Leadership is a topic which can apply at any level in an organisation from the ground up and plays a leading role in the work we undertake at MHC.

I have recently finished reading “The Captain Class” by Sam Walker who evaluated thousands of great sporting teams throughout history. He then selecting the sixteen he considered (based on a very thorough analysis and methodology) “the best of the best”.

The teams came from a variety of sports: ones that people would expect – the All Blacks, the Brazil football team and the New York Yankees in baseball, for example. There were, however, lesser known teams like the French handball team, the Australian ladies’ hockey team and the USSR ice hockey team amongst those selected.

In every one of the sixteen teams, the common component was the captain. Each was far from flawless. Faults included

  • Being awkward and disagreeable
  • Poor communication skills
  • Overt aggression
  • Reticent in the extreme

However, all managed to drive their teams forward over a period of years to create a true sporting dynasty.

Leadership specifics

After all his considerations, Walker concluded that the main driver and most essential ingredient for a team that achieved and sustained historic success was the leadership skills of the person who spearheaded it.

In virtually all the sixteen teams, the captain was not the best player. A famous phrase about one captain was that he was “the water carrier” for those around him.  He/she was the person who made those around them perform to the best of their individual abilities. Leadership skills they demonstrated included:

  • Harnessing their own strengths to best serve the team.
  • Connecting with everyone in their team sufficiently that they also could put the team first.
  • Enduring periods of intense pain and stress that would have broken lesser athletes.

Examples used were Richie McCaw and Wayne Shelford (All Black captains), Carles Puyol (Barcelona football captain), Yogi Berra of the New York Yankees as well as others known only to followers of their own sport. The book is full of facts, commentary and anecdotes from team-mates and observers to support its findings.

In most cases, what is illuminating about these leaders is what they were not. Most people, asked to define a leader, would put charisma and eloquence up there in the traits they would expect to see in him/her. If they were then physically imposing/attractive, aggressive, ruthless, talented, ambitious… then even better. However, very few of the sixteen captains of the world’s best teams met these to the levels the public might expect. Whilst as ego driven and ambitious as any elite sportsperson needed to be, their egos and ambitions were kept in check to ensure the right result for the team.

To equate that to business is the core strength in any CEO – “will this person not only give 100% of themselves but can they inspire the others in their team to the same level of intensity?” The belief of the team in its leader is what drives it forward.

There is a lot that this book can teach the business world!