and the teams they play on and work with. After the show is over, check out the show notes at

And Sam joins me now via Skype. Sam Walker, welcome to the show.

Sam Walker: Thanks Brett, great to be here.

Brett McKay: So you got a book out, ‘The Captain Class: The Hidden Forces That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams.’ I’m curious, what got you looking into what makes great teams, great teams? We’re talking about team sports here. And it’s all team sports right?

Sam Walker: Yeah all team sports, yeah. It was an old obsession. I think it really started when I was a kid. I played on this little league team when I was 11 or something. We were kind of a crappy group, we won maybe half our games usually. One year for some reason we just won. We kept winning and winning and winning. Same kids, no palpable difference and I thought this was great. I loved it and I thought it would happen again. I figured it was something that happened once in a while. But that was the only great team I ever played on, and I never had that experience again. So it was a little bit of an obsession.

It really started when I was covering sports for the Wall Street Journal. I had this ridiculous job where I just kind of flew around and went to cover championships and big events. So I had a chance to see some of the greatest teams of the century. I mean the Patriots, the Chicago Bulls, the Spurs, The Yankees in the 2000s. I really got this up close look at these teams and something was weird though. Something was really off. I knew how hard it was for teams to be great.

What I found was that when I asked these players on these teams why, just why is your team so much better than every other team? It was weird, they didn’t really have much of an answer. They kind of shrugged off the question. They were just kind of like they haven’t really given a lot of thought. They didn’t really think it was magical or special or really that different. Tom Brady was the one who put it best when I asked him this question. He said what he always says, he says, “You do your job so that everyone else can do their job. There’s really no big secret to it.” I just was like that seems weird because it’s so rare to have a great team.

Now the other side of it was really strange though, because if you ask the player on a team that had underperformed or was really lousy, why the team wasn’t good. I mean it’s like pull up a chair. It’s 30 minutes of like this and that. And I realized it was even though they’re really rare, these dynasties were different in that it seemed natural to people. It seemed natural to be part of a great collective effort. It seemed like it was just working the way it should, whereas the difficult, the hard thing seemed to be being on a bad team. It just didn’t make senses to me, so I thought I would try to see if Tom Brady was right. Is there something simple? Is there some element? Is there something that just allows a group of people, a collective effort, to work seamlessly? And if it exists can I identify it?

Brett McKay: That’s a bold, ambitious goal there. So to do this you did some data. You did some crunching. You had to figure out okay let’s take a look at all the greatest teams in sport’s history. It’s not just football, basketball, baseball, you’re looking at obscure sports here in America like handball or field hockey. So how did you go about compiling that list of great teams? What were the criteria?

Sam Walker: There are ways to do this, there are other ways to do this. And I went on and looked at all the other lists of great teams I could find, and some of them were based on data and analysis but they just weren’t complete. I realized there’s no way to compare most sports, every sport because they’re all so different. Some of them have playoffs and championships. Some only really compete every four years.

It’s just really hard to do that, so I realized two things. One, I wanted to study. I just wanted to find the freaks. I just wanted to go to find the most incredible freakish performances ever. A lot of that was how you define freakish performance so I had to define it. My definition was that it had to be something that lasted. I wanted to find a culture of greatness that sustained itself, so I didn’t set the bar that way, I said four years. A team had to have dominated for four years so that was the first thing. And then I said alright this team had to have played at the highest level of competition in the world. So you know college sports in the U.S. fell out. That and a lot of other sports.

I want to make sure they had actually played against the best teams of the time. So a lot of teams from early soccer teams in Europe fell out because they just didn’t play each other with any regularity. So that only made a lot of teams. Now the last filer was toughest, which was that they had to have done something unique. If you’re gonna say you’re the best team of all time you better be the best team in the history of your sport in some tangible way. So you either have won a string of championships or a number of consecutive games or have some record for longevity that had never been matched. So that was the last criteria.

Now, there were 25,000 teams that I looked at and this is every sport in the world since the 1880s and 37 different categories of sport. After eliminating all the teams that didn’t quality there were only 17 left. That was it. It was 16 when the hardcover came out. Now it’s 17 because the Patriots squeaked in this year but that was it. That was it. These were not necessarily the greatest teams of all time. No one can sell that argument, but what I had was what I believe to be a pure sample. These were all freak teams. There’s no question about their greatness. That was what I wanted to use. That was the sample study I wanted to use to see what they had in common.

Brett McKay: Alright so the Patriots just squeaked on there. What are some of the other teams, examples that made the list?

Sam Walker: Well there were some that you might suspect. If you know basketball, of course the Boston Celtics. The Bill Russell Celtics from ’57 to ’69, 11 titles in 13 years, they’re on there. The Steelers from the 1970s, four Super Bowls in six years. The Montreal Canadiens who won five straight cups in the 50s, they’re on there. The Spurs are on there for the incomparable 19 year straight playoff appearances and five titles.

But then some of them were not that familiar. There were some teams I’d never heard of. One of my favorites was the Cuban women’s volleyball team, from the 1990s. I knew nothing about them but they are the greatest Olympic team of all time. They did not lose a match of consequence in 10 years. And they beat up on these huge countries. Coming from a very small, kind of poor, politically repressed country that had no real great tradition of volleyball anyway. So it was teams like that, they were a combination of greats and unknowns is what made it really appealing to me.

Brett McKay: Well maybe we’ll talk about those gals here in a bit. So you had these teams, so how did you figure it out? How did you decide what was the determining factor? Was it talent, was it coaching? How did you decide, assess that stuff out?

Sam Walker: That was a rabbit hole. I had the list of teams and others that were close and I started just breaking them down. What I decided was look I’m just gonna go with my own prejudices right. The first thing I thought it would be, would be talent. They just had greater talent than other teams. And I looked at it and realized that actually a fair number, if not a majority, of these teams did not have outstanding talent. They were talented, but they weren’t incredible so that wasn’t the common element.

The next thing I thought was maybe it was tactics. Some of these teams were really tactically advanced like this Hungarian soccer team from the ’50s. They were geniuses tactically but then some of them weren’t. The Steelers in the ’70s weren’t that remarkable tactically so that wasn’t it. And then I thought maybe money but no, in fact the majority of these teams had average money or even came from poor countries in international sports.

And I thought it would be coaching. Really coaching was the thing I thought we were gonna fall to but that was one of the biggest surprises. Which is when you look at these teams when they started their runs, all but one of these coaches was either someone with a lousy track record, who been fired from a previous job or had very little coaching experience or in some cases no experience at all. And a couple of these teams actually changed coaches during their winning streaks and continued winning. So it’s not that coaches aren’t important but they weren’t the one factor.

Brett McKay: So it’s weird so that leaves us to captains, the leaders of a team. So there’s a basic process of elimination. I thought it was interesting what makes the difference between say a captain and a coach, because coaches I guess a figurehead a leader, captains are also leaders, so they are both leaders. What makes the difference where it’s like a team captain is the one that has more influence than a coach?

Sam Walker: Well that took so much time to really nail down and I started that process when I saw it was the captains, and it was clearly the captains I mean it was a clear pattern. These teams all … the streaks were defined almost precisely in some cases by the presence of that captain. Over, and over, and over again wherever you looked.

What I did originally I wanted to figure this relationship out so I started with Vince Lombardi, who was the best coach that I could think of. I went out and met his former captain, defensive captain, Willie Davis, who’s in his 80s now, when I was in LA. And talked to him and I talked to Alex Ferguson a great coach in the UK, soccer coaches, the rest of the world’s Vince Lombardi. And I talked to a lot of people about this and realized that we have a kind of screwed view, not just what captains do but also what coaches do. What I realized if you looked at all of these great coaches that we revere, whether it’s Belichick or Popovich, or Alex Ferguson, or even Phil Jackson. If you look at their peak periods of success what you see in ever single case was that they had a captain just like this. It was that partnership between them and there’s a lot of push and pull. If you look at those relationships, it’s not boss/employee, it’s really an equal partnership.

Yeah I wrote recently about Steve Kerr who’s doing the same thing. Sharing power with his players and especially his player leaders. It’s a partnership and it’s like a meeting of the minds. You have to be willing to let your captain be right and to let his view prevail sometimes. So it’s not the typical relationship you think of with coaches but there are huge factor, but it really comes down to how they relate to the leader of the players.

Brett McKay: So I guess you found after looking at the analysis that whenever these teams had a lot of success, that player, that leader, was on the team when that happened. I guess when they left did things sort of crumble and they just fell apart?

Sam Walker: Yeah in some cases it was two weeks after their departure. In some cases it was the next season or a couple seasons later. You know the declines are pretty sudden. If you look at the overlay it’s really stark. Here’s the thing, this is the important point, which is I’m not saying that all you need is a great captain to be successful. The teams need a lot of things. You gotta have good talent, you gotta have good tactics, you gotta have a coach you gotta have a combination of things that are already in place.

The way I like to describe it is the captain is the verb in the sentence. The adjectives, the nouns everything else might be more colorful and more important to what you remember to why the sentence works, but it doesn’t work without a verb. It’s that thing that gives it its forward motion. So there are million combinations to greatness but the only thing that has to be there is the internal player leadership.

Brett McKay: So it’s necessary but not sufficient.

Sam Walker: Right. Exactly.

Brett McKay: So what are some examples of these great captains? So you mentioned Bill Russell, the Celtics. I’m guessing Tom Brady with the Patriots?

Sam Walker: Yeah. Sure Brady fits right in. The patriots also have some great defensive captains too in Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison. They had kind of a knack for finding them on both sides of the ball. Yeah the captains were funny. There were some that you would think of. Jack Lambert of the Steelers, and Maurice Richard. But then there were players on great teams, even teams I had covered like Barcelona, that I didn’t know anything about. And Carles Puyol was the captain of that team. If you know anything about Puyol he’s not the best player on the team he’s a strange looking guy. He’s the last person you would think of on a team that had Messi you know. But over and over you saw this pattern and a lot of them were really unheralded people.

In fact, these captains were nothing like what I would’ve imagined. I didn’t really think about leadership much before I wrote this book, because I didn’t think it was gonna end up there. I had this impression that the leader of the team was almost inherently the best player, the person who made the biggest contribution. I thought of them as being celebrities with this magnetism and this sort of high emotion they played with. I thought of them as great, just incredible at sports and shit and very diplomatic. Good at diffusing conflicts inside of the team. I thought of them as these larger than life people with obvious talent, but these captains were anything but.

In fact, they were not stars, most of them. They were role players. They were not charismatic, they stayed in the shadows. They did not care about personal accolades and it can be really difficult to manage. They pushed back, they created conflict inside the teams on a lot of occasions. A lot of those things were things I felt would disqualify someone from leadership.

I sort of realized that we really just don’t have a good grasp of what a leader actually does inside of a successful team. Not just a successful team but a team that sustains that excellence overtime.

Brett McKay: Right. So yeah I mean I think a lot of people think, “Oh Michael Jordan would have been one of the great captains.” He has all those sort of stereotypical traits when we think of a great leader. Charismatic, talented, et cetera but you kind of came to the conclusion, based on some of the criteria which we will talk about here in a bit, he wasn’t a great captain.

Sam Walker: He was not, in fact he was really not a good leader at all. He wasn’t the leader of the team. So the Bulls blew me away because I had the same impression of Jordan. He was a co-captain of that team but if you looked back it’s just unbelievable. Look at the day, it was in 1990 early in the season, and the bulls got off to a rough start. At that point Phil Jackson was a second year coach. The Bulls have never won a title. Everyone was saying Michael Jordan’s gonna be the greatest NBA player who never won a championship. That was the knock on him.

After a really rough start, Phil Jackson, very quietly, announced that Bill Cartwright was gonna be the co-captain of the Bulls along with Jordan. And this was shocking to people because Jordan hated Cartwright and openly mocked him because they traded his\ friend Charles Oakley to pick up Cartwright. Cartwright’s not charismatic, bad knees, kind of a brooding guy, didn’t care about getting any recognition. But the minute he did that the problem on the Bulls was that no one wanted to buy into Michael. All these kids on the team just resented having to just play a game that completely revolved around one player. Cartwright was the mentor, he was the coach. They called him ‘Teach’. He was the guy who got everyone on board with this idea of playing this way. The minute they did that they started winning and they went on to win 65 games and win their first title. They won three with that combination. Cartwright was the guy on that team who provided these qualities and provided that kind of leadership. I never noticed him before, had any idea what was happening.

Brett McKay: So let’s describe some of these traits, you mentioned some of them, but we can go in depth, that great team leaders or great team captains have. The first one you talked about is doggedness. So what’s going on there, what is it about a player’s doggedness, not necessarily their talent, that helps the whole team be better?

Sam Walker: That was probably the least surprising trait to me. I figured yeah if you’re gonna be a great leader you’re gonna have that kind of relentless, competitive nature. They took it to a level that I never seen. Which is that it didn’t matter if they were winning by 10 goals or they were down by 50 points. They had one speed in competition. They always played at that speed.

Carles Puyol, I mentioned Barcelona, was amazing because they’d be beating some terrible team 10 to nothing. He’s running around like it’s the Champion’s League final. His teammates were laughing at him. But there was that intensity but beyond it, it was his ability to continue to play no matter what and to play at that incredible level.

And the best example, the one that really just turn my head to the power of relentlessness, was this guy Buck Shelford. He was the captain of the New Zealand All Blacks, which is this incredible Rugby team, that was on the list for two different units. He was in this game against France. The French were out to get them, and they were going after Shelford. They knocked out three of his teeth, they punched him in the head. They knocked him out cold at one point. And also kicked him in the groin in the middle of this game, and this is pretty gruesome but after the game they lost. It was the last match they would lose for three years under his leadership.

After the game he took off his uniform and took off his trunks and he had just been kicked in the groin during this game. Even spiked and the spikes of a French players cleats had ripped open his scrotum. I know it’s gruesome but a really important piece of anatomy was hanging out. There’s blood all over his thighs it was a mess. Right? He played through that. He just kept playing and he became this sort of overnight folk hero, legend in Rugby, but that kind of shows you there was something almost maniacal about the way that they played and how tough they were.

What I discovered looking at a lot of behavioral psychology is that effort is contagious. The perception that someone is putting in a full 100% effort is the one thing that can make everybody on a team work harder, and work harder as a team than they would on the same task individually. So there’s a contagious effect and I believe all these captains because they were so relentless made everyone around them better.

Brett McKay: Right, yeah you talked about social loafing. Typically, when we work in groups if you did a group project in school you know this first hand. You typically, yeah someone else got it.

Sam Walker: Yeah that’s crazy it’s so true it’s called social loafing. It’s this phenomenon they proven over and over, which is if you have people do a task individually and then together as a group they work about 70% as hard in the group setting. It’s just human nature, which is why it’s so hard to find great teams, because teams aren’t supposed to be good. Because by definition when we get together, as human beings, we’re inclined to not work as hard as we would if it was just us doing it, so that needs to be counteracted. If you want to sustain success over a long period of time, you need someone with that incredible relentlessness to keep them from having, you know, one bad game, one bad night and the whole thing can end. I saw that over and over.

Brett McKay: So great team captains lead by example with the doggedness. So this is a counterintuitive trait, that I thought was interesting, was that great team captains test the limits of rules. Thought it was interesting, as a kid, in high school we always thought, “Oh the captain of the football team, the guy is the paragon of good sportsmanship.” But you found no, good captains are actually kind of they kind of play dirty. So what’s going on there?

Sam Walker: This one is tough to explain to people, and it took me so long to get to the bottom of it. Because you’re right these captains would do things that were really not cool. They were either kind of aggressive or even violent or they would really break the rules or push them to the limit. Tom Brady is a great example with deflategate, I mean that alleged behavior. But when I saw that I was like that fits the pattern perfectly.

So here’s the thing about sports. We look at the rules of sports and we hold them in the same regard that we do the rules of society. But they’re not like the rules of society. The rules of society you don’t break under any circumstances, but in sports the rules are kind of subjective. It’s not about whether or not you are breaking the rule, it’s what the referee says. It’s what happens in the moment, whether you can get away with it. So these captains because … here’s the thing they didn’t care if people thought they were dirty players. They generally didn’t care what people thought of them. All they cared about was the collective outcome for the whole team.

It’s hard to realize that but when you feel that way and you don’t care about the public view your attitude on the field was what can I get away with? What’s the ultimate edge of what I can actually get away with in this situation? And these captains were incredibly good at finding that line and playing right up to it. Sometimes they crossed it but most of the time they were intelligent enough to know where the line was, and they would use that kind of subjectivity that’s built into the rules in sports to the advantage of the team.

Brett McKay: So that’s where the captain of the Cuban team showed this trait.

Sam Walker: Yeah I mean in spades and it was really amazing to watch. So the Cubans, as I said were this dominant team. In the Atlanta Olympics in ’96 they were six years into this run but they were really struggling. They were just down and defeated and tired and they lost a couple of matches early in the tournament in the Olympics and it looked like they were done. So the captain of this team was this woman Mireya Luis is incredible. She’s only five foot nine, and she was a striker and most Olympic strikers are 6’2, 6’3 but she just had this incredible vertical leap and she was terrific. But anyway she was the captain of this team. They had to play Brazil. They made it to the semi-finals, they had to play Brazil, probably the other best team in the world, kind of the heir-apparent for the best team in the world. And they knew Brazil could beat them even if they were playing at their best.

So she came up with this strategy. It was a strategy of desperation but she knew she had to do something. And the strategy was this. Look, volleyball there’s always a little bit of trash talk going on. But there’s no specific rule about what you can and can’t do. So she decided alright well we’re gonna see how far we can push this, and she told her teammates that when they got on the court they had to start shouting insults at the Brazilians. And they were like what kind of insults? She’s like the worst thing you can say to another woman like whatever. Just empty the tank. So they started shouting these awful things at the Brazilians, the Brazilians complained, they got a yellow card for doing it. Over time it didn’t really have an effect at first. The match got really close and by the fifth set you can just see. The Brazilians, they were in their heads, they were mad, they were overplaying, they were getting too unhappy when they made mistakes. You just see the psychology working on them. Finally, the Cubans beat them and right after the match the tempers were flaring. A couple of players in the tunnel bumped into each other and they just started throwing punches. This turned into an all on brawl for 30 minutes. They had to call the Atlanta police to break it up and it was a huge embarrassment for the Olympics and for volleyball.

So I was like wait a minute this doesn’t work. How is that leadership? That’s not leadership that sounds like thuggish. I went to Havana and talked to  Mireya Luis about this and she’s like she said it’s a show, it’s a tool, it’s something you have to pull out. Sometimes you have to do aggressive things in order to pull your team through. It’s not done out of spite it’s done with a purpose. It’s not because you want to hurt someone, its because you’re trying to accomplish a larger purpose. I talked to her teammates and this is when it really dawned on me that this was a tool. It was a tactic because they said that during the fight there was only one player who was trying to break it up and it was Mireya Luis. So she went from that aggression in the name of winning but as soon as they won it was off. She switched it off and she was actively trying to stop this fight from happening.

That’s the difference. They don’t carry it off the court. They might be aggressive and test the rules in competition, but off the field all of them were incredibly quiet. None of them ever got into any trouble. They were incredibly law abiding people. And it’s a hard distinction to make. And I’m not advocating this kind of play but I think it’s important for people who are managing teams and for coaches to understand where it’s coming from. What’s the motivation for doing it. Is it to win or is it done out of hatred or animosity? I think the more that we understand that behavior and where it’s coming from, the more likely we are to make good decisions about leadership.

Brett McKay: Right. Even for people who aren’t involved in sports I think this overaggressiveness, pushing the limits of the rules, what that trait they’re displaying is like disagreeableness. But disagreeableness in the purpose of a greater cause. So I think often times there’s a lot of leaders who think they’re leaders and they want everything to be kind of kumbaya. Everyone’s trying to be so calm and nice you don’t push yourself. Everything kind of stays the same because you’re not willing to engage in conflict and confront boundaries. That’s where the growth happens.

Sam Walker: Yeah absolutely and conflict is another thing that they kept displaying, it was really important. The thing is there is two kinds of conflict too. There’s a conflict that’s really personal where you just don’t like someone, and the conflict is driven out of personal animosity. But there’s a kind of conflict that’s called task conflict.

Researchers have done a lot of studies that show though, teams that perform together in real time, with a real outcome like a sports team. On those teams task conflict is essential. You have to argue about the process the team is undergoing in order to win. It’s how you play, that arguments like that can often be mistaken for personal conflict and the toxic kind of conflict but they’re not. They’re fundamental to keeping a team together and keeping them winning, and you see them in all these great teams. You see it on the Patriots where Brady and Belichick argue. Popovich and Duncan used to argue like crazy. And now the Warriors, the Warriors and Steve Kerr are constantly arguing about tactics and approach and that’s absolutely crucial for a team to sustain excellence.

Brett McKay: Alright so another kind of counter intuitive trait of great captains is typically you think of great captains are leading from the front being charismatic, so like a Michael Jordan type, but you found the great captains didn’t do that. How did they lead?

Sam Walker: That was a puzzling question for me, because I didn’t understand it. It all started with Brazil because Brazil was this great soccer dynasty from ’58 to ’70 they won three or four World Cups. I was like Pele right, of course they had Pele. And I interviewed Pele, to my great surprise he was never the captain. And he said it was never even a question. I didn’t want to be, no one thought it would be a good idea. The captain of that team, the primary captain was this guy Hilderaldo Bellini. You never heard of this guy. Never scored a goal in his entire career in Brazil. He was not even close to the best player. He was a central defender, a guy who did all the grunt work on the field. That was really curious. There were other examples like that. There was Carla Overbeck from the US Women’s soccer team in ’99. You think of Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain and these great stars but no one’s have heard of her because like Bellini, she was a central defender.

So the question is how do these people lead? And I found there were two ways. One was that they actually you can command from the back. Especially in soccer, but in a lot of sports because by distributing the ball to your teammates and being very unselfish you create dependency. Your star teammates needs you to get them the ball and to set up plays. So it creates this dependency on that person. But beyond that what I found that was fascinating is because they were self-abasing and didn’t care about how they were perceived. They didn’t care about getting attention, they didn’t care individual accolades. Really generally did not care. People understood that everything they did was for the common collective good of the team. So it gave them this credibility.

And Carla Overbeck was a great example of this because she was very vocal on the field. She would get right on somebody if they weren’t performing well, weren’t focused. And she would also be there to congratulate them when they did something well but they all understood where it was coming from. And when it’s coming from someone like that who is not interested themselves, has no ego at all about their performance, it’s genuine. And it actually has an impact. It resonates with everyone. They were able to command in that way too.

It’s counterintuitive but that’s what leadership really is. And the star of the team in this system is liberated. It’s liberated from the idea that they have to contribute to leadership. They can do it as they want to but they’re relieved of that burden. And everyone loves this player because that’s the person who’s ultimately gonna run into the burning building when no one else will. And knowing that person is there creates this comfort, and that’s what Brady was talking about. It’s not that difficult. “You do your job so everyone else can do their job” that is what I think he was saying, which is on a team that’s functioning right everyone knows what their responsibilities are but they also know that someone’s got their back. And that in all these cases was the captain.

Brett McKay: So you kind of mentioned that but the way great captains communicate, they are not giving RA RA locker room speeches. It’s very subtle and happens, often times when no one’s even paying attention, or the eyeballs aren’t on them.

Sam Walker: Yeah I didn’t believe this when I found it. You think of how do you motivate a team and there’s the Hollywood version which is you give a big speech. We know about great coach’s speeches and captains who are supposed to have silver tongue and that’s how you motivate people. And I was shocked because not a single one of these captains, not one of them, liked giving speeches. Some of them never did it. They just did not do it or they said they tried it once and it was such a joke they never did it again. I didn’t understand how you could possibly motivate a team that way.

The person I really decided to focus on was Tim Duncan. Because Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs and this is a credible dynasty that won for so long. No one will ever match the length of their winning streak. So you seen Duncan give interviews, right?

Brett McKay: Right.

Sam Walker: He’s just like a blob. He has no emotion or charisma or anything, and I didn’t understand how someone like that could motivate teammates. I spent a lot of time watching them play and watching them practice. What I notice about Duncan was he actually communicates a lot but not in the way you would think. He was always working the perimeter of the floor. He’s always talking to somebody, one on one, very intensely. And he listens as much as he would talk. He used gestures and body language and his eyes to really communicate what he was saying. It was this constant communication. The Spurs are famous for how much they talk. And you see this, you see him on the bench, you see him on the floor. They’re constantly talking it’s like an open monologue. More than any other NBA team, at the time.

That is what happens when you have someone like that who is the leader, who is circulating. Because it gets everyone talking, everyone feels like they can be heard but also more accountable. And all the problems that come up over the course of the game are addressed in the moment, nothing festers. Everything is open for a conversation, and that kind of communication is the same kind that has been proven to be really effective in business teams. There’s always someone in there who circulates and they call it the charismatic connector. It’s the person who brings everyone together by talking individually. Not giving big speeches but one on one communication about the task at hand. That’s the same leadership style that Duncan uses.

It’s also the same leadership style that Yogi Berra used. And Yogi Berra, if you think about Yogi Berra, was famous for being inarticulate. I can’t imagine him giving a locker room speech. Right?

Brett McKay: Right.

Sam Walker: That’s what he did. He worked with everyone. It’s how he communicated. Constantly, democratically, and intensely one on one with people, in the moment. That’s the key. You just need someone who’s willing to put that kind of time in and it’s not the perception of motivation that we lean to.

Brett McKay: So yeah that’s not your stereotypical leader stuff displaying here. How do these captains get selected? Do these guys actively seek after the captainship or do their team just naturally decide, no you are the leader, and gravitate towards them?

Sam Walker: It’s funny, so many of these teams I think they wound up getting these people as leaders almost accidentally, because a lot of them were obscure and they came from places where there wasn’t a great tradition of winning and there weren’t great talents, and so the person who assumed the leadership accidentally was actually the right person for the job. No in most cases that these people were chosen by the coaches or by upper management and given that designation. There were cases, there’s one case, Barcelona, where the captain was elected. It’s very funny you ask if they sought the job. It was very funny because Carles Puyol was elected to captain unanimously by his teammates except for one vote which was Carles Puyol. He’s like didn’t think he should vote for himself he didn’t think it was appropriate.

Most of them didn’t, they didn’t pursue the captaincy for prestige. They didn’t believe they were entitled to it. A lot of them didn’t believe they were worthy of the job, but the reason that they wanted it was in the end because they felt responsible for the collective effort and for the common goal. It wasn’t about their own advancement or appreciation for their ability. It was because they knew they were the one who was gonna, as I said, run into the burning building. They were gonna do that awful job, that bit of grunt work that no one else wanted to do. They saw it as a burden. They didn’t see it as an honor. They didn’t care if they had the designation or not, honestly. They really wanted to serve the common purpose, and they knew how hard that was and that’s not glamorous and it’s not fun and they wouldn’t get credit, but all they really cared about in the end was winning and that was enough for them.

Brett McKay: Right. I think I even see that in my own life. Often times the leader that everyone looks to isn’t the guy with the title. Right?

Sam Walker: Yes. Yeah, no you see that in sports too. Roy Keane, who was a great captain at Manchester United said this about captaincy, he said, “There is the guy who the public sees is the face of the team, leader of the team but inside the club house it can be radically different.” I mean the actual hierarchy of the team can be completely different and that person can be really a marginal figure inside the team.

Yeah you see that, I seen it too. I started reassessing all the teams I been on. And finding these people that I hadn’t noticed before, who are playing that role very quietly. And were content just that the group succeeded and didn’t expect or yearn for any kind of acknowledgment. Those are hard people to find, that’s the problem. That’s why we don’t have a lot of them because they are not obvious and you wouldn’t notice them if you’re not looking for them.

Brett McKay: Right, because the people who end up in leadership positions usually are the ones seeking after them. But the irony is usually they are not the best ones for the job.

Sam Walker: Yeah it’s true. It’s usually, especially these days, most teams are either de-emphasizing captaincy or they are just giving it to their best player, or it’s become something that gets wrapped up in contract negotiations. It’s a perk that they throw in and it’s not really based on how they actually behave in a team setting. Yeah it’s weird. It’s so easy to make a mistake and it’s such an easy thing to ignore and such an easy thing to mess up. And if you mess it up it’s really hard to undo it.

Brett McKay: So why are captaincies on decline? I thought that was interesting. I didn’t know that more and more teams are using team captains. What’s going on there, what’s the thinking behind that?

Sam Walker: Yeah there are a few different things but it really comes down to economics. The main difference now is if you think about the last 20 years, the amount of money that’s poured into organized sports at the professional level everywhere, it’s astounding. The real beneficiaries, as it becomes more of a commercial enterprise and it used to be you just had to win. That’s how you make money, you won. You had to win. But now the economics are different. You really need to put on a good show. Because most of the money is coming from TV and there’s an element of making sure that you’re putting on a good show.

As a result the sports business is more like the entertainment business, it’s the marquee names. And on most teams the marquee names are the coach and the star player. That is become a different model. There is just like there are these two power centers inside the team. There is the big star and the coach. Those people are in a way kind of battling for control of the team. That’s kind of become a competition.

What’s happened is like you squeezed out the middle man, and all these great captains because most of them weren’t stars, they were those middle managers. They were the people who stood between the players and management, and they had minds of their own and independence and some autonomy and they could take the best of whatever the players were doing and thinking and the best of what management wanted, and they could fuse them together and actually act out and find a strategy that worked. They were also the people who held the team together when things were bad.

That’s a lesson not just for sports but for management because middle management is kind of not cool in business right now. You have founder culture. You have this idea that you want the founders and CEOs of the company to talk more directly to the star talent but when things go bad that’s when it falls apart because managers over-function. They’re not on the field they can’t actually do anything so they start to come up with bad ideas and over-function.

The stars, they start looking at their resume and thinking maybe I should skip this place. maybe it’s falling apart. It’s those middle managers who care about the team’s outcome and not their own. Those are the people who in those moments will hold the team together, and they use these traits that I described in order to do that. And I see it over and over again. It’s when everything’s about to fall apart, that’s when leadership matters. It doesn’t matter when everything’s going great. Your stock charts straight up or your team’s won 25 games in a row. It’s when things start to go bad and that’s when you need these people.

Brett McKay: I love it. Well Sam this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more the book?

Sam Walker: Well I have a website, which has more information, and I’m also on Twitter, @Samwalkers. And LinkedIn and Facebook and you can read my columns on leadership in the Wall Street Journal which just started a few weeks ago on the journal site.

Brett McKay: That’s awesome. Well Sam Walker, thank you so much for your time it’s been a pleasure.

Sam Walker: Thanks Brett.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Sam Walker. He’s the author of the book, ‘The Captain Class’, it’s available on and book stores everywhere. Find more information about his work at Also check out our show notes at where you find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well that wraps up another addition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website, at And if you enjoy the podcast and got something out of it I appreciate you take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher that helps out a lot. As always thank you for your continued support and until next time this is Brett McKay, telling you to stay manly.


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