The Captain Class by Sam Walker – My Six Lessons and Takeaways

Chances are that you have worked on a group or team. Chances are that you have worked on a less-than-outstanding group or team. And, chances are, if you, or someone, had done a better job of encouraging, cajoling, driving each individual team member to do his/her job better, the team would have been a better team.

Your team needed someone to help whip the group into a real team.  Your team needed someone to help bring out the best in each team member, and then to help them work in synch, like a true team.

In other words, your team needed a better captain.original

And, after reading and presenting my synopsis of The Captain Class: A New Theory of Leadership by Sam Walker, I am a convert to his viewpoint – a new viewpoint to me, and maybe to you also. (I presented my synopsis of this book at last Friday’s First Friday Book Synopsis, June 1, 2018).

Here’s his book in a nutshell:  it’s not the quality of the players; it’s not the coach – it’s the captain of the team that makes the biggest difference.

I can’t begin to tell you how much I enjoyed reading this book!  Call me a typical guy, but I love good sports books.  Through the years, I have presented a few sports related books at the First Friday Book Synopsis.  Especially memorable are Wooden on Leadership by John Wooden, and Eleven Rings by Phil Jackson.  (And, by the way, Sam Walker does say that the coach may be more important at the college level than at the professional level).

But, Sam Walker wanted to find out just what made the great teams – the “freakishly great teams” – so freakishly great.  His discovery, after examining many hundreds of team records, and preparing massive spread sheets to compare the data, came down to this – it’s the team captain that makes the difference!

In my synopses, I always ask “Why is this book worth our time?”  Here are my three reasons for this book:

#1 – All teams — sports teams, work teams – share things in common. This book provides insights transferable to all teams.
#2 – If the secret is enough talent plus execution, this “captain” role may be a key (the key?) to execution.
#3 – This book shows the phenomenal influence of one person on a team – the “water carrier” who will never give up – the team captain.

Here is my brief summary of the book:

What is the key to the greatest of the freakishly great teams?
It’s not the coach; it’s not strategy or tactics; it’s not the “superstar,” the “GOAT” –
it’s the captain.
The player among the other players who brings out the very best in them all as a group; as a team.
This book describes the reasons why this is true; the why behind this surprising finding.

And here is an excerpt that maybe provides the author’s own summary:

In the end, I was shocked to discover that the world’s most extraordinary sports teams didn’t have many propulsive traits in common, they had exactly one. 
Though it uses sports as its source material, it’s ultimately a book about a single idea—It’s the notion that the most crucial ingredient in a team that achieves and sustains historic greatness is the character of the player who leads it.

He studied many teams; many different kinds of teams; men’s teams and women’s teams.  Here’s his best of the best:

The Steelers, Yankees, Celtics, and Collingwood Magpies—four teams that have all won the most overall championships in their sports. …And, the national rugby team of New Zealand is, by any reasonable accounting, the world’s preeminent sports dynasty.

And if you made me choose one paragraph to say “blow this up in big font and put it up on your wall,” I think it would be this paragraph:

Buried inside an obscure 1997 clinical psychology textbook called Aversive Interpersonal Behaviors, there is a chapter titled “Blowhards, Snobs, and Narcissists: Interpersonal Reactions to Excessive Egotism.”
 The paper concluded that self-centered people who project arrogance through their speech and body language tend to be viewed less favorably by others and can weaken a group’s cohesion. 
– Timothy Duncan. Duncan wasn’t just another psychology major at Wake Forest. He was the star of the basketball team. 
From the moment he arrived in San Antonio, Duncan seemed determined to abide by the conclusions of his undergraduate thesis. He never asked for special privileges, never skipped practices, never bristled at being dressed down after poor performances. 
It’s as if Duncan had used his Wake Forest thesis as a blueprint for how to be an effective teammate in a league where “narcissists” and “blowhards” were the lords of the realm.  

Tim Duncan basically later lived out that philosophy as the captain of his professional team, the San Antonio Spurs.  He did not give speeches to his team; he watched each player, learned what motivated him (and each player required different kinds of/approaches to motivation); he draped his arm around their shoulders, got in their face, or gave them that extra push, NEVER for any glory of his own.  As his coach Gregg Popovich, the Spurs’ coach, once said, Duncan didn’t have any “MTV” in him. 

There are so many great stories in this book, including one about the mother of Mireya Luis, the Cuban volleyball player, who absolutely demanded that her daughter rise to the occasion as captain of her ream  And Carla Overbeck, U.S. Soccer, who carried her teammates’ luggage, and thus earned the right to get in their face and push them to be the best.

Here are some of his observations about captains; The Captain; the “water carrier”

• Played through unbelievable physical and/or emotional difficulty

• It was a supreme expression of desire.

• “He is the person responsible for making sure the agenda of the organization is pursued.”
• An insurmountable will to win.

And, about the captains:

• They lacked superstar talent. 

• They weren’t fond of the spotlight. 

• They didn’t “lead” in the traditional sense. 

• They were not angels. 

• They did potentially divisive things. 

• They weren’t the usual suspects. 

• (and), The captain isn’t the primary leader. 


#1 – Extreme doggedness and focus in competition.
#2 – Aggressive play that tests the limits of the rules.
#3 – A willingness to do thankless jobs in the shadows.
#4 – A low-key, practical, and democratic communication style.
#5 – Motivates others with passionate nonverbal displays.
#6 – Strong convictions and the courage to stand apart.
#7 – Ironclad emotional control.

And here are my six lessons and takeaways:

#1 – Players need help to do their best. Even at the “professional” level. The great captains figure out ways to bring out the very best in the others on the team. 

#2 – The great captains know the individual motivational needs of the members of their team, and do what is needed to motivate each of them. 

#3 – The great captains put in the time, do the grunt work, “carry the water,” to earn the right to push the others to the limit. This is leadership! 

#4 – The great captains really are not in it for their own fame or glory or reputation. They care supremely about the success of the team. 

#5 – The great captains are, by definition, not out in front. They truly lead from “the back.” 

#6 – The great captains do.not.quit… They are relentless! 

It has taken me a while, but I think I have finally learned this:  there is almost no “one” book that provides all we need to know for any key element of success.  It takes a library, and a lot of reading, to come closer to fully learning about any and every subject and challenge.  But, if you want to learn how to build a better team, add this book to your reading stack, and move it to the top.

It’s a very good book!


My synopsis (with the audio recording of my presentation, and my comprehensive synopsis handout) will be available soon from this web site.  Click here to see our “newest additions.”


Some suggested additional reading, and some thoughts to think about from other authors…

Charles Duhigg (Smarter, Faster, Better) – “psychological safety” – in other words, each individual feels safe to state his/her opinion…

Phil Jackson (Eleven Rings and Sacred Hoops) – emotion must be contained in some way…

And Carol Dweck (Mindset) on the growth mindset (each person can always get better)…

And, of course, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioini, and Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter by Cass R. Sunstein and Reid Hastie, and The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations by James Surowiecki.

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