Episode 93: Sam Walker – The Captain Class

Episode 93: Sam Walker – The Captain Class

What is the secret to building a world-class team? Sam Walker, Wall Street Journal editor and author of The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams, boiled down the success of the world’s greatest sports teams to a single factor: a great captain. Learn how to spot and develop potential captains on your team, why real leaders aren’t always the ones giving locker room speeches, and the benefits of a strong middle-management team.

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Website: BySamWalker.com
Book: The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams
Bio: Sam Walker is The Wall Street Journal’s deputy editor for enterprise, the unit that directs the paper’s in-depth page-one features and investigative reporting projects. A former reporter, sports columnist, and sports editor, Walker founded the Journal’s prizewinning daily sports coverage in 2009. In addition to The Captain Class, he is the author of Fantasyland, a bestselling account of his attempt to win America’s top fantasy baseball expert competition (of which he is a two-time champion). Walker attended the University of Michigan. He lives in New York City with his wife and two children.

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Transcript

Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most.

With us today is Sam Walker and the book that he has most recently written is The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams. Sam is Wall Street Journal deputy editor for Enterprise, the unit that oversees the paper’s in-depth page one features and investigative reporting projects. He’s done a lot of work on the sports pages as well. He founded the Journal’s prize-winning daily sports coverage in 2009.

This book and our conversation will really cover both in a sense. We’re going to be talking about sports, and we’re going to be talking about business and leadership, which is what this book does. It was a really fun and interesting read for me. It scares me a little because it says, “Coaches are much less important than captains,” and being a coach myself, I worry about that. We’ll talk a little bit about that, but it’s based on some really interesting research, and I’m really happy to have Sam on the Bregman Leadership Podcast with us.

Sam, welcome.

Sam: Thanks, Peter. It’s great to be here. Really appreciate it.

Peter: Let’s create some credibility here. Let’s start with the research process that went into the book. If you could just briefly describe how you got to the selection of teams that you began to look at to say what really makes these teams different.

Sam: Right, well, it started innocently enough. I started in 2004 after I covered the Boston Red Sox for the season, and that team was really a mystery to me because I thought I knew a lot about great teams. I thought I understood what made them great and what characteristics they shared, but that team was really weird. They started off the season, they seemed undisciplined and unfocused. They fell way behind the Yankees nine and a half games in July, but then something clicked, and they completely turned it around and they became this juggernaut, and they went on to win the world series, and people are talking about them being one of the great baseball teams of the 20th century.

I realized that what I didn’t understand about great teams was how they got that way. What was the spark? What provided that moment when they made the transition? I started off, I thought, I’m going to knock this out. I’m going to do a column for the Wall Street Journal. It’s going to be the 10 greatest teams of all time and what do they have in common. How easy is that? Two weeks, tops, but then it turned into just the biggest rabbit hole I’ve ever been down.

Here we are, 11 years later, and now it’s not an article, it’s a book, and not only is it a book about great teams, but it became a book about leadership, which is something I never imagined it would be. What I did was I realized I had to do everything. I went back and looked at every single winning team in the history of sports all over the world since the 1880s, and this was the mother of all spreadsheets, as you can imagine. Then I had to figure out how to whittle down the list, and that was another process that just consumed years.

Peter: You whittled down to 16 standout teams that you call freak teams, and you whittled down the list. What was some of the key criteria you used in whittling down the list?

Sam: Well, the first thing I had to start with was what is a team? How do you define a team? I realized that there were a lot of teams where the athletes themselves don’t interact during competition like a boxing team, so I ruled those out.

Peter: I grew up as a ski racer, and we were a ski team, but our results never depended on each other. They were always individual results, so that wouldn’t characterize as a team.

Sam: Right, no. What I thought was that a team, in the truest sense, the athletes work together, but they also have to deal with an opponent in real-time and adjust to their moves. I ruled out other teams because you might take a rowing team, they don’t actually interact with the opponent, so I had to eliminate that, so I came up with 37 categories of sports of which I really believed that teams were teams.

Starting with that, then I was like, well, what defines excellence? I had to decide, I decided that they had to have played against the top competition in the world, they had to have maintain their dominance. What I wanted to study, really, was sustained success, how teams that actually build a culture of winning. I set a floor of four years. They had to be dominant for at least four years. That ruled out a lot of these dynasties that we think about.

Also, there were a couple of other things. One, they had to have had a perfect opportunity to display their excellence, they had to have played the best teams in the world, but the big league or the one that orally knocked it down for about 122 teams to 16 was that, their teams had to be completely unique to their sport.

What they did in terms of the number of championships and number of games won had to be something that no other team has done, and that really was the weeder that got me down to the 16. After years of going through all these parameters and filtering, I finally got what I believe to be, not the greatest teams of all time, necessarily, but these teams have no blemishes, they’re absolute dynasties, they are a perfect sample to study to see what the DNA of greatness is.

Peter: What you found is that the typical things that you often see or you often think about, the qualities that are often cited as the qualities of superior teams like an amazing superstar, incredible amount of talent, deep financial resources, a winning culture that is led by really effective management, amazing coaching, that those things are not the things that distinguished the freak, great teams from the rest.

Sam: That was the most amazing thing. There were so many revelations that started coming once I’d done this research that I never imagined. Like you said, I thought talent, I thought these teams must’ve been superstars or an abundance of talent overall, and then I thought coaching. I really thought coaching would be the thing that would distinguish them, but if not that, then strategy or financial resources.

Those were all things I started out with and one by one, as I went through these 16 teams, I realized in most causes, those things did not apply even to a majority of the teams that I looked at, so it was clearly something else, and the only thing, the only thing that bound them together through different countries, different sports was one thing, and that was that their streak of dominance, tip to tail, always corresponded perfectly with the presence of one player, and that player was inevitably the captain of the team or the leader of the team, and it was plain as day, not just for those 16, but even farther down the list with the other 122 elite teams, they all had that same characteristic. I realized that it was internal leadership. That was the thing that built that winning culture.

Peter: You make this distinction, this very clear distinction between the captain and the coach, and we’ve defined team. I think it would be great to also define, maybe it’s obvious to people, but the difference between the coach and the captain. I’m thinking also about organizations because most of the listeners are leaders in organizations, which is there’s the CEO, is that the captain? Is it … Who is the captain? Who is the coach? How do you distinguish them?

Sam: I would say in a business context, the CEO is really more of the general manager or the team president, and the coach, they can be a coach, I think, in a smaller organization, but what we’re really talking about here is say, you’re talking about division head or someone who’s really a middle manager. That’s the classic definition of these captains, and the thing that was fascinating about these captains is they weren’t superstars, they were really role players. They were people who did the grunt work behind the scenes on behalf of the team, so they really stood between management and the players or the employees, and they were that buffer, and they had this independence and autotomy that allowed them to make decisions and make adjustments on the fly.

Peter: Did they have an official title and role as captain on the team or no?

Sam: All of them but one. The only one was Yogi Berra of the Yankees from ’49 to ’53. Now, the Yankees didn’t have a captain famously because they stopped having captains after Lou Gehrig, but he was the leader of that team. He was playing the same sort of role in that team, but yeah, no, the designation was important, I think.

Peter: Right, so they were designated as captain, but they didn’t wear a crown. They weren’t the person who was hailed as like, here is the superior. They weren’t the superior talent. How were they selected as captains?

Sam: See, this is funny because a lot of them were captains by accident or they came from cultures like the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team, very specific culture where there’s this idea that everyone sweeps the sheds, everyone does the grunt work, and the more you are a leader, the more you serve the team.

That was fascinating because they were not at all what I imagined. I mean, not at all. If I had to build a captain in a laboratory, I would have taken talent, charisma, that aura, and none of these people had that. They didn’t give speeches. They were role players. They didn’t like attention. They shunned individual attention, and they often created conflict and dissent. They brought it into the team. Whenever something was going some way they didn’t think was helping the team, they would push back, so they could be difficult to manage, and they pushed the rules to the outside, to the edges. I mean, in competition, they would play to the absolute edges of the rules and sometimes break them, so they were not the people that I imagined at all. You mentioned earlier the relationship with the coach. I thought that was fascinating.

Peter: Yeah, tell me a little more about the relationship with the coach.

Sam: When I found this pattern, it was so obvious to me that I didn’t believe it. I thought, it can’t be this simple. The number thing standing in the way was coaching, and we all think of coaches as big authority figures, and we put so much of the blame of the success on the shoulders of the coach and the organization.

The first thing I did I was I flew out to Los Angeles to meet Willie Davis who was the captain of the Green Bay Packers under Vince Lombardi. Vince Lombardi, to me, is probably the greatest American coach. I mean, we all agree he’s an elite coach, and I wanted to really try to get a sense of what it was, that relationship and where Lombardi began and where team leadership ended.

What I discovered, first of all, was Willie Davis fit this profile, this unusual profile of captains perfectly, but also in talking to him, I understood that Vince Lombardi was a freakishly talented coach and a motivator of men, and that was something that really helps. As I looked at all the other teams, I realized something that I think is really important, not just in sports but in all organizations, which is that the relationship between the internal leader of the team, the captain and the coach, so if you’re talking about the middle manager and their best subordinate, that relationship is crucial because what I found was that all the great teams, even the great coaches like Lombardi, Alex Ferguson, Bill Belichick, they achieved their greatest results in partnership with a captain who had exactly these qualities.

What I realized was that it’s that partnership that really matters, and the coach has to be able to pick someone as a captain who they trust and who they can have a, not a hierarchical relationship with but a real partnership where they exchange ideas. All of these great captain-coach pairs, Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, they have very contentious relationships where they really get into the weeds on how to do things, but in the end, the captain, as that middle manager, has that autonomy and the independence to make adjustments and to look at what the players can do in and the situation they’re in and look at what the coach wants and to try to come up with a fusion that works in the moment.

That’s the formula that really works. I think the message for coaches is, the most important decision you make, really, and we often overlook this, is who’s my leader, who’s my team leader, who’s my proxy on the field, and can I actually have a partnership and a working relationship with that person, do I have the confidence to give them the autonomy they need to make adjustments and to alter the game plan, can I sit by and watch while they do something I might, I want them to do? That seems to be the key in all these cases.

Peter: It’s interesting. In a sports team, you don’t necessarily need general management buy-in to who that person is and how to leverage them. In an organization, you probably do, meaning that there’s some complexity to this in an organization where the coach or even someone who’s a little outside the organization, maybe the CEO’s playing that coach well, but if there’s someone outside the organization who’s supporting it, it’s identifying that person, and then getting some autonomy and freedom for that person to do what they need to do. Even if you’re in a push and pull kind of a conflict around what should be done or how it should be done, that person needs to be able to have some freedom to take actions and to connect with other people on the time.

Sam: Right. No, that’s exactly right. The thing I think is important to remember is that that autonomy is not … When you’re on an upward growth curve, there’s so many companies now that talk about flat hierarchies and doing away with middle management, trying to have more direct communication between the top management and the star employees. That’s very good, I think, when you’re on an upward growth trajectory, but what I’ve found is that it’s those middle managers, it’s those people with that institutional loyalty who care more about the goals of the organization, not their own advancement. When you hit tough times, when things get rough and you need someone to step up and hold the institution or hold the team together, that’s when those people are really important, and that’s when they use these traits that I outline in the book to hold the team together.

In a lot of ways, that leadership is almost invisible. You don’t see it when things are going well. It’s when things start to go badly that you start to really need it. I think that decision, that type of person, if you have someone in that role, you’re going to see the benefits because you’re going to not only weather tough times, but you’re also going to create an environment in which the superstar employees and the people who are at the top of their game feel comfortable being stars, and they don’t feel the burdens of leadership or the pressures of leadership or having to deal with management. There’s a buffer that person provides, and it’s an absolutely crucial role. I think we need to start looking for people who have these qualities because they’re not obvious. They’re not easy to spot.

Peter: We’re talking with Sam Walker. He’s the Wall Street Journal’s deputy editor for Enterprise. He wrote The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams, and we’re talking right now about how to find these people. What you just said is it’s really important to select them and find them, and they’re not obvious. They’re not the star player.

You list seven core qualities. Help us figure out for people who are on teams who are coaches or general management because it’s a little fungible when you’re looking at organizations or enterprises. What are the core qualities, if you could briefly go through them, of this captain class?

Sam: The first thing you have to know is they’re not obvious. They don’t stand out in a job interview. These are not qualities that you can see about somebody. It’s not about talent. It’s not about charisma. It’s not about the obvious things. You really have to look a lot more deeply, and what you have to look at is how that person deals with other people and how they operate inside a team context.

The qualities are these. First of all, it’s relentlessness. These people, these captains where-
Peter: Let me pause you for one second because you said something really interesting that I want to highlight, which is what you’re kind of saying is, you can’t, or it would be very difficult to hire for the captain class, but the goal is to hire really great people, and then look at who’s there and how they operate within the organization, and find the captain class amongst your cohort of current employees and team members. It’s a really interesting observation.

Sam: Yeah, no, what I found with this book is that there are people like this were hiding. I mean, they’re in our midst already. There are a lot more of them than we realize. We’re just not looking at the right thing.

One of Tim Duncan’s teammates, Tim Duncan is one of the people that I profile in the book, said to him once something fascinating, he said, “If you walked into that team environment, and you didn’t know who the captain was, you would never suspect that he was the leader of the team because of the way he behaved. There was nothing leader-like about the way he behaved in the traditional sense,” but that’s an interesting thing, but if you watch the way Tim Duncan operates inside the team, it’s very different. There’s a relentlessness there. I mean, he never stopped. He plays hard no matter what, win or lose, it doesn’t matter the score. That’s really important to find that kind of work ethic.

The other thing is the way they communicate is vital. Great leaders don’t give speeches. These captains never gave speeches. There were no locker-room speeches. What they did was they would circulate democratically, and they would talk to everybody individually and very intensely with eye contact and gestures and in a very intense way. They would do this democratically. They would listen as much as they spoke, so they were comfortable approaching everyone, and that’s how they communicated in the moment about the problems at hand, so if you can see your people working together … It’s not the loudest voice in the room, it’s not the person who sets the tone that we expect. It’s the person who is moving around and making sure they’re dealing with problems of the individuals in the moment. That’s very important.

Also, dissent. You have to be able to accept that, that these leaders, these great leaders, they’re incredibly principle, and if something happens that they think is working against the team’s goals, they’re going to tell you about it, and they’re going to create problems for you as the manager sometimes. They’re not going to sit back and try to implement everything you say automatically. That’s another thing.

One other quality I’ll slip in there, there’s some others, but it’s emotional control. There’s an emotional maturity that comes with that and an emotional intelligence, but it’s really control. It’s the ability to set aside whatever personal problems you’re having, whatever your stresses and strains of your personal life and be able to set those aside for the good of the goals of the team.

These people in sports did incredible things. They played well under incredible types of personal pain and pressure. As other people see that, it’s contagious, that hard work, that emotional control, setting aside everything for the goals of the team, it’s contagious and everyone feeds off it, and it makes the entire group better.

Again, hard to see, but there are questions I think you can ask in an interview setting where you can get at some of these things.

Peter: Maybe also when you do a behavioral event interview where you’re asking people about past situations, you can look for whether they demonstrate these things in a past situation, and it can give you a sense.

One of the characteristics you didn’t mention that I was particularly interested in is this aggressive play to test the limits of the rules, and I think it’s very true, and I’m curious about how that plays out organizationally when you’ve seen a lot of people in financial services go to jail for aggressively testing the limits of the rules. I’m curious in what way you see it that test the limits of the rules, but also what the dynamic is.

Sam: This is baffling to me because as I looked at these captains, I found this incidence where they did things that were really ugly or really beyond what anyone’s definition of sportsmanship is. I could not figure it out because there’s so many athletes that really have aggression problems, not just any competition but outside of competition, but as I looked closely, I realized there’s real difference, and I found a lot in behavioral psychology that explains this, which is that when you’re talking about sports, you’re talking about the rules of sport. The rules of sport are different from the rules of polite society. I mean, you can punch someone in the face in a hockey game and three feet away in the stand, you’d go to jail for doing that. It’s a different environment.

What I realized that this captains understood that, and they understood that within the rules of sport, they had to do whatever they could they thought they could away with in order to win, and oftentimes, they would push the rules or bend them even and break them, and sometimes it would blow up in their faces.

Usually, they got away with it though, but what I had noticed was that the difference with these great leaders was that the minute the game was over and the light switched off, they were boring. I mean, they never got in trouble off the field. They weren’t aggressive people. They didn’t think of aggression as some skill they’ll apply to everything. They would shut down. They were homebodies, introverts. They went home. They regarded their privacy. They never did anything. They were very quiet.

The idea is that there’s a game frame, and in business, I think it’s the field of playing business. Some great leaders, Steve Jobs was known to push people to the point of tears inside, but outside, he was not like that. He wasn’t a bully. He wasn’t getting in trouble outside or applying that to his personal life, so I think you have to understand that you have to work within the context of the rules you’re in.

I don’t advocate bad sportsmanship, I don’t advocate cheating in business, but I think you have to understand that if someone does this and they push things to the absolute maximum, you have to think about what their motive is, and there is a good motive for that. You don’t just qualify them for leadership because you think they don’t have the ethical makeup. Think about why they’re doing it and then what they’re like away from the office and whether that’s something part of their personality or whether it’s part of this grand desire to do whatever you can to help the team win.

Peter: Yeah, whether they’re unethical or they’re hard players.

Sam: Right. Exactly. For all I know, throwing elbows is important sometimes. You have to do it, right?

Peter: I play some weekend basketball, and it’s only recently because I haven’t played a lot, when someone was telling me, “You gotta foul more.” I said, “What do you mean? The whole point was to not foul. If you foul, that’s bad. You get punished for fouling. You can get thrown out of the … ” and they’re like, “No, that’s not how it works. The only way to shut that guy down is by fouling him, and that’s okay. We’ll take it.”

It’s really hard for me to wrap my head around that, but that’s some of what you’re describing, which is a foul is part of the rules, and it’s part of this strategy for how you play the game, and so pushing the limits of those rules, there are costs, and you make that equation of, is the benefit worth the cost? It’s worth fouling this person in order to shut them down.

Sam: That’s right. Didier Deschamps who’s the great French captain, the other captain of the French national soccer team called them intelligent fouls, and I thought that was the best way of putting it. It’s like he knew when he was too far up the referees knows to get away with it, and he knew when he wasn’t, and he sometimes said, “I would foul so that we didn’t suffer worse consequences.” There’s definitely a way to do it, and I think we just qualify people because we think they’re not in control, but it’s a tactical thing, it’s another tool that you can use as a leader.

Peter: What you’re saying is, if you can see that they don’t act that way when they leave the field, then it’s incredibly in control. That demonstrates a tremendous amount of what you’re calling the ironclad emotional control because they’re not sloppy drunks beating people up in bars. They’re being very thoughtful and strategic and intentional about how hard they’re playing on the field.

Sam: Right, no, it’s a tool, and that’s really important to see, I think.

Peter: Can you develop these qualities? I mean, are they inborn? Can you train them? Can you teach people to do aggressive play that limits the rules or test the limits of the rules or the doggedness that you talk about or the emotional control? Do you find that this is something you just have to find the people that are great at it, or is this something that you could, if you’ve seen people in all of your research develop these kinds of qualities?

Sam: It can absolutely be developed. I mean, the thing that I thought was interesting was there was a study done in the Israeli military, which I used a lot. Their theory of leadership, based on their study of soldiers, was that there’s a lot of people who have the potential to be leaders, many more than we think, but if you have the potential, you also need the motivation, and not everyone who has potential has the motivation to lead, but then there’s development, and that’s the biggest part.

The thing about these traits, as I said, it wasn’t talent, it wasn’t charisma, there was not God-given ability here. I think these captains, when you read about them, I mean, we’re not all made of the same material, but in the end, all of these seven traits are all behavior. It’s behavior. It’s the choices we make day in and day out as we’re leading a team, and anyone can modify their behavior. Anyone can understand the principles of team-building and get better at it.

We can develop, you have to develop these people. They’re not born. I think you have identify the people with the right characteristics and then find ways to develop them into the leaders that they will eventually be because once you have a leader like this, you create a culture around your team that others can emulate, and you start to, it starts to feed itself, and you start to have this culture, this chemistry where everything, everyone’s priority is in the right direction, and everyone realizes toxic behavior when they see it. That’s the key. Yeah, identify and then develop.

Peter: Sam, how has, and this is a final question, I’m curious how this research and this book and all of your 11-year process of learning has impacted your leadership. You’re a leader on the newsroom floor. How has that, if it has, changed the way you show up?

Sam: Massively. I mean, I realize when you start to see these qualities, you kind of do a self-assessment, and I actually was doing that on Twitter with some people who were sending in their own assessments. I know what my weaknesses are. I don’t know about the emotional control. Sometimes it’s hard for me, but no, it really informed, and I realized some of the small things, it’s really in the daily decisions you make.

It’s not saying that thing that you want to say or rolling up your sleeves and diving in on a tough problem next to everyone and not playing favorites, not letting your personal feelings get involved, and the kind of conflict you create inside your team is task-oriented. It’s about making the team better, and it’s about the goals. It’s never personal. So many of those things, I’ve been able to use.

It’s really amazing the impact it has. I mean, just since I started writing the book and trying to moderate my behavior, I’ve definitely seen there’s a weird esprit de corps people feel comfortable not only talking freely about problems and solutions, but also, people who are really talented feel this liberation to just do their thing and to not have to worry about the way the team is conforming and the way the team is being impacted by it, and that’s been really helpful too. It’s really helpful when you have talented people around you who are more talented than you. It helps them really reach their best, so it’s been a massive impact.

Peter: The guest we have with us today is Sam Walker. His book is The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams.

Sam, it’s been a fascinating conversation in terms of really thinking through for myself, my own leadership in my own organization and how I show up in this particular way and also to find the people.I have someone I know specifically who I think shows up in this way incredibly. It was fun to read the book. It was fun to look at the research. It was super fun to talk to you. Thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Sam: Thanks, Peter. It’s a real pleasure. I appreciate it.

Peter: I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast. If you did, it would really help us if you subscribe on iTunes and leave a review.

A common problem that I see in companies is a lot of busyness, a lot of hard work that fails to move the organization as a whole forward. That’s the problem that we solve with our Big Arrow Process. For more information about that or to access all of my articles, videos, and podcasts, visit peterbregman.com.

Thank you Clare Marshall for producing this episode, and thank you for listening.


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