On a chilly Wednesday in 1953 a buoyant England played a friendly football match at home against an upstart team from communist Eastern Europe. Although unbeaten for twenty-three matches, the Hungarians had only played matches against relatively weak competition. Smaller, less professional and from a nation a quarter of the size of England, the Hungarians were hardly considered a challenge by the English fans. William Hill had them at 500-1.
By the end of the match the English fans trooped dejectedly from the stadium. Their team was defeated 6-3 having been out-shot 35-5. The Times described it as “Agincourt in reverse”.
English football fans are, by now, used to being defeated by Europeans in football matches but the interesting fact about the 1950-56 Hungarian team is that their record over that period remains astounding; of 53 matches, only two losses, one of which was to Germany in the World Cup final. Truly freakish success.
The question that Sam Walker asks in The Captain Class is simple: Why? What is the common factor among the most freakishly successful teams of all time that makes them so successful? I’ll not take you through the entertaining first chapters as he identifies the 12 most successful teams of all time, but it’s great pub-argument fodder: Manchester United’s 1995–2001 team is cut due to insufficient opportunity to prove themselves internationally. UK domestic rugby union teams are discounted early on as having too little talent.
But you’ll be unsurprised to find the book identifies one common factor of all 12 teams (and many of those who nearly made the final dozen): their period at the top aligns almost exactly with the Captaincy of a single individual. It’s not the coach that matters (sorry Alex Ferguson). It’s not the star player. It’s not even the average ability of all the players in the team. It’s captaincy and it’s leadership. Walker thinks there are seven traits they all have in common, and they are remarkably close to the language we use to talk about leadership in the army: Doggedness, rule-bending, servant leadership, communication, moral courage and emotional control. He covers each in turn and you can pull out relevant army leadership lessons at almost every point.
Demanding High Performance
Walker writes of relentlessness and grit. The leader who never gives up, who gives his all for the success of the team, has an effect on the team by causing others to perform better. The book is packed with real examples of how lead by example links to demand high performance.
Often Walker could have written the phrase ‘serve to lead’. He comes really close:
“The idea that a player who serves the team can also create dependency [on themselves] was something I had never considered… The easiest way to lead, it turns out, is to serve.”
He likes to write about being a ‘water-carrier’ (Eric Cantona’s insult to Didier Deschamp). A water-carrier, in Walker’s eyes, is the leader that isn’t thinking about his own ego and his place at the front of the team, but rather serving the team and its success. One of the differences between a star player and a leader is the former wants (and needs) the lime-light. The latter can be more effective without it. It’s an interesting question for a leader – do you need the limelight? Or can you handle the success of the team being its own reward?
“One of the great paradoxes of management is that the people who pursue leadership positions most ardently are often the wrong people for the job. They are motivated by the prestige the role conveys rather than a desire to promote the goals and values of the organisation.”
Verbal and Non-Verbal Communication
Communication is another tenet of the Army’s leadership framework, but Walker goes further. The best leaders in the sports world don’t seem to be the rousing speech, Tim-Collins-eve-of-the-invasion type communicators. And that’s something we’re probably uncomfortable with too. It suggests we should be shunning the limelight and the corresponding self-promotion. The best leaders communicate in low key manner that links with their followers on a much more emotional level. It’s also about boxing ears and wiping nose – but which one depends on the individual. Which means effective communication involves individual consideration or recognising strengths and weaknesses. What’s beautiful in his chapter on this is you get a real dive into how this actually looks in the very best teams of all time. And how many different ways there are to make it work.
But while verbal communication is low-key and democratic, non-verbal communication is dramatic, passionate and often violent. Communication can be low-key when it’s verbal, but sometimes a leader needs to do something so dramatic that it fires the mirror neurons in our brains and invigorates us. Walker suggests that
“Without passion, even the best teams won’t win, and the passion of one player could elevate the performance of an entire unit. When a leader does something dramatic on the field … it releases energies you didn’t even know you had.”
All the captains in those top tier teams were comfortable telling uncomfortable truths. They had no issue speaking truth to management in order to better the team. The captain of the Soviet 1980 ice hockey team threatened to throw his coach out of a plane after he blamed the players for their failure at the Olympics. A powerful reminder that he considered the team to be more important than any one man – including himself, who could easily have been sent to a gulag for his acts.
The final trait of those great sports captains is emotional self-restraint. Our leadership doctrine doesn’t talk about this, but there is a great article at The Military Leader on the subject. Walker found that, at times when leaders are flooded with negativity, these captains engage some kind of mental mechanism that shuts those emotions off before they can have negative effects.
In all, The Captain Class is a great read if you love sport and want to learn about leadership. If you hate sport, you’ll still get plenty from it. Some of the concepts mesh nicely with the Army’s Leadership Doctrine and Code, some don’t. All are worth considering . You could take any chapter from the book and use it as a standalone topic for leadership discussion and development.
Sam Walker has taken a topic – freakish success in sport – and pulled out a lesson that sports managers might not like, but army leaders should. Leadership from within the team matters, and we can learn lessons from the traits that sports leaders display. A final quote summarises an idea that’s true in both military and sports leadership:
“The truth is that leadership is a ceaseless burden. It’s not something people should do for the self-reflected glory, or even because they have oodles of charisma or surpassing talent. It’s something they should do because they have the humility and fortitude to set aside the credit, and their own gratification and well-being, for the team – not just in pressure-packed moments but in every minute of the day.”
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Media Credits: Images © Crown Copyright. Used under Open Government Licence v3.0.