Yogi Berra, Maurice (The Rocket) Richard, Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, and Derek Jeter.
Five elite athletes who led championship teams. However, there’s a difference between them – a critical difference – that could be important to government executives seeking to be more effective at work. Three of those stars – Berra, Richard, and Russell – exemplified traits that were the hallmark of leaders of the best sports teams ever, while the other two were magnificent players and on hugely successful teams but didn’t display those traits and their teams failed the test of all-time greatness.
Those are the findings of a fascinating book by Sam Walker, the Wall Street Journal’s deputy editor for enterprise, which combines an intriguing bit of sports scholarship with some helpful management advice. It’s therefore of interest to government executives, whether sports fans or sports agnostics. He set out 11 years ago to answer two questions: which were the greatest sports teams in history? What distinguished those teams from other celebrated but not quite so excellent teams or the even weaker ones?
There could have been a lot of possible reasons, notably money or unusually adept players, but in the end he determined it was the team captains — and seven traits they shared — that explained the difference between all-time greatness and the rest of the field. The book bringing his research together is broad in scope but he writes that 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.”
The first step was to determine the best teams. Fans will often develop top-of-the mind lists but he went about it with the rigour of a good government policy analyst, even grappling with what was a team and, vitally, what era and sports to consider. He defined a team for this effort as having five or more members, so no single individual could be too influential in performance, and they had to work together, rather than compete separately for total team victory, as with the Davis and Ryder Cups or the Canadian Olympic team. He looked at major sports, wanting teams whose dominance extended over many years against top competition, and went well beyond the modern era to the 1880s. He found 122 standouts but, the assessment criteria he developed knocked that back to 16 in what he calls Tier One. Twenty-eight teams, for example, fell because they didn’t have a major opportunity to prove themselves against top-flight opposition – in the early days of sport that was difficult, and for teams in sports like field hockey and water polo, that was a factor. Their record had to stand alone being an exceptionally long or concentrated burst of success that went beyond the accomplishment of every other team that played the same genre of sport; that eliminated 66 teams.
The top teams, listed by time period, were:
- The Collingwood Magpies, Australian rules football, 1927-30
- The New York Yankees, major league baseball, 1949-53
- Hungary, international men’s soccer, 1950-55
- The Montreal Canadiens, NHL, 1955-60
- The Boston Celtics, NBA, 1959-69
- Brazil, international men’s soccer, 1958-62
- The Pittsburgh Steelers, NFL, 1974-80
- The Soviet Union, men’s international hockey, 1980-84
- The New Zealand All Blacks, international rugby union, 1986-90
- Cuba, international women’s volleyball, 1991-2000
- Australia, international women’s field hockey, 1993-2000
- The United States, international women’s soccer,1996-99
- The San Antonio Spurs, NBA, 1997-2016
- Barcelona, professional soccer, 2008-13
- France, international men’s handball, 2008-15
- The New Zealand All Blacks, international rugby union, 2011-15
So what made them tick? Money? A superlative coach? Team chemistry or culture? A superstar or collection of superstars? Nothing he investigated seemed to fit each situation. Studying the Boston Celtics, he noticed that their dominance began when Bill Russell joined them and ended when he retired. Russell was a superb player but he also for much of that period was team captain. On a whim, Walker made a list of the primary player-leaders of the 16 teams. Eureka!
“The results of this little exercise stopped me cold. The Celtics weren’t the team whose Tier One performance corresponded in some way to the arrival and departure of one particular player. In fact, they all did; and with an eerie regularity that person was, or would, eventually become the captain,” he notes.
Many, it should be stressed, weren’t the best player on the team, but they were what he calls “glue guys,” holding the team together; and although coaches mattered, the captains were the main factor. In fact, the coach’s key contribution was generally choosing the right captain.
As he dug deeper, reading about the teams and their captains, he delineated seven key traits:
- 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 winner. In a 1986 rugby match in Nantes, France, Buck Shelford of the New Zealand All blacks took a sucker punch that cost him three teeth, received a concussion, was kicked in the scrotum, ripping that vulnerable spot open, yet still played to the end. On a tamer level: Captain and catcher Yogi Berra was so committed to learning about his pitchers he and his wife moved to the new Jersey neighbourhood where those pitchers lived so they could continue their conversations over dinner.
- They play to the edge of the rules, taking intelligent fouls. The captains were not 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,” he writes. Perhaps, that explains why classy captain Derek Jeter’s Yankees are not on the top list despite their successes, he speculates.
- Leading from the back: Didier Deschamps of Italy’s Juventus was once called a mere “water carrier” by a haughty opponent but to the media’s surprise he accepted the moniker gracefully. The best captains were similarly understated. They weren’t features on MVP lists but played subordinate roles on the field — feeding the ball to others (even when, like Russell, stars). “Beyond this, most of the Tier One captains had zero interest in the trappings of fame,” he adds. Tim Duncan of the Spurs agreed to be paid less than his market value so the team could have more space under the NBA salary cap to sign better players. Michael Jordan’s Bulls didn’t make the list, perhaps because his focus tended to be on himself – at times he would not pass the ball to teammates he disliked.
- Practical communications: We assume sports leaders give fiery speeches and are great orators but then if you think of Berra you realize that may not be true. The top captains talked one-on-one, cajoling and sympathizing — “boxing ears and wiping nose,” as the author puts it. At timeouts, the Duncan would seek out one or two teammates and talk with them, his finger often wagging at them.
- They used non-verbal communications: Their on-field passion could also communicate and inspire. The Rocket, in the dressing room just before the game, would stare intently with his fiery – many felt 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. That’s tough enough on any team but when the Soviet Union fell apart in the 1980 Olympics, on the trip home when Valeri Vasiliev overheard the coach, Viktor Tikhonov, running down some of the top players, he grabbed him by the back of the neck and threatened to throw him out of the airplane. That could have got him a one-way ticket to Siberia, but didn’t. The next year, the team voted Vasiliev captain and the winning ways that led to Tier One began.
- 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 in that reformed time his team make the top tier.
If you’re not a sports fan this book won’t have the same lustre as for government executives who gobble up sports news, but the stories are still enthralling and will leave lasting, useful memories that can assist your workplace performance.