What Pro Sports Can Teach Business About Leadership

Sam Walker’s “The Captain Class” uncovers a portrait of successful leaders seldom recognized or celebrated by most business leadership experts.
pro sports business leadership

People who know me well understand that I have an obsession with Chicago sports.

Growing up in the city’s suburbs during Michael Jordan’s run as the best basketball player in the world and leader of the dynastic Chicago Bulls teams of the 1990s largely explains why.

Then, of course, there’s my love of the Chicago Cubs, an obsession — and, until recently, what many considered a curse — shared my many Chicagoans.

Team sports are riveting to me for many reasons. In many ways sports is a microcosm of life. Teams and individual athletes work hard to achieve some larger goal. Throughout the process, we as spectators get to share in their successes and failures, which I think helps us model our own experiences in whatever we’re trying to achieve in life, both professionally and personally. I also relish the civic pride in following a sports team. It gives people a sense of community and something to root for collectively.

Of course, there are many parallels between business and team sports, as many have written about before.

But my reading of a recent book on the connections has opened my eyes to some refreshing thoughts on what goes into building a successful team and the transferable elements to the world of business and talent, especially around leadership.

Sam Walker’s “The Captain Class,” published last year, aims to uncover the secret ingredients of the world’s most elite sports teams, defined largely as those that experience sustained success over a long period of time, typically about four or more seasons.

Walker, the founding editor of The Wall Street Journal’s sports section, draws on his lifetime as a fan and spectator as well as 20 years of reporting and research into the DNA of history’s most elite sports teams. This includes baseball’s New York Yankees of the early 1950s, the United States’ women’s soccer team of the 1990s and other, lesser-known squads like two different eras of New Zealand’s national rugby team.

The most remarkable finding from Walker’s book — and what I think is most relevant to business leaders today — is that, in most cases, what separates the most elite teams from those that are simply good or average often comes down to something unexpected.

It isn’t that these teams have one superstar player with talent that propels them to greatness. Neither is it that these teams are financially rich in resources or coached by some of the best tactical minds in their respective sports. These elements certainly help, and some of the elite teams on Walker’s list have them.

But, as Walker finds, these are not necessarily the most important elements, or the common thread, that make the best of the best stand out.

What Walker ultimately discovers as the pattern that connects the world’s most elite teams in sports history comes down to their leadership — but not in the traditional way we typically think of leaders.

Each of the elite teams included on Walker’s list had the same type of captain, a player that is thought of as the team’s leader on and off the field. These players, however, also had an unconventional skill set. For starters, they were never the most skilled athletes on the team, nor were they the best motivators or stewards of sportsmanship, Walker writes.

In fact, these captains that Walker credits largely for each team’s sustained run of excellence were typically role-players who often stayed out of the spotlight.

They include players like Yogi Berra of the early ’50s New York Yankees, a short and thick catcher more famous for his mumbling, malapropism-filled talking style than his baseball statistics; Jack Lambert, the middle linebacker and undersized defensive captain of the 1970s Pittsburg Steelers football team; and Bill Russell, the dogged leader of the 1950s and ’60s Boston Celtics that won 11 championships in 13 seasons.

What these leaders ultimately possessed were traits not often glorified by leadership experts but that are absolutely necessarily of any successful team. As Walker writes, oftentimes these leaders didn’t score the most points, but they took care of the tough, unglamorous tasks; broke rules to further the team’s goals; dissented with team coaches and executives when necessary; and were relentless in their effort to use deeds, not words, to motivate and inspire their teammates.

In business, it’s easy to picture leaders that are good looking, eloquent motivators or strong, spotlight-seeking personalities — folks who embrace the idea of delivering the grandiose, emotional pep talk.

But, as Walker’s “The Captain Class” makes clear, the true leaders of successful teams are the exact opposite. They’re the types of people willing to do the grunt work, not delegate it to others; they use actions instead of words to motivate; they speak up against management in times of crisis, even when it’s risky and unpopular; and, perhaps most important, they aren’t looking to take credit for the team’s success.

Keep this in mind as you continue your own development in the New Year. Which type of leader do you want to be? Will you aim to become the type that is constantly recognized as the highest star performer, ready and willing to take credit at every sign of success?

Or will you decide to be a more essential, shadow leader, like those in “The Captain Class,” the kind willing to take on unglamorous tasks, relentless in pursuit of excellence and unafraid to break rules to meet the team’s goals?

Frank Kalman is Talent Economy’s managing editor. To comment, email editor@talenteconomy.io.