Which were the greatest sports teams in history? And what distinguished those teams from other celebrated but not quite so excellent teams or the even weaker ones?
Sam Walker, an editor at The Wall Street Journal, set out 11 years ago to answer those questions. He checked the normal factors we assume are responsible for team success, including having one of the great athletes of all time in its ranks, overall talent, money and resources, culture, management, and the coach. None explained the difference.
In the end, it was the team captains – and seven traits they shared -- that explained the difference between all-time greatness and the rest of the field. Although his book, The Captain Class, has a broad scope, Mr. Walker says it's about a single idea, "one that is simple, powerful, and can be applied to teams in many other fields, from business and politics to science and the arts. It's the notion that the most critical ingredient in a team that achieves and sustains historic greatness is the character of the player who leads it."
Choosing the elite teams required considerable thought. He opted for those with five or more members, so no single individual could be too influential in performance. He looked at major sports, wanting teams whose dominance extended over many years against top competition. His search extended to the 1880s, unearthing 122 finalists, but using eight criteria he whittled that down to 16 in the top tier, including the Collingwood Magpies from 1920s Australian rules football; the New York Yankees from 1949-53; the Hungarian men's soccer team of the early 1950s; the Montreal Canadiens of the late 1950s; the San Antonio Spurs from 1997-2016; and two editions of New Zealand's famed All Black rugby squad.
The seven traits he delineated of their captains were:
- Extreme doggedness and focus in competition. They were relentless, as when Maurice (The Rocket) Richard left a 1952 playoff game with a concussion and bloody gash on his head but returned in the third period to score the winning goal.
- They play to the edge of the rules, taking intelligent fouls. The captains were no angels. “They sometimes did nasty things to win, especially when the stakes were the highest. They didn’t believe that being sportsmanlike all the time was a prerequisite for being great,” Mr. Walker writes. Perhaps, he says, that explains why classy captain Derek Jeter’s Yankees are not on the top list.
- Leading from the back: Didier Deschamps, of Italy’s Juventus, was once sneered at, called a mere water carrier, but he accepted the moniker gracefully. The best captains were understated, comrades serving their team, playing subordinate roles on the field and feeding the ball to others. Michael Jordan’s Bulls didn’t make the list, perhaps because his focus tended to be on himself; he would sometimes not pass the ball to teammates he disliked.
- Practical communications: We assume sports leaders give fiery speeches, but that certainly wasn’t Yogi Berra’s forte – he wasn’t an orator – nor was it for other top captains. They talked one-on-one, cajoling and sympathizing – “boxing ears and wiping noses,” as the author puts it. At timeouts, the Spurs’ Tim Duncan would seek out one or two teammates and talk with them, often wagging a finger.
- They used non-verbal communications: Their on-field passion could inspire. In the dressing room before the game, Richard would stare intently with his fiery – some say scary – eyes at each teammate and then say, “Let’s go out and win it.”
- They had the courage to stand apart: Each of the captains at one point stood up to management to defend the team or argue for a different strategy.
- They could regulate their emotion: They could use emotion to drive their team but also knew when to cool it. The Rocket, after the famed riots following his 1955 suspension, under coach Toe Blake’s guidance, began to curb his emotions, his penalty minutes dropping, and it was that era during which his team made Mr. Walker’s list.
This is a fascinating book for sports fans, full of insider stories on top teams and the sources of their success. But it also offers leadership insights applicable outside of sports.