Call Sign Chaos

Call Sign Chaos, Learning to Lead


In any organization, it’s all about selecting the right team. The two qualities I was taught to value most in selecting others for promotion or critical roles were initiative and aggressiveness.

the Marines reward initiative aggressively implemented.

Slowly but surely, we learned there was nothing new under the sun: properly informed, we weren’t victims—we could always create options

Part I: Direct Leadership

Lee’s Lieutenants, by Douglas Freeman, and Liddell Hart’s Strategy

My early years with my Marines taught me leadership fundamentals, summed up in the three Cs. The first is competence.

Be brilliant in the basics. Don’t dabble in your job; you must master it. That applies at every level as you advance. Analyze yourself. Identify weaknesses and improve yourself. If you’re not running three miles in eighteen minutes, work out more; if you’re not a good listener, discipline yourself; if you’re not swift at calling in artillery fire, rehearse. Your troops are counting on you. Of course you’ll screw up sometimes; don’t dwell on that

Fire and maneuver—block and tackle—decide battle.

Second, caring. To quote Teddy Roosevelt, “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

Third, conviction

Competence, caring, and conviction combine to form a fundamental element—shaping the fighting spirit of your troops. Leadership means reaching the souls of your troops, instilling a sense of commitment and purpose in the face of challenges so severe that they cannot be put into words.

Marines believe that attitude is a weapon system

I said to each recruiter, “have a clear goal: four recruits a month who can graduate from boot camp. Anything you need from me, I’ll get you. We will succeed as a team, with all hands pulling their weight.”

I had learned in the fleet that in harmonious, effective units, everyone owns the unit mission. If you as the commander define the mission as your responsibility, you have already failed. It was our mission, never my mission. The thirty-eight recruiters were my subordinate commanders. “Command and control,” the phrase so commonly used to describe leadership inside and outside the military, is inaccurate. In the Corps, I was taught to use the concept of “command and feedback.” You don’t control your subordinate commanders’ every move; you clearly state your intent and unleash their initiative. Then, when the inevitable obstacles or challenges arise, with good feedback loops and relevant data displays, you hear about it and move to deal with the obstacle. Based on feedback, you fix the problem. George Washington, leading a revolutionary army, followed a “listen, learn, and help, then lead,” sequence.

It’s all about clear goals and effective coaching.

You can’t have an elite organization if you look the other way when someone craps out on you.

Finally, I understood what President Eisenhower had passed on. “I’ll tell you what leadership is,” he said. “It’s persuasion and conciliation and education and patience. It’s long, slow, tough work. That’s the only kind of leadership I know.”

When tasked with supporting other units, select those you most hate to give up. Never advantage yourself at the expense of your comrades.

I adapted a technique used by Roman legions, which built rectangular camps. I organized our camp (or laager) in a triangular shape so that every man knew where he fit. The triangle always pointed north toward the enemy. Day or night, regardless of where we made camp, everyone knew the exact locations of the mortar pits, the communications tent, the fuel compound, and his command element. We were oriented toward the enemy, so all hands could roll out in battle formation at a moment’s notice

Men who are familiarized to danger meet it without shrinking; whereas troops unused to service often apprehend danger where no danger is.”

Every commander and chief executive officer needs tools to scan the horizon for danger or opportunities. Juliets proved invaluable to me by providing a steady stream of dispassionate information. I chose men who I was confident would maintain trust. What kept the Juliets from being seen as a spy ring by my subordinate commanders was their ability to keep confidences when those commanders shared concerns. They knew that information would be conveyed to me alone.

Read the ancient Greeks and how they turned out their warriors,” he said

If you haven’t read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent, because your personal experiences alone aren’t broad enough to sustain you. Any commander who claims he is “too busy to read” is going to fill body bags with his troops as he learns the hard way. The consequences of incompetence in battle are final. History teaches that we face nothing new under the sun. The Commandant of the Marine Corps maintains a list of required reading for every rank. All Marines read a common set; in addition, sergeants read some books, and colonels read others. Even generals are assigned a new set of books that they must consume. At no rank is a Marine excused from studying. When I talked to any group of Marines, I knew from their ranks what books they had read. During planning and before going into battle, I could cite specific examples of how others had solved similar challenges. This provided my lads with a mental model as we adapted to our specific mission.

at the executive level, your job is to reward initiative in your junior officers and NCOs and facilitate their success. When they make mistakes while doing their best to carry out your intent, stand by them. Examine your coaching and how well you articulate your intent. Remember the bottom line: imbue in them a strong bias for action.

By decentralizing authority to take full advantage of opportunities on the broader front, we maneuvered faster than the enemy, getting inside his decision-making loop.

There is a gift,” Napoleon wrote in his memoirs, “of being able to see at a glance the possibilities offered by the terrain….One can call it coup d’oeil [to see in the blink of an eye] and it is inborn in great generals.” “It really is the commander’s coup d’oeil,” Clausewitz agreed, “his ability to see things simply, to identify the whole business of war completely with himself, that is the essence of good generalship. Only if the mind works in this comprehensive fashion can it achieve the freedom it needs to dominate events and not be dominated by them.”

As Churchill noted, “To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour

we drastically cut down staff size by employing “skip-echelon,” a technique I learned in discussions with a voluble English-speaking Iraqi major my battalion had captured in the 1991 Gulf War. In most military organizations, each level of command—or echelon—has staff sections with the same functions, like personnel management, intelligence gathering, operational planning, and logistics support. As the Iraqi major explained, such duplication wasted time and manpower and added no value

Throughout my career, I’ve preferred to work with whoever was in place. When a new boss brings in a large team of favorites, it invites discord and the concentration of authority at higher levels. Using skip-echelon meant trusting subordinate commanders and staffs. I chose to build on cohesive teams, support them fully, and remove those who didn’t wind up measuring up.

Business management books often stress “centralized planning and decentralized execution.” That is too top-down for my taste. I believe in a centralized vision, coupled with decentralized planning and execution.

The amphibious landing,” MacArthur explained, “is the most powerful tool we have to employ. We must strike hard and deep into enemy territory. The deep envelopment, based upon surprise, which severs the enemy supply lines, is and always has been the most decisive maneuver of war.

Part II: Executive Leadership

I pulled books off the shelves, and began studying campaigns in Mesopotamia, starting with Xenophon’s Anabasis and books on Alexander the Great—working my way forward.

What Hagee saw was what Xenophon faced when he marched deep into Mesopotamia 2,400 years ago. Xenophon’s ten thousand soldiers were a tiny minority among the people. He recognized that they must quickly gain control or the countryside would rise up against them.

Ripping out an authoritarian regime leaves you responsible for security, water, power, and everything else. Removing Saddam will unleash the majority Shiites, defanging the minority Sunnis, who won’t take lightly their loss of domination.”

Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations was my constant companion

I don’t care how operationally brilliant you are; if you can’t create harmony—vicious harmony—on the battlefield, based on trust across different military services, foreign allied militaries, and diplomatic lines, you need to go home, because your leadership is obsolete.

I knew I needed an organizing principle, and to the commanders I made it clear that the success of the mission depended on speed: speed of operations and movement would be prefaced by speed of information-passing and decision-making. Armed with this intent, my troops would keep punching through before the enemy could react.

Our campaign’s success was based on not giving the enemy time to react. We would turn inside the enemy’s “OODA” loop, an acronym coined by the legendary maverick Air Force Colonel John Boyd. To win a dogfight, Boyd wrote, you have to observe what is going on, orient yourself, decide what to do, and act before your opponent has completed his version of that same process, repeating and repeating this loop faster than your foe. According to Boyd, a fighter pilot didn’t win because he had faster reflexes; he won because his reflexes were connected to a brain that thought faster than his opponent’s. Success in war requires seizing and maintaining the initiative—and the Marines had adopted Boyd’s OODA loop as the intellectual framework for maneuver warfare. Used with decentralized decision-making, accelerating our OODA loops results in a cascading series of disasters confronting the enemy

Field Marshal Slim wrote in World War II: “As officers,” he wrote, “you will neither eat, nor drink, nor sleep, nor smoke, nor even sit down until you have personally seen that your men have done those things. If you will do this for them, they will follow you to the end of the world. And, if you do not, I will break you.”

Operational tempo is a state of mind. I’ve always tried to be hard on issues but not on spirits. Yet I needed unity of commitment, from every commander down through the youngest sailor and Marine. Once across the Tigris, my spread-out division could face two Republican Guard divisions. I needed the entire division on the same tempo. We had to be all in, all the time.

“No better friend, no worse enemy” was in play, and I sent a smile of thanks to General Lucius Cornelius Sulla, the Roman soldier who, two thousand years ago, had those words inscribed on his tombstone and passed it on to me

It is not the young man who misses the days he does not know,” Marcus Aurelius wrote. “It is the living who bear the pain of those missed days.”

The central question was how to kill or capture the insurgents while persuading the population to turn against the insurgent cause. If we needed “new ideas” to help us construct our plan, old books were full of them. I reminded my men that Alexander the Great would not be perplexed by the enemy we faced. In 330 B.C., he first conquered the country, then instituted fair laws and orderly practices. It
wasn’t a bad model to consider.

My command challenge was to convey to my troops a seemingly contradictory message: “Be polite, be professional—but have a plan to kill everyone you meet.”

Anyone who has studied history knows that an enemy always moves against your perceived weakness, and this enemy had chosen irregular warfare. Now we had to adapt faster than they could, getting inside their OODA loop. Having watched how swiftly Islamist terrorism was spreading, I believed we would be fighting for years. Accordingly, irregular warfare had to be a core competency, but without the Marine Corps’s developing tunnel vision and ignoring other kinds of threats. My approach in adapting our warfighting to this enemy was to insist on the pervasive implementation of decentralized decision-making.

Situational recognition isn’t unique to battle. Notice how often a college quarterback calls out the wrong signal, resulting in a broken play. To cut down on those mental mistakes, former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer devoted team meetings to hands-on simulation exercises, demanding that his players respond to confused situations. The goal was the assimilation of knowledge to take with them into the next game so that they would recognize the same situation when it occurred.

For me, “player-coach” aptly describes the role of a combat leader, or any real leader.

Peter Drucker, the business guru, criticized business executives for devoting too much time to planning, rather than understanding the nature of the corporation itself. As he put it, “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” The output of any organization, driven by its culture, must reflect the leadership’s values in order to be effective.

thinking, using deception and turning faster inside his decision loop, always assuming that he would adapt

“ The trinity of chance, uncertainty, and friction [will] continue to characterize war,” Clausewitz wrote, “and will make anticipation of even the first-order consequences of military action highly conjectural.”

Part III: Strategic Leadership

I had never gone in front of a hearing without a “murder board,” where I rehearsed succinct answers to complex questions. As long as you are candid and have done your homework, such hearings are not an intellectual challenge.

One of my predecessors at CENTCOM, General Zinni, had taught me to break information into three categories. The first was housekeeping, which allowed me to be anticipatory—for example, munitions stockage levels and ship locations. The second was decision-making, to maintain the rhythm of operations designed to ensure that our OODA loops were functioning at the speed of relevance. The third were alarms, called “night orders.” These addressed critical events—for instance, a U.S. embassy in distress or a new outbreak of hostilities. “Alarm” information had to be immediately brought to my attention, day or night.

keeping me informed following my mantra “What do I know? Who needs to know? Have I told them?” I repeated it so often that it appeared on index cards next to the phones in some offices.

Commander’s intent” has a special meaning in the military that requires time and thought. A commander must state his relevant aim. Intent is a formal statement in which the commander puts himself or herself on the line. Intent must accomplish the mission, it has to be achievable, it must be clearly understood, and at the end of the day, it has to deliver what the unit was tasked with achieving. Your moral authority as a commander is heavily dependent on the quality of this guidance and your troops’ sense of confidence in it: the expectation that they will use their initiative, aligning subordinate actions. You must unleash initiative rather than suffocate it.

By conveying my intent in writing and in person, I was out to win their coequal “ownership” of the mission: it wasn’t my mission; rather from private through general, it was our mission. I stressed to my staff that we had to win only one battle: for the hearts and minds of our subordinates. They will win all the rest—at the risk and cost of their lives. Once the intent was clearly conveyed, the mission was left in the hands of our junior officers and NCOs, and their animating spirits coached our troops to achieving my aim.

Trust is the coin of the realm for creating the harmony, speed, and teamwork to achieve success at the lowest cost. Trusted personal relationships are the foundation for effective fighting teams, whether on the playing field, the boardroom, or the battlefield. When the spirit of your team is on the line and the stakes are high, confidence in the integrity and commitment of those around you will enable boldness and resolution; a lack of trust will see brittle, often tentative execution of even the best-laid plans. Nothing compensates for a lack of trust. Lacking trust, your unit will pay a steep price in combat.

Yet it’s not enough to trust your people; you must be able to convey that trust in a manner that subordinates can sense. Only then can you fully garner the benefits. From mission-type orders that left subordinates with freedom of action to declining to take detailed briefs if I thought it would remove subordinate commanders’ sense of ownership over their own operations, my coaching style exhibited confidence in juniors I knew were ready to take charge. I had also found, in Tora Bora’s missed opportunity to prevent Osama bin Laden’s escape, that I had to build awareness and trust above me.

While processes are boring to examine, leaders must know their own well enough that they can master them and not be mastered, even derailed, by them. In competitive situations, a faster operating tempo than your adversary’s is a distinct asset. A smoothly operating team can more swiftly move through the observe/orient/decide/act loop, multiplying the effectiveness of its numbers. Left untouched, processes imposed by unneeded echelons will marginalize subordinate audacity.

All hands had to be thinking all the time: What do I know? Who needs to know? Have I told them? Additionally, by reducing the size of headquarters staffs, we reduced demands for information flow from subordinate units, which could then principally focus on the enemy rather than answering higher headquarters’ queries.

How to Change Your Mind

How to Change Your Mind Book Cover How to Change Your Mind
Michael Pollan
Body, Mind & Spirit
Penguin Books
May 14, 2019

This is an incredible book. There are a lot of notes. (And I skipped the first chapters covering the history.) I am trying a new approach to highlighting the passages I found especially relevant. Bold, larger font, and even LARGER font. Tell me if you like it.

Michael Pollan set out to research how LSD and psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) are being used to provide relief to people suffering from difficult-to-treat conditions such as depression, addiction and anxiety.

These remarkable substances are improving the lives not only of the mentally ill but also of healthy people coming to grips with the challenges of everyday life.

Pollan sifts the historical record to separate the truth about these mysterious drugs from the myths that have surrounded them since the 1960s, when a handful of psychedelic evangelists inadvertently catalyzed a powerful backlash against what was then a promising field of research. 

The true subject of Pollan's "mental travelogue" is not just psychedelic drugs but also the eternal puzzle of human consciousness and how, in a world that offers us both suffering and joy, we can do our best to be fully present and find meaning in our lives.

The soul should always stand ajar. —EMILY DICKINSON


As the literary theorists would say, the psychedelic experience is highly “constructed.” If you are told you will have a spiritual experience, chances are pretty good that you will, and, likewise, if you are told the drug may drive you temporarily insane, or acquaint you with the collective unconscious, or help you access “cosmic consciousness,” or revisit the trauma of your birth, you stand a good chance of having exactly that kind of experience

Psychologists call these self-fulfilling prophecies “expectancy effects,” and they turn out to be especially powerful in the case of psychedelics

the molecular structure of mescaline closely resembled that of adrenaline. Could schizophrenia result from some kind of dysfunction in the metabolism of adrenaline, transforming it into a compound that produced the schizophrenic rupture with reality?

The fact that such a vanishingly small number of LSD molecules could exert such a profound effect on the mind was an important clue that a system of neurotransmitters with dedicated receptors might play a role in organizing our mental experience. This insight eventually led to the discovery of serotonin and the class of antidepressants known as SSRIs.

in 1953, Osmond and Hoffer noted that the LSD experience appeared to share many features with the descriptions of delirium tremens reported by alcoholics—the hellish, days-long bout of madness alcoholics often suffer while in the throes of withdrawal. Many recovering alcoholics look back on the hallucinatory horrors of the DTs as a conversion experience and the basis of the spiritual awakening that allows them to remain sober.

controlled LSD-produced delirium help alcoholics stay sober?”

Osmond and Hoffer tested this hypothesis on more than seven hundred alcoholics, and in roughly half the cases, they reported, the treatment worked: the volunteers got sober and remained so for at least several months

From the first,” Hoffer wrote, “we considered not the chemical, but the experience as a key factor in therapy

The emphasis on what subjects felt represented a major break with the prevailing ideas of behaviorism in psychology, in which only observable and measurable outcomes counted and subjective experience was deemed irrelevant

When the therapists began to analyze the reports of volunteers, their subjective experiences while on LSD bore little if any resemblance to the horrors of the DTs, or to madness of any kind. To the contrary, their experiences were, for the most part, incredibly—and bafflingly—positive.

descriptions of, say, “a transcendental feeling of being united with the world,” one of the most common feelings reported. Rather than madness, most volunteers described sensations such as a new ability “to see oneself objectively”; “enhancement in the sensory fields”; profound new understandings “in the field of philosophy or religion”; and “increased sensitivity to the feelings of others.”*

What a psychiatrist might diagnose as depersonalization, hallucinations, or mania might better be thought of as instances of mystical union, visionary experience, or ecstasy. Could it be that the doctors were mistaking transcendence for insanity?

one of the best ways to avoid a bad session was the presence of an engaged and empathetic therapist, ideally someone who had had his or her own LSD experience. They came to suspect that the few psychotic reactions they did observe might actually be an artifact of the metaphorical white room and white-coated clinician. Though the terms “set” and “setting” would not be used in this context for several more years (and became closely identified with Timothy Leary’s work at Harvard a decade later), Osmond and Hoffer were already coming to appreciate the supreme importance of those factors in the success of their treatment

Few members of AA realize that the whole idea of a spiritual awakening leading one to surrender to a “higher power”—a cornerstone of Alcoholics Anonymous—can be traced to a psychedelic drug trip.

LSD could reliably occasion the kind of spiritual awakening he believed one needed in order to get sober; however, he did not believe the LSD experience was anything like the DTs, thus driving another nail in the coffin of that idea. Bill W. thought there might be a place for LSD therapy in AA, but his colleagues on the board of the fellowship strongly disagreed, believing that to condone the use of any mind-altering substance risked muddying the organization’s brand and message.

Therapists who administered doses of LSD as low as 25 micrograms (and seldom higher than 150 micrograms) reported that their patients’ ego defenses relaxed, allowing them to bring up and discuss difficult or repressed material with relative ease. This suggested that the drugs could be used as an aid to talking therapy, because at these doses the patients’ egos remained sufficiently intact to allow them to converse with a therapist and later recall what was discussed.

Freud called dreams “the royal road” to the subconscious, bypassing the gates of both the ego and the superego, yet the road has plenty of ruts and potholes: patients don’t always remember their dreams, and when they do recall them, it is often imperfectly. Drugs like LSD and psilocybin promised a better route into the subconscious.

Stanislav Grof, who trained as a psychoanalyst, found that under moderate doses of LSD his patients would quickly establish a strong transference with the therapist, recover childhood traumas, give voice to buried emotions, and, in some cases, actually relive the experience of their birth—our first trauma and, Grof believed (following Otto Rank), a key determinant of personality. (Grof did extensive research trying to correlate his patients’ recollections of their birth experience on LSD with contemporaneous reports from medical personnel and parents. He concluded that with the help of LSD many people can indeed recall the circumstances of their birth, especially when it was a difficult one.)

He came to believe that “under LSD the fondest theories of the therapist are confirmed by his patient.” The expectancy effect was such that patients working with Freudian therapists returned with Freudian insights (framed in terms of childhood trauma, sexual drives, and oedipal emotions), while patients working with Jungian therapists returned with vivid archetypes from the attic of the collective unconscious, and Rankians with recovered memories of their birth traumas.

Cohen wrote that “any explanation of the patient’s problems, if firmly believed by both the therapist and the patient, constitutes insight or is useful as insight.” Yet he qualified this perspective by acknowledging it was “nihilistic,” which, scientifically speaking, it surely was. For it takes psychotherapy perilously close to the world of shamanism and faith healing, a distinctly uncomfortable place for a scientist to be. And yet as long as it works, as long as it heals people, why should anyone care?

Andrew Weil in his 1972 book, The Natural Mind.

They do something, surely, but most of what that is may be self-generated. Or as Stanislav Grof put it, psychedelics are “nonspecific amplifiers” of mental processes.)

an obscure former bootlegger and gunrunner, spy, inventor, boat captain, ex-con, and Catholic mystic named Al Hubbard

Hubbard was the first researcher to grasp the critical importance of set and setting in shaping the psychedelic experience. He instinctively understood that the white walls and fluorescent lighting of the sanitized hospital room were all wrong. So he brought pictures and music, flowers and diamonds, into the treatment room, where he would use them to prime patients for a mystical revelation or divert a journey when it took a terrifying turn.

What Hubbard was bringing into the treatment room was something well known to any traditional healer. Shamans have understood for millennia that a person in the depths of a trance or under the influence of a powerful plant medicine can be readily manipulated with the help of certain words, special objects, or the right kind of music

Vancouver, where he had persuaded Hollywood Hospital to dedicate an entire wing to treating alcoholics with LSD.* Hubbard would often fly his plane down to Los Angeles to discreetly ferry Hollywood celebrities up to Vancouver for treatment. It was this sideline that earned him the nickname Captain Trips

Al Hubbard moved between these far-flung centers of research like a kind of psychedelic honeybee, disseminating information, chemicals, and clinical expertise while building what became an extensive network across North America


Seventy-eight percent of clients said the experience had increased their ability to love, 71 percent registered an increase in self-esteem, and 83 percent said that during their sessions they had glimpsed “a higher power, or ultimate reality.” Those who had such an experience were the ones who reported the most lasting benefits from their session. Don Allen told me that most clients emerged with “notable and fairly sustainable changes in beliefs, attitudes, and behavior, way above statistical probability.” Specifically, they became “much less judgmental, much less rigid, more open, and less defended

The foundation also conducted studies to determine if LSD could in fact enhance creativity and problem solving

The Whole Earth Network Brand would subsequently gather together (which included Peter Schwartz, Esther Dyson, Kevin Kelly, Howard Rheingold, and John Perry Barlow)

Herbert Kelman, a colleague in the department who later became Leary’s chief adversary, recalls the new professor as “personable” (Kelman helped him find his first house) but says, “I had misgivings about him from the beginning. He would often talk out of the top of his head about things he knew nothing about, like existentialism, and he was telling our students psychology was all a game. It seemed to me a bit cavalier and irresponsible.”

In four hours by the swimming pool in Cuernavaca I learned more about the mind, the brain, and its structures than I did in the preceding fifteen as a diligent psychologist,” he wrote later in Flashbacks, his 1983 memoir. “I learned that the brain is an underutilized biocomputer . . . I learned that normal consciousness is one drop in an ocean of intelligence. That consciousness and intelligence can be systematically expanded. That the brain can be reprogrammed.”

Drawing on their extensive fieldwork, however, Leary did do some original work theorizing the idea of “set” and “setting,” deploying the words in this context for the first time in the literature

The Concord Prison Experiment sought to discover if the potential of psilocybin to change personality could be used to reduce recidivism in a population of hardened criminals

But when Rick Doblin at MAPS meticulously reconstructed the Concord experiment decades later, reviewing the outcomes subject by subject, he concluded that Leary had exaggerated the data; in fact, there was no statistically significant difference in the rates of recidivism between the two groups.

Their unspoken model was the Eleusinian mysteries, in which the Greek elite gathered in secret to ingest the sacred kykeon and share a night of revelation

It’s often said that in the 1960s psychedelics “escaped from the laboratory,” but it would probably be more accurate to say they were thrown over the laboratory wall, and never with as much loft or velocity as by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert at the end of 1962

another explosive article in the Crimson got them both fired. This one was written by an undergraduate named Andrew Weil. Weil had arrived at Harvard with a keen interest in psychedelic drugs—he had devoured Huxley’s Doors of Perception in high school—and when he learned about the Psilocybin Project, he beat a path to Professor Leary’s office door to ask if he could participate.

But he wanted badly to be part of Leary and Alpert’s more exclusive club, so when in the fall of 1962 Weil began to hear about other undergraduates who had received drugs from Richard Alpert, he was indignant. He went to his editor at the Crimson and proposed an investigation.

This was not, suffice it to say, Andrew Weil’s proudest moment, and when I spoke to him about it recently, he confessed that he’s felt badly about the episode ever since and had sought to make amends to both Leary and Ram Dass. (Two years after his departure from Harvard, Alpert embarked on a spiritual journey to India and returned as Ram Dass.) Leary readily accepted Weil’s apology—the man was apparently incapable of holding a grudge—

but Ram Dass refused to talk to Weil for years, which pained him. But after Ram Dass suffered a stroke in 1997, Weil traveled to Hawaii to seek his forgiveness. Ram Dass finally relented, telling Weil that he had come to regard being fired from Harvard as a blessing. “If you hadn’t done what you did,” he told Weil, “I would never have become Ram Dass.”

As Ram Dass, and the author of the 1971 classic Be Here Now, he would put his own lasting mark on American culture, having blazed one of the main trails by which Eastern religion found its way into the counterculture and then the so-called New Age.

Andrew Weil, who as a young doctor volunteered in the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic in 1968, saw a lot of bad trips and eventually developed an effective way to “treat” them. “I would examine the patient, determine it was a panic reaction, and then tell him or her, ‘Will you excuse me for a moment? There’s someone in the next room who has a serious problem.’ They would immediately begin to feel much better.”


I have in mind a specific subset of that world, populated by perhaps

a couple hundred “guides,” or therapists, working with a variety of psychedelic substances in a carefully prescribed manner, with the intention of healing the ill or bettering the well by helping them fulfill their spiritual, creative, or emotional potential

Many of these guides are credentialed therapists, so by doing this work they are risking not only their freedom but also their professional licenses

Some are religious professionals—rabbis and ministers of various denominations; a few call themselves shamans; one described himself as a druid

a shaggy reunion of that whole 1970s class of alternative “modalities” that usually get lumped together under the rubric of the “human potential movement” and that has as its world headquarters Esalen

Zeff also left a posthumous (and anonymous) account of his work, in the form of a 1997 book called The Secret Chief, a series of interviews with a therapist called Jacob conducted by his close friend Myron Stolaroff. (In 2004, Zeff’s family gave Stolaroff permission to disclose his identity and republish the book as The Secret Chief Revealed.)

The guide had asked him to bring along an object of personal significance, so Zeff brought his Torah

helped his patients break through their defenses, bringing buried layers of unconscious material to the surface, and achieve spiritual insights, often in a single session

During his long career, Zeff helped codify many of the protocols of underground therapy, setting forth the “agreements” guides typically make with their clients—regarding confidentiality (strict), sexual contact (forbidden), obedience to the therapist’s instructions during the session (absolute), and so on—and developing many of the ceremonial touches, such as having participants take the medicine from a cup: “a very important symbol of the transformation experience

For example, some prominent underground therapists have been recruited to help train a new cohort of psychedelic guides to work in university trials of psychedelic drugs. When the Hopkins team wanted to study the role of music in the guided psilocybin session, it reached out to several underground guides, surveying their musical practices.

James Fadiman came to the MAPS conference “on the science track,” to give a talk about the value of the guided entheogenic journey

Soon after the meeting in San Jose, a “wiki” appeared on the Internet—a collaborative website where individuals can share documents and together create new content. (Fadiman included the URL in his 2011 book, The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide.)

There’s also a link to a thoughtful “Code of Ethics for Spiritual Guides,” which acknowledges the psychological and physical risks of journeying and emphasizes the guide’s ultimate responsibility for the well-being of the client

Perhaps the most useful document on the website is the “Guidelines for Voyagers and Guides”

I found a small shrine populated with spiritual artifacts from a bewildering variety of traditions: a Buddha, a crystal, a crow’s wing, a brass bowl for burning incense, a branch of sage. At the back of the shrine stood two framed photographs, one of a Hindu guru I didn’t recognize and the other of a Mexican curandera I did: María Sabina.

clients were often asked to contribute an item of personal significance before embarking on their journeys. What I was tempted to dismiss as a smorgasbord of equal-opportunity New Age tchotchkes, I would eventually come to regard more sympathetically, as the material expression of the syncretism prevalent in the psychedelic community.

the first New Age graduate school”—the California Institute of Integral Studies. Founded in 1968, the institute specializes in “transpersonal psychology,” a school of therapy with a strong spiritual orientation rooted in the work of Carl Jung and Abraham Maslow as well as the “wisdom traditions” of the East and the West, including Native American healing and South American shamanism. Stanislav Grof, a pioneer of both transpersonal and psychedelic therapy, has been on the faculty for many years

In 2016, the institute began offering the nation’s first certificate program in psychedelic therapy.

vocation. “I help people find out who they are so they can live their lives fully.

You need a strong ego in order to let go of it and then be able to spring back to your boundaries.

The biggest fears that come up are the fear of death and the fear of madness. But the only thing to do is surrender. So surrender!

He was not overly concerned about the psychedelics—most of them concentrate their effects in the mind with remarkably little impact on the cardiovascular system—but one of the drugs I mentioned he advised I avoid. This was MDMA, also known as Ecstasy or Molly, which has been on schedule 1 since the mid-1980s, when it emerged as a popular rave drug.

MDMA lowers psychological defenses and helps to swiftly build a bond between patient and therapist

Guides told me MDMA was a good way to “break the ice” and establish trust before the psychedelic journey.

Wilhelm Reich, “my hero.” Along the way, he discovered that LSD was a powerful tool for exploring the depths of his own psyche, allowing him to reexperience and then let go of the anger and depression that hobbled him as a young man. “There was more light in my life after that. Something shifted.”


These medicines have shown me that something quote-unquote impossible exists. But I don’t think it’s magic or supernatural. It’s a technology of consciousness we don’t understand yet.”

For some people, the privilege of having had a mystical experience tends to massively inflate the ego, convincing them they’ve been granted sole possession of a key to the universe. This is an excellent recipe for creating a guru. The certitude and condescension for mere mortals that usually come with that key can render these people insufferable. But that wasn’t Fritz. To the contrary. His otherworldly experiences had humbled him, opening him up to possibilities and mysteries without closing him to skepticism—or to the pleasures of everyday life on this earth

he met Stan Grof at a breathwork course at Esalen

Grof was ostensibly teaching holotropic breathwork, the non-pharmacological modality he had developed after psychedelics were made illegal

he put on some music, something generically tribal and rhythmic, dominated by the pounding of a drum

to go with a modest dose—a hundred micrograms, with “a booster” after an hour or two if I wanted one

It’s like when you see a mountain lion,” he suggested. “If you run, it will chase you. So you must stand your ground.” I was reminded of the “flight instructions” that the guides employed at Johns Hopkins: instead of turning away from any monster that appears, move toward it, stand your ground, and demand to know, “What are you doing in my mind? What do you have to teach me?”

I was now joining, the lineage of all the tribes and peoples down through time and around the world who used such medicines in their rites of initiation

Yet I still had agency: I could change at will the contents of my thoughts, but in this dreamy state, so wide open to suggestion, I was happy to let the terrain, and the music, dictate my path.

I got absorbed watching a white tracery of mycelium threading among the roots and linking the trees in a network intricate beyond comprehension. I knew all about this mycelial network, how it forms a kind of arboreal Internet allowing the trees in a forest to exchange information, but now what had been merely an intellectual conceit was a vivid, felt reality of which I had become a part.

Love is everything.

No—you must not have heard me: it’s everything!

For what after all is the sense of banality, or the ironic perspective, if not two of the sturdier defenses the adult ego deploys to keep from being overwhelmed—by our emotions, certainly, but perhaps also by our senses, which are liable at any time to astonish us with news of the sheer wonder of the world. If we are ever to get through the day, we need to put most of what we perceive into boxes neatly labeled “Known,” to be quickly shelved with little thought to the marvels therein, and “Novel,” to which, understandably, we pay more attention, at least until it isn’t that anymore. A psychedelic is liable to take all the boxes off the shelf, open and remove even the most familiar items, turning them over and imaginatively scrubbing them until they shine once again with the light of first sight

I never achieved a transcendent, “non-dual” or “mystical-like” experience, and as I recapped the journey with Fritz the following morning, I registered a certain disappointment. But the novel plane of consciousness I’d spent a few hours wandering on had been interesting and pleasurable and, I think, useful to me. I would have to see if its effects endured, but it felt as though the experience had opened me up in unexpected ways.

It reminded me of the pleasantly bizarre mental space that sometimes opens up at night in bed when we’re poised between the states of being awake and falling asleep—so-called hypnagogic consciousness.

For the moment that interfering neurotic who, in waking hours, tries to run the show, was blessedly out of the way,” as Aldous Huxley put it in The Doors of Perception

The notion of a few years of psychotherapy condensed into several hours seemed about right

she recited a long and elaborate Native American prayer. She invoked in turn the power of each of the cardinal directions, the four elements, and the animal, plant, and mineral realms, the spirits of which she implored to help guide me on my journey.

an amethyst in the shape of a heart, a purple crystal holding a candle, little cups

filled with water, a bowl holding a few rectangles of dark chocolate, the two “sacred items” she had asked me to bring (a bronze Buddha a close friend had brought back from a trip to the East; the psilocybin coin Roland Griffiths had given me at our first meeting)

a fragrant South American wood that Indians burn ceremonially, and the jet-black wing of a crow

I was God and God was me

The reawakening of her spiritual life led her onto the path of Tibetan Buddhism and eventually to take the vow of an initiate: “‘To assist all sentient beings in their awakening and their enlightenment.’ Which is still my vocation.”

two grams. Mary planned to offer me another two grams along the way, for a total of four. This would roughly approximate the dose being given to volunteers in the NYU and Hopkins trials and was equivalent to roughly three hundred micrograms of LSD—twice as much as I had taken with Fritz.

Called the Mindfold Relaxation Mask, Mary told me, it had been expressly designed for this purpose by Alex Grey, the psychedelic artist.

sound begat space

Relax and float downstream

I saw she had turned into María Sabina, the Mexican curandera who had given psilocybin to R. Gordon Wasson in that dirt basement in Huautla de Jiménez sixty years ago

Later, when I did, she was flattered: María Sabina was her hero.

By adulthood, the mind has gotten very good at observing and testing reality and developing confident predictions about it that optimize our investments of energy (mental and otherwise) and therefore our survival. So rather than starting from scratch to build a new perception from every batch of raw data delivered by the senses, the mind jumps to the most sensible conclusion based on past experience combined with a tiny sample of that data. Our brains are prediction machines optimized by experience, and when it comes to faces, they have boatloads of experience: faces are always convex, so this hollow mask must be a prediction error to be corrected.

There was life after the death of the ego. This was big news.

When I think back on this part of the experience, I’ve occasionally wondered if this enduring awareness might have been the “Mind at Large” that Aldous Huxley described during his mescaline trip in 1953. Huxley never quite defined what he meant by the term—except to speak of “the totality of the awareness belonging to Mind at Large”—but he seems to be describing a universal, shareable form of consciousness unbounded by any single brain. Others have called it cosmic consciousness, the Oversoul, or Universal Mind

Could it be there is another ground on which to plant our feet? For the first time since embarking on this project, I began to understand what the volunteers in the cancer-anxiety trials had been trying to tell me: how it was that a psychedelic journey had granted them a perspective from which the very worst life can throw at us, up to and including death, could be regarded objectively and accepted with equanimity.

Bleached skulls and bones and the faces of the familiar dead passed before me, aunts and uncles and grandparents, friends and teachers and my father-in-law—with a voice telling me I had failed to properly mourn all of them. It was true. I had never really reckoned the death of anyone in my life; something had always gotten in the way. I could do it here and now and did.

We settled on the second of Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites, performed by Yo-Yo Ma

The suite in D minor is a spare and mournful piece that I’d heard many times before, often at funerals, but until this moment I had never truly listened to it.

Never before has a piece of music pierced me as deeply as this one did now. Though even to call it “music” is to diminish what now began to flow, which was nothing less than the stream of human consciousness, something in which one might glean the very meaning of life and, if you could bear it, read life’s last chapter. (A question formed: Why don’t we play music like this at births as well as funerals? And the answer came immediately: there is too much life-already-lived in this piece, and poignancy for the passing of time that no birth, no beginning, could possibly withstand it.)

Four hours and four grams of magic mushroom into the journey, this is where I lost whatever ability I still had to distinguish subject from object, tell apart what remained of me and what was Bach’s music. Instead of Emerson’s transparent eyeball, egoless and one with all it beheld, I became a transparent ear, indistinguishable from the stream of sound that flooded my consciousness until there was nothing else in it, not even a dry tiny corner in which to plant an I and observe

minutes it took for that piece to, well, change everything. Or so it seemed; now, its vibrations subsiding, I’m less certain. But for the duration of those exquisite moments, Bach’s cello suite had had the unmistakable effect of reconciling me to death—to the deaths of the people now present to me, Bob’s and Ruthellen’s and Roy’s, Judith’s father’s, and so many others, but also to the deaths to come and to my own, no longer so far off. Losing myself in this music was a kind of practice for that—for losing myself, period. Having let go of the rope of self and slipped into the warm waters of this worldly beauty—Bach’s sublime music, I mean, and Yo-Yo Ma’s bow caressing those four strings suspended over that envelope of air—I felt as though I’d passed beyond the reach of suffering and regret.

what had I learned? That I had had no reason to be afraid: no sleeping monsters had awakened in my unconscious and turned on me. This was a deep fear that went back several decades, to a

terrifying moment in a hotel room in Seattle when, alone and having smoked too much cannabis, I had had to marshal every last ounce of will to keep myself from doing something deeply crazy and irrevocable

Temporarily freed from the tyranny of the ego, with its maddeningly reflexive reactions and its pinched conception of one’s self-interest, we get to experience an extreme version of Keats’s “negative capability”—the ability to exist amid doubts and mysteries without reflexively reaching for certainty. To cultivate this mode of consciousness, with its exceptional degree of selflessness (literally!), requires us to transcend our subjectivity or—it comes to the same thing—widen its circle so far that it takes in, besides ourselves, other people and, beyond that, all of nature. Now I understood how a psychedelic could help us to make precisely that move, from the first-person singular to the plural and beyond. Under its influence, a sense of our interconnectedness—that platitude—is felt, becomes flesh. Though this perspective is not something a chemical can sustain for more than a few hours, those hours can give us an opportunity to see how it might go. And perhaps to practice being there.

That’s when Andrew Weil and Wade Davis published a paper called “Identity of a New World Psychoactive Toad

I had the feeling—no, the knowledge—that every single thing there is is made of love.

There are children to raise. And there is an infinite amount of time to be dead.’”

How can you be sure this was a genuine spiritual event and not just a drug experience?” “It’s an irrelevant question,” she replied coolly. “This was something being revealed to me.”

I felt for the first time gratitude for the very fact of being, that there is anything whatsoever

Not sure exactly where to begin, I realized it might be useful to measure my experiences against those of the volunteers in the Hopkins and NYU studies. I decided to fill out one of the Mystical Experience Questionnaires (MEQs)* that the scientists had their subjects complete, hoping to learn if mine qualified.

The MEQ asked me to rank a list of thirty mental phenomena—thoughts, images, and sensations that psychologists and philosophers regard as typical of a mystical experience. (The questionnaire draws on the work of William James, W. T. Stace, and Walter Pahnke.)

I concluded that the MEQ was a poor net for capturing my encounter with the toad. The result was psychological bycatch, I decided, and should probably be tossed out.

Reflecting just on the cello interlude, for example, I could easily confirm the “fusion of [my] personal self into a larger whole,” as well as the “feeling that [I] experienced something profoundly sacred and holy” and “of being at a spiritual height” and even the “experience of unity with ultimate reality

My psilocybin journey with Mary yielded a sixty-six on the Mystical Experience Questionnaire. For some reason, I felt stupidly proud of my score. (There I was again, doing being.

Yet I think it would be wrong to discard the mystical, if only because so much work has been done by so many great minds—over literally thousands of years—to find the words for this extraordinary human experience and make sense of it. When we read the testimony of these minds, we find a striking commonality in their descriptions, even if we civilians can’t quite understand what in the world (or out of it) they’re talking about.

According to scholars of mysticism, these shared traits generally include a vision of unity in which all things, including the self, are subsumed (expressed in the phrase “All is one”); a sense of certainty about what one has perceived (“Knowledge has been revealed to me”); feelings of joy, blessedness, and satisfaction; a transcendence of the categories we rely on to organize the world, such as time and space or self and other; a sense that whatever has been apprehended is somehow sacred (Wordsworth: “Something far more deeply interfused” with meaning) and often paradoxical (so while the self may vanish, awareness abides). Last is the conviction that the experience is ineffable, even as thousands of words are expended in the attempt to communicate its power. (Guilty.)

Likewise, certain mystical passages from literature that once seemed so overstated and abstract that I read them indulgently (if at all), now I can read as a subspecies of journalism. Here are three nineteenth-century examples, but you can find them in any century. Ralph Waldo Emerson crossing a wintry New England commons in “Nature”: Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. Or Walt Whitman, in the early lines of the first (much briefer and more mystical) edition of Leaves of Grass: Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and joy and knowledge that pass all the art and argument of the earth; And I know that the hand of God is the elderhand of my own, And I know that the spirit of God is the eldest brother of my own, And that all the men ever born are also my brothers . . . and the women my sisters and lovers, And that a kelson* of the creation is love. And here is Alfred, Lord Tennyson, describing in a letter the “waking trance” that descended upon him from time to time since his boyhood: All at once, as it were out of the intensity of the consciousness of individuality, the individuality itself seemed to dissolve and fade into boundless being; and this was not a confused state, but the clearest of the clearest, the surest of the surest; utterly beyond words, where death was an almost laughable impossibility; the loss of personality (if so it were) seeming no extinction, but the only true life.

But I have no problem using the word “spiritual” to describe elements of what I saw and felt, as long as it is not taken in a supernatural sense. For me, “spiritual” is a good name for some of the powerful mental phenomena that arise when the voice of the ego is muted or silenced.

The journeys have shown me what the Buddhists try to tell us but I have never really understood: that there is much more to consciousness than the ego, as we would see if it would just shut up.

When Huxley speaks of the mind’s “reducing valve”—the faculty that eliminates as much of the world from our conscious awareness as it lets in—he is talking about the ego. That stingy, vigilant security guard admits only the narrowest bandwidth of reality, “a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive.”

In the words of R. M. Bucke, a nineteenth-century Canadian psychiatrist and mystic, “I saw that the universe is not composed of dead matter, but is, on the contrary, a living Presence.”) “Ecology” and “coevolution” are scientific names for the same phenomena: every species a subject acting on other subjects

So perhaps spiritual experience is simply what happens in the space that opens up in the mind when “all mean egotism vanishes.” Wonders (and terrors) we’re ordinarily defended against flow into our awareness; the far ends of the sensory spectrum, which are normally invisible to us, our senses can suddenly admit. While the ego sleeps, the mind plays, proposing unexpected patterns of thought and new rays of relation. The gulf between self and world, that no-man’s-land which in ordinary hours the ego so vigilantly patrols, closes down, allowing us to feel less separate and more connected, “part and particle” of some larger entity. Whether we call that entity Nature, the Mind at Large, or God hardly matters. But it seems to be in the crucible of that merging that death loses some of its sting.


All three molecules are tryptamines. A tryptamine is a type of organic compound (an indole, to be exact) distinguished by the presence of two linked rings, one of them with six atoms and the other with five

The group of tryptamines we call “the classical psychedelics” have a strong affinity with one particular type of serotonin receptor, called the 5-HT2A. These receptors are found in large numbers in the human cortex, the outermost, and evolutionarily most recent, layer of the brain. Basically, the psychedelics resemble serotonin closely enough that they can attach themselves to this receptor site in such a way as to activate it to do various things.

This has led some scientists to speculate that the human body must produce some other, more bespoke chemical for the express purpose of activating the 5-HT2A receptor—perhaps an endogenous psychedelic that is released under certain circumstances, perhaps when dreaming

One candidate for that chemical is the psychedelic molecule DMT,

SSRI antidepressants

He did this by giving subjects a drug called ketanserin that blocks the receptor; when he then administered psilocybin, nothing happened.

To the dissolution of my ego, for example, and the collapse of any distinction between subject and object? Or to the morphing in my mind’s eye of Mary into María Sabina?

All these questions concern the contents of consciousness

What neuroscientists and philosophers and psychologists mean by consciousness is the unmistakable sense we have that we are, or possess, a self that has experiences.

How do you explain mind—the subjective quality of experience—in terms of meat, that is, in terms of the physical structures or chemistry of the brain?

Some scientists have raised the possibility that consciousness may pervade the universe, suggesting we think of it the same way we do electromagnetism or gravity, as one of the fundamental building blocks of reality.

A psychedelic drug is powerful enough to disrupt the system we call normal waking consciousness in ways that may force some of its fundamental properties into view.

In contrast, someone on a psychedelic remains awake and able to report on what he or she is experiencing in real time.

links between our brains and our minds.

neuroscientist named Robin Carhart-Harris has been working since 2009 to identify the “neural correlates,” or physical counterparts, of the psychedelic experience. By injecting volunteers with LSD and psilocybin and then using a variety of scanning technologies—including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and magnetoencephalography (MEG)

His professor sent him to read a book called Realms of the Human Unconscious by Stanislav Grof.

he would use psychedelic drugs and modern brain-imaging technologies to build a foundation of hard science beneath the edifice of psychoanalysis. “Freud said dreams were the royal road to the unconscious,” he reminded me. “Psychedelics could turn out to be the superhighway

LSD, Feilding believes, enhances cognitive function and facilitates higher states of consciousness by increasing cerebral circulation. A second way to achieve a similar result is by means of the ancient practice of trepanation. This deserves a brief digression.

Trepanation involves drilling a shallow hole in the skull supposedly to improve cerebral blood circulation; in effect, it reverses the fusing of the cranial bones that happens in childhood

she trepanned herself in 1970, boring a small hole in the middle of her forehead with an electric drill. (She documented the procedure in a short but horrifying film called Heartbeat in the Brain.)

potential of psychedelics to improve brain function

But because frequent use of LSD can lead to tolerance, it’s entirely possible that for some people 150 micrograms merely “adds a certain sparkle to consciousness.”)

He had concluded from his research, and would tell anyone who asked, that alcohol was more dangerous than cannabis and that using Ecstasy was safer than riding a horse.

injection of psilocybin and then slide into an fMRI scanner to have his tripping brain imaged.

Carhart-Harris’s working hypothesis was that their brains would exhibit increases in activity, particularly in the emotion centers. “I thought it would look like the dreaming brain

Carhart-Harris got a surprise: “We were seeing decreases in blood flow”—blood flow being one of the proxies for brain activity that fMRI measures.

Carhart-Harris and his colleagues had discovered that psilocybin reduces brain activity, with the falloff concentrated in one particular brain network that at the time he knew little about: the default mode network.

Carhart-Harris began reading up on it. The default mode network, or DMN, was not known to brain science until 2001. That was when Marcus Raichle, a neurologist at Washington University, described it in a landmark paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, or PNAS. The network forms a critical and centrally located hub of brain activity that links parts of the cerebral cortex to deeper (and older) structures involved in memory and emotion.*

Raichle had discovered the place where our minds go to wander—to daydream, ruminate, travel in time, reflect on ourselves, and worry. It may be through these very structures that the stream of our consciousness flows.

The default network stands in a kind of seesaw relationship with the attentional networks that wake up whenever the outside world demands our attention; when one is active, the other goes quiet, and vice versa

the default mode is most active when we are engaged in higher-level “metacognitive” processes such as self-reflection, mental time travel, mental constructions (such as the self or ego), moral reasoning, and “theory of mind”—the ability to attribute mental states to others, as when we try to imagine “what it is like” to be someone else

As a whole, the default mode network exerts a top-down influence on other parts of the brain, many of which communicate with one another through its centrally located hub. Robin has described the DMN variously as the brain’s “orchestra conductor,” “corporate executive,” or “capital city,” charged with managing and “holding the whole system together.” And with keeping the brain’s unrulier tendencies in check.

of competing signals from one system do not interfere with those from another.

As mentioned, the default mode network appears to play a role in the creation of mental constructs or projections, the most important of which is the construct we call the self, or ego.

Self-reflection can lead to great intellectual and artistic achievement but also to destructive forms of self-regard and many types of unhappiness. (In an often-cited paper titled “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind,” psychologists identified a strong correlation between unhappiness and time spent in mind wandering, a principal activity of the default mode network.)

“ego dissolution.”

Shortly after Carhart-Harris published his results in a 2012 paper in PNAS (“Neural Correlates of the Psychedelic State as Determined by fMRI Studies with Psilocybin”), Judson Brewer, a researcher at Yale who was using fMRI to study the brains of experienced meditators, noticed that his scans and Robin’s looked remarkably alike. The transcendence of self reported by expert meditators showed up on fMRIs as a quieting of the default mode network. It appears that when activity in the default mode network falls off precipitously, the ego temporarily vanishes, and the usual boundaries we experience between self and world, subject and object, all melt away.

This sense of merging into some larger totality is of course one of the hallmarks of the mystical experience; our sense of individuality and separateness hinges on a bounded self and a clear demarcation between subject and object. But all that may be a mental construction, a kind of illusion—just as the Buddhists have been trying to tell us. The psychedelic experience of “non-duality” suggests that consciousness survives the disappearance of the self, that it is not so indispensable as we—and it—like to think. Carhart-Harris suspects that the loss of a clear distinction between subject and object might help explain another feature of the mystical experience: the fact that the insights it sponsors are felt to be objectively true—revealed truths rather than plain old insights.

The mystical experience may just be what it feels like when you deactivate the brain’s default mode network. This can be achieved any number of ways: through psychedelics and meditation, as Robin Carhart-Harris and Judson Brewer have demonstrated, but perhaps also by means of certain breathing exercises (like holotropic breathwork), sensory deprivation, fasting, prayer, overwhelming experiences of awe, extreme sports, near-death experiences, and so on.

IF THE DEFAULT MODE network is the conductor of the symphony of brain activity, you would expect its temporary absence from the stage to lead to an increase in dissonance and mental disorder—as indeed appears to happen during the psychedelic journey

Taken as a whole, the default mode network exerts an inhibitory influence on other parts of the brain, notably including the limbic regions involved in emotion and memory, in much the same way Freud conceived of the ego keeping the anarchic forces of the unconscious id in check.

Carhart-Harris hypothesizes that these and other centers of mental activity are “let off the leash” when the default mode leaves the stage, and in fact brain scans show an increase in activity (as reflected by increases in blood flow and oxygen consumption) in several other brain regions, including the limbic regions, under the influence of psychedelics. This disinhibition might explain why material that is unavailable to us during normal waking consciousness now floats to the surface of our awareness, including emotions and memories and, sometimes, long-buried childhood traumas. It is for this reason that some scientists and psychotherapists believe psychedelics can be profitably used to surface and explore the contents of the unconscious mind.

But the default mode network doesn’t only exert top-down control over material arising from within; it also helps regulate what is let into consciousness from the world outside. It operates as a kind of filter (or “reducing valve”) charged with admitting only that “measly trickle” of information required for us to get through the day. If not for the brain’s filtering mechanisms, the torrent of information the senses make available to our brains at any given moment might prove difficult to process—as indeed is sometimes the case during the psychedelic experience. “The question,” as David Nutt puts it, “is why the brain is ordinarily so constrained rather than so open?” The answer may be as simple as “efficiency.” Today most neuroscientists work under a paradigm of the brain as a prediction-making machine. To form a perception of something out in the world, the brain takes in as little sensory information as it needs to make an educated guess. We are forever cutting to the chase, basically, and leaping to conclusions, relying on prior experience to inform current perception.

At least when it is working normally, the brain, presented with a few visual clues suggesting it is looking at a face, insists on seeing the face as a convex structure even when it is not because that’s the way faces usually are.

“predictive coding”

The model suggests that our perceptions of the world offer us not a literal transcription of reality but rather a seamless illusion woven from both the data of our senses and the models in our memories.

a kind of controlled hallucination. This raises a question: How is normal waking consciousness any different from other, seemingly less faithful productions of our imagination—such as dreams or psychotic delusions or psychedelic trips? In fact, all these states of consciousness are “imagined”: they’re mental constructs that weave together some news of the world with priors of various kinds. But in the case of normal waking consciousness, the handshake between the data of our senses and our preconceptions is especially firm. That’s because it is subject to a continual process of reality testing, as when you reach out to confirm the existence of the object in your visual field or, upon waking from a nightmare, consult your memory to see if you really did show up to teach a class without any clothes on. Unlike these other states of consciousness, ordinary waking consciousness has been optimized by natural selection to best facilitate our everyday survival.

“If it were possible to temporarily experience another person’s mental state, my guess is that it would feel more like a psychedelic state than a ‘normal’ state, because of its massive disparity with
whatever mental state is habitual with you.”

You quickly realize there is no single reality out there waiting to be faithfully and comprehensively transcribed. Our senses have evolved for a much narrower purpose and take in only what serves our needs as animals of a particular kind. The bee perceives a substantially different spectrum of light than we do; to look at the world through its eyes is to perceive ultraviolet markings on the petals of flowers (evolved to guide their landings like runway lights) that don’t exist for us. That example is at least a kind of seeing—a sense we happen to share with bees. But how do we even begin to conceive of the sense that allows bees to register (through the hairs on their legs) the electromagnetic fields that plants produce? (A weak charge indicates another bee has recently visited the flower; depleted of nectar, it’s probably not worth a stop.) Then there is the world according to an octopus! Imagine how differently reality presents itself to a brain that has been so radically decentralized, its intelligence distributed across eight arms so that each of them can taste, touch, and even make its own “decisions” without consulting headquarters.

By adulthood, the brain has gotten very good at observing and testing reality and developing reliable predictions about it that optimize our investments of energy (mental and otherwise) and therefore our chances of survival. Uncertainty is a complex brain’s biggest challenge, and predictive coding evolved to help us reduce it.

The Entropic Brain: A Theory of Conscious States Informed by Neuroimaging Research with Psychedelic Drugs,” published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in 2014. Here, Carhart-Harris attempts to lay out his grand synthesis of psychoanalysis and cognitive brain science. The question at its heart is, do we pay a price for the achievement of order and selfhood in the adult human mind? The paper concludes that we do. While suppressing entropy (in this context, a synonym for uncertainty) in the brain “serves to promote realism, foresight, careful reflection and an ability to recognize and overcome wishful and paranoid fantasies,” at the same time this achievement tends to “constrain cognition” and exert “a limiting or narrowing influence on consciousness.”

Magical thinking is one way for human minds to reduce their uncertainty about the world, but it is less than optimal for the success of the species.

Better way to suppress uncertainty and entropy in the human brain emerged with the evolution of the default mode network, Carhart-Harris contends, a brain-regulating system that is absent or undeveloped in lower animals and young children. Along with the default mode network, “a coherent sense of self or ‘ego’ emerges” and, with that, the human capacity for self-reflection and reason. Magical thinking gives way to “a more reality-bound style of thinking, governed by the ego.” Borrowing from Freud, he calls this more highly evolved mode of cognition “secondary consciousness.” Secondary consciousness “pays deference to reality and diligently seeks to represent the world as precisely as possible” in order to minimize “surprise and uncertainty (i.e. entropy).”

The article offers an intriguing graphic depicting a “spectrum of cognitive states,” ranging from high-entropy mental states to low ones. At the high-entropy end of the spectrum, he lists psychedelic states; infant consciousness; early psychosis; magical thinking; and divergent or creative thinking. At the low-entropy end of the spectrum, he lists narrow or rigid thinking; addiction; obsessive-compulsive disorder; depression; anesthesia; and, finally, coma.

Carhart-Harris suggests that the psychological “disorders” at the low-entropy end of the spectrum are not the result of a lack of order in the brain but rather stem from an excess of order. When the grooves of self-reflective thinking deepen and harden, the ego becomes overbearing. This is perhaps most clearly evident in depression, when the ego turns on itself and uncontrollable introspection gradually shades out reality. Carhart-Harris cites research indicating that this debilitating state of mind (sometimes called heavy self-consciousness or depressive realism) may be the result of a hyperactive default mode network, which can trap us in repetitive and destructive loops of rumination that eventually close us off from the world outside. Huxley’s reducing valve contracts to zero. Carhart-Harris believes that people suffering from a whole range of disorders characterized by excessively rigid patterns of thought—including addiction, obsessions, and eating disorders as well as depression—stand to benefit from “the ability of psychedelics to disrupt stereotyped patterns of thought and behavior by disintegrating the patterns of [neural] activity upon which they rest.”

So it may be that some brains could stand to have a little more entropy, not less. This is where psychedelics come in. By quieting the default mode network, these compounds can loosen the ego’s grip on the machinery of the mind, “lubricating” cognition where before it had been rusted stuck. “Psychedelics alter consciousness by disorganizing brain activity,” Carhart-Harris writes. They increase the amount of entropy in the brain, with the result that the system reverts to a less constrained mode of cognition.*

It’s not just that one system drops away,” he says, “but that an older system reemerges.” That older system is primary consciousness, a mode of thinking in which the ego temporarily loses its dominion and the unconscious, now unregulated, “is brought into an observable space.” This, for Carhart-Harris, is the heuristic value of psychedelics to the study of the mind, though he sees therapeutic value as well.

It’s worth noting that Carhart-Harris does not romanticize psychedelics and has little patience for the sort of “magical thinking” and “metaphysics” that they nourish in their acolytes—such as the idea that consciousness is “transpersonal,” a property of the universe rather than the human brain. In his view, the forms of consciousness that psychedelics unleash are regressions to a “more primitive” mode of cognition. With Freud, he believes that the loss of self, and the sense of oneness, characteristic of the mystical experience—whether occasioned by chemistry or religion—return us to the psychological condition of the infant on its mother’s breast, a stage when it has yet to develop a sense of itself as a separate and bounded individual. For Carhart-Harris, the pinnacle of human development is the achievement of this differentiated self, or ego, and its imposition of order on the anarchy of a primitive mind buffeted by fears and wishes and given to various forms of magical thinking.

Too much entropy in the human brain may lead to atavistic thinking and, at the far end, madness, yet too little can cripple us as well. The grip of an overbearing ego can enforce a rigidity in our thinking that is psychologically destructive.

Was it that hippies gravitated to psychedelics, or do psychedelics create hippies

When the influence of the DMN declines, so does our sense of separateness from our environment.

“I am not separate from nature, but a part of nature”)

The various scanning technologies that the Imperial College lab has used to map the tripping brain show that the specialized neural networks of the brain—such as the default mode network and the visual processing system—each become disintegrated, while the brain as a whole becomes more integrated as new connections spring up among regions that ordinarily kept mainly to themselves or were linked only via the central hub of the DMN. Put another way, the various networks of the brain became less specialized.

Distinct networks became less distinct under the drug,” Carhart-Harris and his colleagues wrote, “implying that they communicate more openly,” with other brain networks. “The brain operates with greater flexibility and interconnectedness under hallucinogens.”

the usual lines of communications within the brain are radically reorganized when the default mode network goes off-line and the tide of entropy is allowed to rise.

But when the brain operates under the influence of psilocybin, as shown on the right, thousands of new connections form, linking far-flung brain regions that during normal waking consciousness don’t exchange much information. In effect, traffic is rerouted from a relatively small number of interstate highways onto myriad smaller roads linking a great many more destinations. The brain appears to become less specialized and more globally interconnected, with considerably more intercourse, or “cross talk,” among its various neighborhoods.

Likewise, the establishment of new linkages across brain systems can give rise to synesthesia, as when sense information gets cross-wired so that colors become sounds or sounds become tactile. Or the new links give rise to hallucination, as when the contents of my memory transformed my visual perception of Mary into María Sabina, or the image of my face in the mirror into a vision of my grandfather.

The increase in entropy allows a thousand mental states to bloom, many of them bizarre and senseless, but some number of them revelatory, imaginative, and, at least potentially, transformative.

If problem solving is anything like evolutionary adaptation, the more possibilities the mind has at its disposal, the more creative its solutions will be.

If, as so many artists and scientists have testified, the psychedelic experience is an aid to creativity—to thinking “outside the box”—this model might help explain why that is the case. Maybe the problem with “the box” is that it is singular.

Franz Vollenweider has suggested that the psychedelic experience may facilitate “neuroplasticity”: it opens a window in which patterns of thought and behavior become more plastic and so easier to change. His model sounds like a chemically mediated form of cognitive behavioral therapy. But so far this is all highly speculative; as yet there has been little mapping of the brain before and after psychedelics to determine what, if anything, the experience changes in a lasting way.

Carhart-Harris argues in the entropy paper that even a temporary rewiring of the brain is potentially valuable, especially for people suffering from disorders characterized by mental rigidity. A high-dose psychedelic experience has the power to “shake the snow globe,” he says, disrupting unhealthy patterns of thought and creating a space of flexibility—entropy—in which more salubrious patterns and narratives have an opportunity to coalesce as the snow slowly resettles.

entropy suggests the gradual deterioration of a hard-won order, the disintegration of a system over time. Certainly getting older feels like an entropic process—a gradual running down and disordering of the mind and body. But maybe that’s the wrong way to think about it. Robin Carhart-Harris’s paper got me wondering if, at least for the mind, aging is really a process of declining entropy, the fading over time of what we should regard as a positive attribute of mental life.

With experience and time, it gets easier to cut to the chase and leap to conclusions—clichés that imply a kind of agility but that in fact may signify precisely the opposite: a petrifaction of thought. Think of it as predictive coding on the scale of life; the priors—and by now I’ve got millions of them—usually have my back, can be relied on to give me a decent enough answer, even if it isn’t a particularly fresh or imaginative one. A flattering term for this regime of good enough predictions is “wisdom.”

Reading Robin’s paper helped me better understand what I was looking for when I decided to explore psychedelics: to give my own snow globe a vigorous shaking, see if I could renovate my everyday mental life by introducing a greater measure of entropy, and uncertainty, into it.

Judson Brewer, the neuroscientist who studies meditation, has found that a felt sense of expansion in consciousness correlates with a drop in activity in one particular node of the default mode network—the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), which is associated with self-referential processing

Baby consciousness is so different from adult consciousness as to constitute a mental country of its own, one from which we are expelled sometime early in adolescence. Is there a way back in?

Gopnik proposes we regard the mind of the young child as another kind of “altered state,” and in a number of respects it is a strikingly similar one.

“professor consciousness,”

Gopnik asks us to think about child consciousness in terms of not what’s missing from it or undeveloped but rather what is uniquely and wonderfully present—qualities that she believes psychedelics can help us to better appreciate and, possibly, reexperience.

In The Philosophical Baby, Gopnik draws a useful distinction between the “spotlight consciousness” of adults and the “lantern consciousness” of young children. The first mode gives adults the ability to narrowly focus attention on a goal. (In his own remarks, Carhart-Harris called this “ego consciousness” or “consciousness with a point.”) In the second mode—lantern consciousness—attention is more widely diffused, allowing the child to take in information from virtually anywhere in her field of awareness, which is quite wide, wider than that of most adults.

To borrow Judson Brewer’s terms, lantern consciousness is expansive, spotlight consciousness narrow, or contracted. The adult brain directs the spotlight of its attention where it will and then relies on predictive coding to make sense of what it perceives. This is not at all the child’s approach, Gopnik has discovered. Being inexperienced in the way of the world, the mind of the young child has comparatively few priors, or preconceptions, to guide her perceptions down the predictable tracks. Instead, the child approaches reality with the astonishment of an adult on psychedelics.

In teaching computers how to learn and solve problems, AI designers speak in terms of “high temperature” and “low temperature” searches for the answers to questions. A low-temperature search (so-called because it requires less energy) involves reaching for the most probable or nearest-to-hand answer, like the one that worked for a similar problem in the past. Low-temperature searches succeed more often than not. A high-temperature search requires more energy because it involves reaching for less likely but possibly more ingenious and creative answers—those found outside the box of preconception. Drawing on its wealth of experience, the adult mind performs low-temperature searches most of the time.

Gopnik believes that both the young child (five and under) and the adult on a psychedelic have a stronger predilection for the high-temperature search; in their quest to make sense of things, their minds explore not just the nearby and most likely but “the entire space of possibilities.”

High-temperature searches can yield answers that are more magical than realistic

Gopnik has tested this hypothesis on children in her lab and has found that there are learning problems that four-year-olds are better at solving than adults.

they’ll conduct lots of high-temperature searches, testing the most far-out hypotheses. “Children are better learners than adults in many cases when the solutions are nonobvious”

I think of childhood as the R&D stage of the species, concerned exclusively with learning and exploring. We adults are production and marketing.”

Children don’t invent these new tools, they don’t create the new environment, but in every generation they build the kind of brain that can best thrive in it. Childhood is the species’ ways of injecting noise into the system of cultural evolution.” “Noise,” of course, is in this context another word for “entropy.”

The child’s brain is extremely plastic, good for learning, not accomplishing”—better for “exploring rather than exploiting.” It also has a great many more neural connections than the adult brain.

But as we reach adolescence, most of those connections get pruned, so that the “human brain becomes a lean, mean acting machine.” A key element of that developmental process is the suppression of entropy, with all of its implications, both good and bad. The system cools, and hot searches become the exception rather than the rule. The default mode network comes online.

Consciousness narrows as we get older,” Gopnik says. “Adults have congealed in their beliefs and are hard to shift,” she has written, whereas “children are more fluid and consequently more willing to entertain new ideas.

“The short summary is, babies and children are basically tripping all the time.”

There are a range of difficulties and pathologies in adults, like depression, that are connected with the phenomenology of rumination and an excessively narrow, ego-based focus,” Gopnik says. “You get stuck on the same thing, you can’t escape, you become obsessive, perhaps addicted. It seems plausible to me that the psychedelic experience could help us get out of those states, create an opportunity in which the old stories of who we are might be rewritten.”


spiritual knickknacks—a large glazed ceramic mushroom, a Buddha, a crystal

psychedelics (usually psilocybin rather than LSD, because, as Ross explained, it “carries none of the political baggage of those three letters”) could be used to lift depression and break addictions—to alcohol, cocaine, and tobacco.

Charles Grob, the UCLA psychiatrist whose 2011 pilot study of psilocybin for cancer anxiety cleared the path for the NYU and Hopkins trials, acknowledges that “in a lot of ways we are simply picking up the torch from earlier generations of researchers who had to put it down because of cultural pressures.

To cite one obvious example, conventional drug trials of psychedelics are difficult if not impossible to blind: most participants can tell whether they’ve received psilocybin or a placebo, and so can their guides. Also, in testing these drugs, how can researchers hope to tease out the chemical’s effect from the critical influence of set and setting? Western science and modern drug testing depend on the ability to isolate a single variable, but it isn’t clear that the effects of a psychedelic drug can ever be isolated, whether from the context in which it is administered, the presence of the therapists involved, or the volunteer’s expectations. Any of these factors can muddy the waters of causality.

Charles Grob well appreciates the challenge but is also refreshingly unapologetic about it: he describes psychedelic therapy as a form of “applied mysticism”

We must also pay heed to the examples provided us by such successful applications of the shamanic paradigm.” Under that paradigm, the shaman/therapist carefully orchestrates “extrapharmacological variables” such as set and setting in order to put the “hyper-suggestible properties” of these medicines to best use. This is precisely where psychedelic therapy seems to be operating: on a frontier between spirituality and science that is as provocative as it is uncomfortable.

Pharmaceutical companies are no longer investing in the development of so-called CNS drugs—medicines targeted at the central nervous system

yet only about half of the people who take their lives have ever received mental health treatment.

People were journeying to early parts of their lives and coming back with a profound new sense of things, new priorities

“existential distress.” Existential distress is what psychologists call the complex of depression, anxiety, and fear common in people confronting a terminal diagnosis

“flight instructions” written by the Hopkins researcher Bill Richards.

Bossis suggested that Patrick use the phrase “Trust and let go” as a kind of mantra for his journey. Go wherever it takes you, he advised: “Climb staircases, open doors, explore paths, fly over

offered is always to move toward, rather than try to flee, anything truly threatening or monstrous you encounter—look it straight in the eyes. “Dig in your heels and ask, ‘What are you doing in my mind?’ Or, ‘What can I learn from you?’”

In 1965, Sidney Cohen wrote an essay for Harper’s (“LSD and the Anguish of Dying”) exploring the potential of psychedelics to “alter[] the experience of dying

Cohen wrote, “but we live and die imprisoned within ourselves.”

The idea was to use psychedelics to escape the prison of self. “We wanted to provide a brief, lucid interval of complete egolessness to demonstrate that personal intactness was not absolutely necessary, and that perhaps there was something ‘out there’”—something greater than our individual selves that might survive our demise

In 1972, Stanislav Grof and Bill Richards, who were working together at Spring Grove, wrote that LSD gave patients an experience “of cosmic unity” such that death, “instead of being seen as the absolute end of everything and a step into nothingness, appears suddenly as a transition into another type of existence . . . The idea of possible continuity of consciousness beyond physical death becomes much more plausible than the opposite.”

Patrick was asked to state his intention, which he said was to learn to cope better with the anxiety and depression he felt about his cancer and to work on what he called his “regret in life.” He placed a few photographs around the room, of himself and Lisa on their wedding day and of their dog, Arlo.

Their promise is that if you surrender to whatever happens (“trust, let go, and be open” or “relax and float downstream”), whatever at first might seem terrifying will soon morph into something else, and likely something pleasant, even blissful.

“Birth and death is a lot of work,”

I mentioned that everyone deserved to have this experience . . . that if everyone did, no one could ever do harm to another again . . . wars would be impossible to wage.

From here on, love was the only consideration . . . It was and is the only purpose. Love seemed to emanate from a single point of light . . . and it vibrated . . . I could feel my physical body trying to vibrate in unity with the cosmos . . . and, frustratingly, I felt like a guy who couldn’t dance . . . but the universe accepted it. The sheer joy . . . the bliss . . . the nirvana . . . was indescribable.

Aloud, he said, “Never had an orgasm of the soul before.” The music loomed large in the experience: “I was learning a song and the song was simple . . . it was one note . . . C . . . it was the vibration of the universe . . . a collection of everything that ever existed . . . all together equaling God.”

Patrick then described an epiphany having to do with simplicity. He was thinking about politics and food, music and architecture, and—his field—television news, which he realized was, like so much else, “over-produced. We put too many notes in a song . . . too many ingredients in our recipes . . . too many flourishes in the clothes we wear, the houses we live in . . . it all seemed so pointless when really all we needed to do was focus on the love.”

“I was being told (without words) not to worry about the cancer . . . it’s minor in the scheme of things . . . simply an imperfection of your humanity and that the more important matter . . . the real work to be done is before you. Again, love.”

He told her he “had touched the face of God.”

EVERY PSYCHEDELIC JOURNEY is different, yet a few common themes seem to recur in the journeys of those struggling with cancer. Many of the cancer patients I interviewed described an experience of either giving birth or being reborn, though none quite as intense as Patrick’s. Many also described an encounter with their cancer (or their fear of it) that had the effect of shrinking its power over them.

Now I am aware that there is a whole other ‘reality,’” one NYU volunteer told a researcher a few months after her journey. “Compared to other people, it is like I know another language.”

Bossis’s notes indicate that Patrick interpreted his journey as “pretty clearly a window . . . [on] a kind of afterlife, something beyond this physical body.” He spoke of “the plane of existence of love” as “infinite.”

He was meditating regularly, felt he had become better able to live in the present, and “described loving [his] wife even more.”

Bill Richards cited William James, who suggested we judge the mystical experience not by its veracity, which is unknowable, but by “its fruits”: Does it turn someone’s life in a positive direction?

David Nichols said, “If it gives them peace, if it helps people to die peacefully with their friends and their family at their side, I don’t care if it’s real or an illusion.”

In both the NYU and the Hopkins trials, some 80 percent of cancer patients showed clinically significant reductions in standard measures of anxiety and depression, an effect that endured for at least six months after their psilocybin session.

The dissolution of the sense of self, for example, can be understood in either psychological or neurobiological terms (as possibly the disintegration of the default mode network) and may explain many of the benefits people experienced during their journeys without resort to any spiritual conception of “oneness.” Likewise, the sense of “sacredness” that classically accompanies the mystical experience can be understood in more secular terms as simply a heightened sense of meaning or purpose.

A few key themes emerged. All of the patients interviewed described powerful feelings of connection to loved ones (“relational embeddedness” is the term the authors used) and, more generally, a shift “from feelings of separateness to interconnectedness.” In most cases, this shift was accompanied by a repertoire of powerful emotions, including “exalted feelings of joy, bliss, and love.” Difficult passages during the journey were typically followed by positive feelings of surrender and acceptance (even of their cancers) as people’s fears fell away.

Jeffrey Guss, a coauthor on the paper and a psychiatrist, interprets what happens during the session in terms of the psilocybin’s “egolytic” effects—the drug’s ability to either silence or at least muffle the voice of the ego. In his view, which is informed by his psychoanalytic training, the ego is a mental construct that performs certain functions on behalf of the self. Chief among these are maintaining the boundary between the conscious and the unconscious realms of the mind and the

Existential distress at the end of life bears many of the hallmarks of a hyperactive default network, including obsessive self-reflection and an inability to jump the deepening grooves of negative thinking. The ego, faced with the prospect of its own extinction, turns inward and becomes hypervigilant, withdrawing its investment in the world and other people. The cancer patients I interviewed spoke of feeling closed off from loved ones, from the world, and from the full range of emotions; they felt, as one put it, “existentially alone.”

By temporarily disabling the ego, psilocybin seems to open a new field of psychological possibility, symbolized by the death and rebirth reported by many of the patients I interviewed. At first, the falling away of the self feels threatening, but if one can let go and surrender, powerful and usually positive emotions flow in—along with formerly inaccessible memories and sense impressions and meanings. No longer defended by the ego, the gate between self and other—Huxley’s reducing valve—is thrown wide open. And what comes through that opening for many people, in a great flood, is love. Love for specific individuals, yes, but also, as Patrick Mettes came to feel (to know!), love for everyone and everything—love as the meaning and purpose of life, the key to the universe, and the ultimate truth.

So it may be that the loss of self leads to a gain in meaning

In preparing volunteers for their journeys, Jeffrey Guss speaks explicitly about the acquisition of meaning, telling his patients “that the medicine will show you hidden or unknown shadow parts of yourself; that you will gain insight into yourself, and come to learn about the meaning of life and existence.” (He also tells them they may have a mystical or transcendent experience but carefully refrains from defining it.) “As a result of this molecule being in your body, you’ll understand more about yourself and life and the universe.” And more often than not this happens. Replace the science-y word “molecule” with “sacred mushroom” or “plant teacher,” and you have the incantations of a shaman at the start of a ceremonial healing.

But however it works, and whatever vocabulary we use to explain it, this seems to me the great gift of the psychedelic journey, especially to the dying: its power to imbue everything in our field of experience with a heightened sense of purpose and consequence.

He had a very conscious death.”

a mystical experience, specifically a savikalpa samadhi, in which the ego vanishes when confronted with the immensity of the universe during the course of a meditation on an object—in this case, planet Earth.

Smoking became irrelevant, so I stopped.”

Six months after their psychedelic sessions, 80 percent of the volunteers were confirmed as abstinent; at the one-year mark, that figure had fallen to 67 percent, which is still a better rate of success than the best treatment now available. (A much larger randomized study, comparing the effectiveness of psilocybin therapy with the nicotine patch, is currently under way.) As in the cancer-anxiety studies, the volunteers who had the most complete mystical experiences had the best outcomes; they were, like Charles Bessant, able to quit smoking.

Right now, I’m standing here in my garden, and the light is coming through the canopy of leaves. For me to be able to stand here in the beauty of this light, talking to you, it’s only because my eyes are open to see it. If you don’t stop to look, you’ll never see it. It’s the statement of an obvious thing, I know, but to feel it, to look and be amazed by this light” is a gift he attributes to his session, which gave him “a feeling of connectedness to everything.”

Johnson believes the value of psilocybin for the addict is in the new perspective—at once obvious and profound—that it opens onto one’s life and its habits. “Addiction is a story we get stuck in, a story that gets reinforced every time we try and fail to quit: ‘I’m a smoker and I’m powerless to stop.’ The journey allows them to get some distance and see the bigger picture and to see the short-term pleasures of smoking in the larger, longer-term context of their lives.”

Perhaps this is one of the things psychedelics do: relax the brain’s inhibition on visualizing our thoughts, thereby rendering them more authoritative, memorable, and sticky.

Matt Johnson believes that psychedelics can be used to change all sorts of behaviors, not just addiction. The key, in his view, is their power to occasion a sufficiently dramatic experience to “dope-slap people out of their story. It’s literally a reboot of the system—a biological control-alt-delete. Psychedelics open a window of mental flexibility in which people can let go of the mental models we use to organize reality.”

In his view, the most important such model is the self, or ego, which a high-dose psychedelic experience temporarily dissolves. He speaks of “our addiction to a pattern of thinking with the self at the center of it.” This underlying addiction to a pattern of thinking, or cognitive style, links the addict to the depressive and to the cancer patient obsessed with death or recurrence.

We’re trapped in a story that sees ourselves as independent, isolated agents acting in the world. But that self is an illusion. It can be a useful illusion, when you’re swinging through the trees or escaping from a cheetah or trying to do your taxes. But at the systems level, there is no truth to it. You can take any number of more accurate perspectives: that we’re a swarm of genes, vehicles for passing on DNA; that we’re social creatures through and through, unable to survive alone; that we’re organisms in an ecosystem, linked together on this planet floating in the middle of nowhere. Wherever you look, you see that the level of interconnectedness is truly amazing, and yet we insist on thinking of ourselves as individual agents.” Albert Einstein called the modern human’s sense of separateness “a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.”*

Dying, depression, obsession, eating disorders – all are exacerbated by the tyranny of an ego and the fixed narratives it constructs about our relationship to the world. By temporarily overturning that tyranny and throwing our minds into an unusually plastic state (Robin Carhart-Harris would call it a state of heightened entropy), psychedelics, with the help of a good therapist, give us an opportunity to propose some new, more constructive stories about the self and its relationship to the world, stories that just might stick.

Alcoholism can be understood as a spiritual disorder,” Ross told me the first time we met, in the treatment room at NYU. “Over time you lose your connection to everything but this compound.

“I saw Jesus on the cross,” she recalled. “It was just his head and shoulders, and it was like I was a little kid in a tiny helicopter circling around his head. But he was on the cross. And he just sort of gathered me up in his hands, you know, the way you would comfort a small child. I felt such a great weight lift from my shoulders, felt very much at peace. It was a beautiful experience.”

The teaching of the experience, she felt, was self-acceptance. “I spend less time thinking about people who have a better life than me. I realize I’m not a bad person; I’m a person who’s had a lot of bad things happen. Jesus might have been trying to tell me it was okay, that these things happen. He was trying to comfort me.”

the FDA staff surprised the researchers by asking them to expand their focus and ambition: to test whether psilocybin could be used to treat the much larger and more pressing problem of depression in the general population. As the regulators saw it, the data contained a strong enough “signal” that psilocybin could relieve depression; it would be a shame not to test the proposition, given the enormity of the need and the limitations of the therapies now available

Rosalind Watts was a young clinical psychologist working for the National Health Service when she read an article about psychedelic therapy in the New Yorker.* The idea that you might actually be able to cure mental illness rather than just manage its symptoms inspired her to write to Robin Carhart-Harris, who hired her to help out with the depression study, the lab’s first foray into clinical research

Watts’s interviews uncovered two “master” themes. The first was that the volunteers depicted their depression foremost as a state of “disconnection,” whether from other people, their earlier selves, their senses and feelings, their core beliefs and spiritual values, or nature. Several referred to living in “a mental prison,” others to being “stuck” in endless circles of rumination they likened to mental “gridlock.” I was reminded of Carhart-Harris’s hypothesis that depression might be the result of an overactive default mode network—the site in the brain where rumination appears to take place.

“It was like when you defrag the hard drive on your computer . . . I thought, ‘My brain is being defragged, how brilliant is that!’”

The second master theme was a new access to difficult emotions, emotions that depression often blunts or closes down completely. Watts hypothesizes that the depressed patient’s incessant rumination constricts his or her emotional repertoire. In other cases, the depressive keeps emotions at bay because it is too painful to experience them.

More than half of the Imperial volunteers saw the clouds of their depression eventually return, so it seems likely that psychedelic therapy for depression, should it prove useful and be approved, will not be a onetime intervention. But even the temporary respite the volunteers regarded as precious, because it reminded them there was another way to be that was worth working to recapture. Like electroconvulsive therapy for depression, which it in some ways resembles, psychedelic therapy is a shock to the system—a “reboot” or “defragging”—that may need to be repeated every so often. (Assuming the treatment works as well when repeated.) But the potential of the therapy has regulators and researchers and much of the mental health community feeling hopeful.

None of these psychedelic therapies have yet proven themselves to work in large populations; what successes have been reported should be taken as promising signals standing out from the noise of data, rather than as definitive proofs of cure. Yet the fact that psychedelics have produced such a signal across a range of indications can be interpreted in a more positive light. When a single remedy is prescribed for a great many illnesses, to paraphrase Chekhov, it could mean those illnesses are more alike than we’re accustomed to think.

It could be as straightforward as the notion of a “mental reboot”—Matt Johnson’s biological control-alt-delete key—that jolts the brain out of destructive patterns (such as Kessler’s “capture”), affording an opportunity for new patterns to take root. It could be that, as Franz Vollenweider has hypothesized, psychedelics enhance neuroplasticity. The myriad new connections that spring up in the brain during the psychedelic experience, as mapped by the neuroimaging done at Imperial College, and the disintegration of well-traveled old connections, may serve simply to “shake the snow globe,” in Robin Carhart-Harris’s phrase, a predicate for establishing new pathways.

Mendel Kaelen, a Dutch postdoc in the Imperial lab, proposes a more extended snow metaphor: “Think of the brain as a hill covered in snow, and thoughts as sleds gliding down that hill. As one sled after another goes down the hill, a small number of main trails will appear in the snow. And every time a new sled goes down, it will be drawn into the preexisting trails, almost like a magnet.” Those main trails represent the most well-traveled neural connections in your brain, many of them passing through the default mode network. “In time, it becomes more and more difficult to glide down the hill on any other path or in a different direction.

“Think of psychedelics as temporarily flattening the snow. The deeply worn trails disappear, and suddenly the sled can go in other directions, exploring new landscapes and, literally, creating new pathways.” When the snow is freshest, the mind is most impressionable, and the slightest nudge—whether from a song or an intention or a therapist’s suggestion—can powerfully influence its future course.

Robin Carhart-Harris’s theory of the entropic brain represents a promising elaboration on this general idea, and a first stab at a unified theory of mental illness that helps explain all three of the disorders we’ve examined in these pages. A happy brain is a supple and flexible brain, he believes; depression, anxiety, obsession, and the cravings of addiction are how it feels to have a brain that has become excessively rigid or fixed in its pathways and linkages—a brain with more order than is good for it. On the spectrum he lays out (in his entropic brain article) ranging from excessive order to excessive entropy, depression, addiction, and disorders of obsession all fall on the too-much-order end. (Psychosis is on the entropy end of the spectrum, which is why it probably doesn’t respond to psychedelic therapy.)

The therapeutic value of psychedelics, in Carhart-Harris’s view, lies in their ability to temporarily elevate entropy in the inflexible brain, jolting the system out of its default patterns

So many of the volunteers I spoke to, whether among the dying, the addicted, or the depressed, described feeling mentally “stuck,” captured in ruminative loops they felt powerless to break. They talked about “prisons of the self,” spirals of obsessive introspection that wall them off from other people, nature, their earlier selves, and the present moment. All these thoughts and feelings may be the products of an overactive default mode network, that tightly linked set of brain structures implicated in rumination, self-referential thought, and metacognition—thinking about thinking. It stands to reason that by quieting the brain network responsible for thinking about ourselves, and thinking about thinking about ourselves, we might be able to jump that track, or erase it from the snow.

The default mode network appears to be the seat not only of the ego, or self, but of the mental faculty of time travel as well. The two are of course closely related: without the ability to remember our past and imagine a future, the notion of a coherent self could hardly be said to exist; we define ourselves with reference to our personal history and future objectives. (As meditators eventually discover, if we can manage to stop thinking about the past or future and sink into the present, the self seems to disappear.) Mental time travel is constantly taking us off the frontier of the present moment. This can be highly adaptive; it allows us to learn from the past and plan for the future. But when time travel turns obsessive, it fosters the backward-looking gaze of depression and the forward pitch of anxiety. Addiction, too, seems to involve uncontrollable time travel. The addict uses his habit to organize time: When was the last hit, and when can I get the next?

Another type of mental activity that neuroimaging has located in the DMN (and specifically in the posterior cingulate cortex) is the work performed by the so-called autobiographical or experiential self: the mental operation responsible for the narratives that link our first person to the world, and so help define us. “This is who I am.” “I don’t deserve to be loved.” “I’m the kind of person without the willpower to break this addiction.” Getting overly attached to these narratives, taking them as fixed truths about ourselves rather than as stories subject to revision, contributes mightily to addiction, depression, and anxiety. Psychedelic therapy seems to weaken the grip of these narratives, perhaps by temporarily disintegrating the parts of the default mode network where they operate.

“The ego keeps us in our grooves,” as Matt Johnson puts it. For better and, sometimes, for worse. For occasionally the ego can become tyrannical and turn its formidable powers on the rest of us.* Perhaps this is the link between the various forms of mental illness that psychedelic therapy seems to help most: all involve a disordered ego—overbearing, punishing, or misdirected

David Foster Wallace asked his audience to “think of the old cliché about ‘the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.’ This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth,” he said. “It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. They shoot the terrible master.”

Consider the case of the mystical experience: the sense of transcendence, sacredness, unitive consciousness, infinitude, and blissfulness people report can all be explained as what it can feel like to a mind when its sense of being, or having, a separate self is suddenly no more.

Now I’m inclined to think a much better and certainly more useful antonym for “spiritual” might be “egotistical.” Self and Spirit define the opposite ends of a spectrum, but that spectrum needn’t reach clear to the heavens to have meaning for us. It can stay right here on earth. When the ego dissolves, so does a bounded conception not only of our self but of our self-interest. What emerges in its place is invariably a broader, more openhearted and altruistic—that is, more spiritual—idea of what matters in life. One in which a new sense of connection, or love, however defined, seems to figure prominently. “The psychedelic journey may not give you what you want,” as more than one guide memorably warned me, “but it will give you what you need.”

Brewer invited me to visit his lab at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts medical school in Worcester to run some experiments on my own default mode network.

The posterior cingulate cortex is a centrally located node within the default mode network involved in self-referential mental processes

The PCC is believed to be the locus of the experiential or narrative self; it appears to generate the narratives that link what happens to us to our abiding sense of who we are. Brewer believes that this particular operation, when it goes awry, is at the root of several forms of mental suffering, including addiction.

As Brewer explains it, activity in the PCC is correlated not so much with our thoughts and feelings as with “how we relate to our thoughts and feelings.” It is where we get “caught up in the push and pull of our experience.” (This has particular relevance for the addict: “It’s one thing to have cravings,” as Brewer points out, “but quite another to get caught up in your cravings.”)

A brief daily meditation had become a way for me to stay in touch with the kind of thinking I’d done on psychedelics. I discovered my trips had made it easier for me to drop into a mentally quiet place, something that in the past had always eluded me. So I closed my eyes and began to follow my breath. I had never tried to meditate in front of other people, and it felt awkward, but when Brewer put the graph up on the screen, I could see that I had succeeded in quieting my PCC—not by a lot, but most of the bars dipped below baseline. Yet the graph was somewhat jagged, with several bars leaping above baseline

He sounded excited by the idea that the mere recollection of a psychedelic experience might somehow replicate what happens in the brain during the real thing.

EPILOGUE: In Praise of Neural Diversity

Here was Paul Summergrad, MD, the former head of the American Psychiatric Association, seated next to Tom Insel, MD, the former head of the National Institute of Mental Health. The panel was organized and moderated by George Goldsmith, an American entrepreneur and health industry consultant based in London

It was clear to everyone in the standing-room crowd exactly what the three men on the panel represented: the recognition of psychedelic therapy by the mental health establishment

He suggested that psychedelics would probably need to be rebranded in the public mind and that it would be essential to steer clear of anything that smacked of “recreational use.”

It’s not at all clear what the business model might be. Yet.

George Goldsmith envisions a network of psychedelic treatment centers, facilities in attractive natural settings where patients will go for their guided sessions. He has formed a company called Compass Pathways to build these centers in the belief they can offer a treatment for a range of mental illnesses sufficiently effective and economical that Europe’s national health services will reimburse for them

Katherine MacLean, the former Hopkins researcher who wrote the landmark paper on openness, hopes someday to establish a “psychedelic hospice,” a retreat center somewhere out in nature where not only the dying but their loved ones can use psychedelics to help them let go—the patient and the loved ones both.

in 2016, the California Institute of Integral Studies graduated its first class of forty-two psychedelic therapists.

“That was a very different time. People wouldn’t even talk about cancer or death then. Women were tranquilized to give birth; men weren’t allowed in the delivery room! Yoga and meditation were totally weird. Now mindfulness is mainstream and everyone does yoga, and there are birthing centers and hospices all over. We’ve integrated all these things into our culture. And now I think we’re ready to integrate psychedelics.”

For me, working one-on-one with an experienced guide in a safe place removed from my everyday life turned out to be the ideal way to explore psychedelics. Yet there are other ways to structure the psychedelic journey—to provide a safe container for its potentially overwhelming energies. Ayahuasca and peyote are typically used in a group, with the leader, often but not necessarily a shaman, acting in a supervisory role and helping people to navigate and interpret their experiences.

Not only did my guides create a setting in which I felt safe enough to surrender to the psychedelic experience, but they also helped me to make sense of it afterward.

I don’t mean to suggest I have achieved this state of ego-transcending awareness, only tasted it. These experiences don’t last, or at least they didn’t for me. After each of my psychedelic sessions came a period of several weeks in which I felt noticeably different—more present to the moment, much less inclined to dwell on what’s next. I was also notably more emotional and surprised myself on several occasions by how little it took to make me tear up or smile. I found myself thinking about things like death and time and infinity, but less in angst than in wonder.

This was a way of being I treasured, but, alas, every time it eventually faded. It’s difficult not to slip back into the familiar grooves of mental habit; they are so well worn; the tidal pull of what the Buddhists call our “habit energies” is difficult to withstand. Add to this the expectations of other people, which subtly enforce a certain way of being yourself, no matter how much you might want to attempt another. After a month or so, it was pretty much back to baseline.

“the folds of my gray flannel trousers”: Huxley, Doors of Perception, 33.
“We were amazed”: Fadiman, Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide, 185.
“If we learned one thing”: Lattin, Harvard Psychedelic Club, 74.
“using hallucinogens for seductions”: Weil, “Strange Case of the Harvard Drug Scandal.”

“Standing on the bare ground”: Emerson, Nature, 13.
“Swiftly arose and spread around me”: Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 29.
“All at once, as it were out of the intensity”: Tennysons, “Luminous Sleep.”

The bee perceives a substantially different spectrum: Srinivasan, “Honey Bees as a Model for Vision, Perception, and Cognition”; Dyer et al., “Seeing in Colour.”


Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. Boston: James Munroe, 1836.

Fadiman, James. The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide: Safe, Therapeutic and Sacred Journeys.Rochester, Vt.: Park Street Press, 2011.

Grof, Stanislav. LSD: Doorway to the Numinous: The Groundbreaking Psychedelic Research into Realms of the Human Unconscious. Rochester, Vt.: Park Street Press, 2009.

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. EBook. Project Gutenberg, 2014.

Decade of the Brain. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013. Lattin, Don. The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.

Tennyson, Alfred. “Luminous Sleep.” The Spectator, Aug. 1, 1903.

Weil, Andrew T. “The Strange Case of the Harvard Drug Scandal.” Look, Nov. 1963.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: The First (1855) Edition. New York: Penguin, 1986.

The Captain’s Class

The Captain Class Book Cover The Captain Class
Sam Walker
Business & Economics
Random House
May 16, 2017

Top 10 book for me. I've already read it twice. 🙂 Make sure you get the updated version. There is so much to like in Walker's theory and supporting analysis. Its not the coach. Its not the high paid perennial all-star. Its the person that goes out and GRINDS.

A bold new theory of leadership drawn from elite captains throughout sports— The seventeen most dominant teams in sports history had one thing in common: Each employed the same type of captain—a singular leader with an unconventional set of skills and tendencies. Drawing on original interviews with athletes, general managers, coaches, and team-building experts, Sam Walker identifies the seven core qualities of the Captain Class—from extreme doggedness and emotional control to tactical aggression and the courage to stand apart.

The Bombers gave me a taste of what it was like to play on an excellent team, and this had rewired my brain to believe it was my God-given right to experience the same sensation many times over.

body language, and observed their pregame rituals. When they offered theories about what made their collaborations successful, I jotted them down in my notebook. No matter the sport, I always heard the same handful of explanations—we practice hard, we play for each other, we never quit, we have a great coach, we always come through in the clutch. More than anything, I was struck by the businesslike sameness of these groups and by how nonchalantly their members spoke about winning. It was as if they were part of a machine in which every cog and sprocket was functioning precisely as intended. “You do your job so everyone around you can do their job,” Tom Brady once said. “There’s no big secret to it.”

No matter the sport, I always heard the same handful of explanations—we practice hard, we play for each other, we never quit, we have a great coach, we always come through in the clutch. More than anything, I was struck by the businesslike sameness of these groups and by how nonchalantly their members spoke about winning. It was as if they were part of a machine in which every cog and sprocket was functioning precisely as intended. “You do your job so everyone around you can do their job,” Tom Brady once said. “There’s no big secret to it.”

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. And it was something I hadn’t anticipated.

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. And it was something I hadn’t anticipated.

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.


Before Hungary, soccer teams were thought to be collections of individuals with specific orders to do distinct things. A left-winger was supposed to patrol the left-hand touchline, for instance, while a striker’s job was to play forward at all times with an eye on the goal—no more, no less. The Hungarian Golden Team destroyed this notion. It didn’t respect rigidity. It was fluid. Players switched positions and dispositions all the time, depending on the circumstances.

What distinguished them was a style of play that erased specialization, forced players to subordinate their egos, and coaxed superior performances out of unlikely characters.

Alpha Lions Identifying the World’s Greatest Teams

consider every team from every major sport anywhere in the world through the fullness of history.

yielded a spreadsheet of candidates that ran into the thousands.

Question 1: What qualifies as a team?
To settle the matter, I decided that a group of athletes can only be considered a team in the fullest sense of the word if it meets the following three criteria: A. It has five or more members.

I decided that a group of athletes can only be considered a team in the fullest sense of the word if it meets the following three criteria: A. It has five or more members.

I decided to eliminate all teams that involve dyads: doubles tennis, doubles luge, Olympic beach volleyball, pairs skating, and ice dancing. I also eliminated curling, which involves teams of three.

In the end, the smallest units I included were basketball teams, which field five members, and where the average contributions of the players at each position should theoretically account for about 20 percent of the team total.

The smallest units I included were basketball teams, which field five members, and where the average contributions of the players at each position should theoretically account for about 20 percent of the team total.
B. Its members interact with the opponent.
C. Its members work together.

Because the athletes on these teams never physically interact with their teammates, I eliminated them. This rule put two major sports on the bubble: baseball

This rule put two major sports on the bubble: baseball and cricket.

There is one aspect of both baseball and cricket that distinguishes these games from other low-interaction sports, however—the amount of teammate coordination

Question 2: How do you separate the wheat from the chaff?
A. The team played a “major” sport.

To decide which ones to include, I resorted to looking at television ratings. Unless a sport’s premier matches attracted many millions of viewers, it was axed. The only sport that passed this test was Australian rules football.

I resorted to looking at television ratings. Unless a sport’s premier matches attracted many millions of viewers, it was axed. The only sport that passed this test was Australian rules football.

B. It played against the world’s top competition.

I eliminated Canadian football, professional ice hockey in Russia and Sweden, and all European men’s and women’s domestic professional basketball associations, among others. This rule also disqualified intercollegiate team sports in the United States, where the player pool is limited to currently enrolled students and the quality of play is inferior to that seen in professional leagues or at the Olympic level.

C. Its dominance stretched over many years.

The first assumption we can make about luck is that some teams probably owe their accomplishments to an extraordinary abundance of it. At the same time, we can assume that a handful of teams out there managed to win multiple titles despite having suffered more bad luck than good. It’s also possible that some teams control their own destiny by putting themselves in enterprising positions where a little luck goes a long way (have fun trying to measure that!). The principle of regression to the mean tells us that if you wait long enough, any overheated level of performance, good or bad, is likely to fade.

No team would be included in my sample unless it played at an elite level for a period of at least four seasons.

Question 3: What qualifies as freakish?

After applying Questions 1 and 2 to the field, only 122 teams survived the putsch, a group I will call my “finalists.”

The first metric I considered was winning percentage. Many famous teams, including the 1950s Hungarians, have fared well by this yardstick. But winning percentage has several liabilities. It doesn’t account for the strength of a team’s opponents, for one. It also favors teams that play fewer games.

A fairer way to judge a team’s win rate is by its standard deviation from the mean, which measures the magnitude of how superior its record is in relation to those of its competitors. This number is more meaningful than raw winning percentage, but it also fails to factor in the quality of the opposition. By this measure, a team that fattens up on cupcakes while losing all of its marquee matches might still come out ahead.

They gauge a team’s success by underlying measures of its performance, such as how many more points, goals, or runs it scored relative to opponents. Some statisticians will wrap several of these metrics into a “power rating” that rewards teams for their overall efficiency, regardless of their records. There are two problems with this concept: First, it can fail to account for the difference between playing well in crucial games and running up the score on patsies; second, if a team fails to win a championship, does anyone really care about its power rating?

The thing that ultimately distinguishes a freak team isn’t how impressively it won – only that it did.

The best statistic available for isolating a team’s ability to win, especially in consequential matches, is the Elo rating system, which was first adapted to sports in 1997 by a California software engineer named Bob Runyan.

As a chess enthusiast, Runyan was familiar with an evaluation system designed in 1960 by a Marquette University physics professor named Arpad Elo. The formula ranked elite chess masters by giving them running point tallies based on the outcome of every match they played, plus the weighted quality of the opponent and the weighted significance of the event. A win against a highly rated master in a major tournament, for example, would add more points to the tally, while a low-stakes victory against a weak opponent in an exhibition woulnd’t matter as much. I remember looking at the FIFA rankings and seeing they were really bad and thinking the ones in chess were really goood,” Runyan told me.

In the end, however, I decided to keep the statistics at the periphery. While I knew that Elo ratings and other available measures might be useful from time to time, I wouldn’t be able to rely on any one metric exclusively.

Claim 1: It had sufficient opportunity to prove itself. All of these finalist teams, no matter the sport they played, were exceptional dynasties.

some unanswered questions about their true ability.

The Homestead Grays of baseball’s Negro National League won eight titles in nine seasons, along with 68 percent of their games from 1937 to 1945, but because of the strict segregation of the time they were not allowed to take on the leading all-white teams of the major leagues.

Claim 2: Its record stands alone.

To make a case to be one of the greatest in history, a team must have put together some exceptionally long or concentrated burst of success that can be defined by cumulative wins or titles, and that goes beyond the accomplishments of every other team that has played the same genre of sport. In other words, its achievements have to have been unique.

The World’s Most Elite Teams

After I had evaluated every team in sports history, only seventeen stood up to all eight of these various questions, tests, subtests, rules, and claims.

My only goal was to create the purest possible sample of laboratory specimens—a group of empirical freaks that had so few blemishes of any kind that I could feel comfortable using them to explore the question I was really after: What do the most dominant teams in history have in common?

The Collingwood Magpies, Australian rules football (1927–30):
The New York Yankees, Major League Baseball (1949–53): this group is the only one in baseball history to win five consecutive World Series titles.

Hungary, International men’s soccer (1950–55):
The Montreal Canadiens, National Hockey League (1955–60):

The Boston Celtics, National Basketball Association (1956–69): The Celtics won an unparalleled eleven NBA championships in thirteen seasons, including one stretch of eight in a row, dwarfing the achievements of every other NBA dynasty.

Brazil, International men’s soccer (1958–62):

The Pittsburgh Steelers, National Football League (1974–80): This team made the playoffs six times in a row and won an unrivaled four Super Bowls in six seasons. It compiled an 80–22–1 record through the 1980 Super Bowl and notched the second-highest Elo rating in NFL history.

The Soviet Union, International men’s ice hockey (1980–84):
The New Zealand All Blacks, International rugby union (1986–90):
Yellow highlight | Location: 560
Cuba, International women’s volleyball (1991–2000):

Australia, International women’s field hockey (1993–2000): The Hockeyroos won two Olympic gold medals, plus four consecutive Champions Trophy competitions, and back-to-back World Cups. They lost only 11 percent of their matches during this span, scoring 785 goals while allowing just 220.

The United States, International women’s soccer (1996–99):
The San Antonio Spurs, National Basketball Association (1997–2016):
The New England Patriots*4, National Football League (2001–2018):
Barcelona, Professional soccer (2008–13):
France, International men’s handball (2008–15):
The New Zealand All Blacks, International rugby union (2011–15):

TWO   Captain Theory The Importance of “Glue Guys”

I could tell that the Celtics were quantitatively remarkable, but not in the way I’d expected. According to regular-season Elo ratings compiled by FiveThirtyEight, only one of their eleven championship squads managed to crack the top fifty in NBA history.

Even more curiously, the advanced metrics that statisticians use to measure the contributions of individual players showed that the Celtics never had any individual member whose isolated performance ranked among the best in history. No Celtics player led the NBA in scoring during its string of titles. In seven of its eleven championship seasons, it didn’t place a single scorer in the top ten. I quickly set the statistics aside to look for other explanations.

Red Auerbach, the Tier One Celtics ran a basic offense, and he gave the players the freedom to improvise on the court.

There is zero chance that the Celtics got lucky. Their freakish run was too long for that. The only explanation that made sense to me was that this team, like the Hungarians of the 1950s, was somehow better than the sum of its parts. As spongy as this might sound, there must have been a rare bond between the players that coaxed superior performances out of people who wouldn’t have achieved them somewhere else.

“team chemistry”

Was it a function of how long a group of athletes had been playing together, and how well they could anticipate their teammates’ next moves? Was it a measure of how well their strengths offset their weaknesses? Or was it a reflection of how much everybody on the team liked one another and how splendidly they got along?

The basic idea behind chemistry is that a team’s interpersonal dynamics will have an impact on its performance.

“Individual commitment to a group effort,” he once said, “that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.”

for every team in the top tier of my study that seemed to be tightly knit, with players who came from similar backgrounds and formed lifelong friendships, there was another that had been riven at times by internal feuds and divisions. I didn’t see a pattern there.

Boston’s dominance continued for so many years that from the beginning to the end, the roster turned over almost completely.

There were, however, two Celtics players whose careers overlapped the streak precisely. And one of them was Bill Russell.

I wondered if Russell, himself, had been the catalyst.

it was a supreme expression of desire. Russell hadn’t flown into action because anyone expected him to but because he could not bear to see his team lose.

On a whim, I decided to make a list of the names of the primary player-leaders of these seventeen teams to see if any of their careers also served as bookends for their teams’ Tier One performances. Here are the names:

  • Syd Coventry, Collingwood Magpies
  • Yogi Berra, New York Yankees
  • Ferenc Puskás, Hungary
  • Maurice Richard, Montreal Canadiens
  • Bill Russell, Boston Celtics
  • Hilderaldo Bellini, Brazil
  • Jack Lambert, Pittsburgh Steelers
  • Valeri Vasiliev, Soviet Union
  • Wayne Shelford, New Zealand All Blacks
  • Mireya Luis, Cuba
  • Rechelle Hawkes, Australia
  • Carla Overbeck, United States
  • Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs
  • Tom Brady, New England Patriots
  • Carles Puyol, Barcelona
  • Jérôme Fernandez, France
  • Richie McCaw, New Zealand All Blacks

The results of this little exercise stopped me cold. The Celtics weren’t the only team whose Tier One performance corresponded in some way to the arrival and departure of one particular player. In fact, they all did.

The crucial component of the job is interpersonal. The captain is the figure who holds sway over the dressing room by speaking to teammates as a peer, counseling them on and off the field, motivating them, challenging them, protecting them, resolving disputes, enforcing standards, inspiring fear when necessary, and above all setting a tone with words and deeds.

Baseball managers, when asked about the secrets of team cohesion, like to use the word “glue.”

It’s glue that supposedly prevents teams from splintering into cliques or being torn asunder by egos. It was another usage of the term that came to mind, however. When individual players devote themselves to unifying the team, baseball managers call them “glue guys.”

One influential player can unify an entire team. Once a match begins, the manager no longer influences the outcome. “On the field, the person responsible for making sure the eleven players acted as a team was the club captain,”

“The single most important ingredient after you get the talent is internal leadership. It’s not the coaches as much as one single person or people on the team who set higher standards than that team would normally set for itself.”

Could it be that the one thing that lifts a team into the top .001 percent of teams in history is the leader of the players?

What distinguished Russell on the court was his dedication to playing without the ball. In the 1950s, basketball defenders were taught never to leave their feet. Russell not only took to the air to block shots, he went after shots most people considered unblockable. He focused his efforts on anticipating rebounds, clogging the lane, intercepting passes, and setting and evading picks. According to modern defensive metrics, Russell’s career mark in “defensive win shares” is the best in NBA history—and by a 23 percent margin.

If you knew you were heading into the toughest fight of your life, whom would you choose to lead you?

Shelford was a member of New Zealand’s indigenous Maori tribe. Even in a passive state, his face conveyed strength, purpose, and command—or mana, as it’s known in Maori.

The story of Shelford’s mauled scrotum is only one example of alarmingly reckless behavior by these Tier One captains.

Mireya Luis, the future captain of the Cuban women’s volleyball team, once reported to practice four days after giving birth to her daughter, then played in a match at the World Championships fourteen days later.

  1. They lacked superstar talent. Most of the Tier One captains were not the best players on their teams, or even major stars.
  2. They weren’t fond of the spotlight.
  3. They didn’t “lead” in the traditional sense. But most Tier One captains played subservient roles on their teams, deferred to star players, and relied heavily on the talent around them to carry the scoring burden.
  4. They were not angels. Time and again, these captains played to the edge of the rules, did unsportsmanlike things, or generally behaved in a way that seemed to threaten their teams’ chances of winning.
  5. They did potentially divisive things. On various occasions they had disregarded the orders of coaches, defied team rules and strategies, and given candid interviews in which they’d spoken out against everyone from fans, teammates, and coaches to the overlords of the sport.
  6. They weren’t the usual suspects.
  7. Nobody had ever mentioned this theory. None of them had ever singled out the captain as a team’s driving force.
  8. The captain isn’t the primary leader. On most teams, the highest position in the pecking order belongs to the coach or manager.

Five frequently cited qualities of superior teams that seemed at once both plausible and researchable. They are: the presence of an otherworldly superstar, a high level of overall talent, deep financial resources, a winning culture maintained by effective management, and, finally, the most widely accepted explanation of all—superior coaching. I set out to kick the tires on each of them.

Theory 1: It takes a GOAT.

In all, twelve of the seventeen teams in Tier One enjoyed the services of a GOAT candidate.

They are: Collingwood’s Gordon Coventry (Syd’s kid brother); the Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio; Hungary’s Ferenc Puskás; Maurice Richard of the Montreal Canadiens; Brazil’s Pelé; Soviet hockey’s Viacheslav Fetisov, Sergei Makarov, and Vladislav Tretiak; Cuba’s Regla Torres; Australian field hockey’s Alyson Annan; Michelle Akers of the U.S. women’s soccer team; Tom Brady of the New England Patriots; Barcelona’s Lionel Messi; French handball’s Nikola Karabatić; and Dan Carter of the 2011–15 New Zealand All Blacks.

It’s also clear that the presence of a GOAT doesn’t guarantee success at the team level.

Player Efficiency Rating, a statistic developed by the sports columnist John Hollinger. PER takes into account both offense and defense. It gives individual players a score based on a tally of the positive contributions they make on the court—not just scoring but also blocking shots and grabbing rebounds—minus the negative things they do, such as missing shots or turning the ball over. After adjusting for the number of minutes played, PER is expressed as a rate.

Astonishingly, only three of the GOAT candidates on the seventeen Tier One teams also captained them.

In every other case, the most dominant teams in history had hierarchies in which the leader of the players was not the go-to superstar. So even though these teams had GOATs, they hadn’t tapped them to lead. This suggested that a team is more likely to become elite if it has a captain that leads from the shadows.

Theory 2: It’s a matter of overall talent. The best teams had “clusters” of above-average performers.

On teams where there was a large ability gap, they wrote, “the superstar, or highest-performing team member, dominated the discourse.” As this person took charge, the other students showed a tendency to back off, even when they believed—correctly—that the high achiever was wrong. Because of this, their group scores suffered.

The marginal athletes would defer to the star, who insisted on taking a vast majority of the shots, even when a player of lesser skill was wide open.

On the cluster teams, however, the researchers found that discussions about the quiz responses were more democratic. Many members of the group chimed in, and the debates tended to be longer and more thorough, with everyone having their say. More often than not, the researchers wrote, these kinds of groups “were able to come to a consensus on a correct answer choice.”

This study showed that for units roughly the size of basketball teams, the collective talent level, and the ability to work democratically, turned out to be far more valuable than the isolated skill of one supreme achiever. “Having a superstar on your team is only beneficial if the rest of the team also scores relatively high,” the researchers wrote.

These groups weren’t driven by a single visionary but by an extraordinary concentration of brainpower.

Baseball. In this sport, as I noted earlier, teammate interaction plays a limited role while the performance of individual players has a larger impact. Studies have shown that baseball teams that continue to add more talent do not reach a point of diminishing returns. The more stars a baseball team has, the better it should be. If there is a correlation between talent clusters and superior performance, baseball was the one sport where it would absolutely have to exist.

WAR – wins above replacement, a formula that uses game statistics to measure how much more (or less) each player contributes to their team’s victories than a statistically average player would.

Any elite team needs a passel of skillful players, and it’s probably better if their abilities are balanced. Nevertheless, my analysis of baseball in general, the Yankees in particular, and the experience of Real Madrid didn’t support the idea that a talent cluster is something teams have to have in order to achieve and sustain freakish success.

Theory 3: It’s the money, stupid. Spending the most money on players doesn’t guarantee titles,

Theory 4: It’s a question of management.

The fourth theory on my list is the notion that freak teams are products of a long tradition of institutional excellence, or a culture of winning.

The idea that the ghosts of the past are primarily responsible for a team’s ascent to greatness is, after all, basically a vote for the paranormal.

In reality, a team’s ability to uphold a tradition of excellence comes down to something rather mundane—the quality of its upper management.

If enlightened management is the key to sustaining a team’s culture, and culture is the secret to outsize success, one team in particular would have to be its standard-bearer—the All Blacks. Not only did this team’s name appear twice in Tier One, another All Blacks team from 1961 to 1969 also ascended to Tier Two.

The national rugby team of New Zealand is, by any reasonable accounting, the world’s preeminent sports dynasty.

Theory 5: It’s the coach.

FOUR   Do Coaches Matter? The Vince Lombardi Effect

the kind of hunger that comes from being counted out.

He looked like a fire hydrant dressed for a job interview.

“Perfection is not attainable. But if we chase perfection we can catch excellence”

“You survived, okay? Now I want you to play thirty minutes of Green Bay football, and let’s see if they can adjust to you.”

As I knew from reading his autobiography, Davis believed that his team owed its success, almost entirely, to Vincent Thomas Lombardi’s motivational powers.

“I tell ya, Coach Lombardi probably could have been a great minister, because he said things with the voice. Sometimes the voice had a chilling effect on you.”

“It was like he could make you rise to play at a level you didn’t even know about.”

“It is essential to understand that battles are primarily won in the hearts of men,” he once said.

Many of Stengel’s Yankees considered their manager to be an annoying buffoon, and they sometimes disregarded his instructions entirely.

The next aspect of coaching I looked at was tactics—the idea that these Tier One coaches might have devised sophisticated strategies that put their teams a step ahead.

The Australian field hockey coach Ric Charlesworth was widely acclaimed for his innovations, too, which included a system of ice-hockey-style shift changes to keep his players fresh.

A nearly equal number of Tier One coaches were not prizewinning strategists.

Sebes organized the Hungarians to play a fluid style of football that was a precursor of the 4-2-4 formation Brazil perfected during its Tier One dynasty.

“He was a street footballer from small childhood,”

He was not only a great player and captain but also a ‘playing coach.’ He saw everything, exerted great discipline over the whole team, and could analyze footballing situations on the run. A few brief instructions on the field from him and all our problems were solved.”

The coach can try to set the mood, talk through the game, encourage and explain, but in the end it’s the players who have to solve the real problems on the pitch.”

Measure the relative importance of coaches at the elite levels of sports. These studies support three basic conclusions:

  1. Coaches don’t win many games. In fact, the performances of a handful of top stars had more influence on the season’s final standings than the decisions of all of the league’s managers combined.
  2. Coaches don’t have a big impact on player performance. “Our most surprising finding,” the authors wrote, “was that most of the coaches in our data set did not have a statistically significant impact on player performance relative to a generic coach.”
  3. Changing coaches is not a cure-all. He discovered that distressed teams that changed managers, and distressed teams that stayed the course, achieved almost precisely the same results. In other words, sacking the coach was no more effective than simply riding it out.

“Give me a fit bunch of players with a good general level of ability.” McHale enforced this ideology, just as Lombardi did, by exercising a level of control that would be impossible today.

Many of the coaches and managers from teams in Tier One, including Blake, Guardiola, McHale, and Wyllie, and also from Tier Two—soccer’s Franz Beckenbauer and Johann Cruyff in particular—had been highly decorated captains before becoming managers. This suggests the lessons these men learned on the field about the power of captaincy might have informed the way they constructed the units they coached.

The only way to become a Tier One coach is to identify the perfect person to lead the players.

PART II   THE CAPTAINS The Seven Methods of Elite Leaders

One thing I noticed about Russell and the other Tier One captains was that when their careers ended, people always said some version of the same thing: There would never be anyone else like them.

his refusal to participate in his 1975 Hall of Fame induction ceremony. The Hall of Fame, Russell explained, is an institution that honors individuals. Russell had declined, he said, because he believed his basketball career should be remembered as a symbol of team play.

He didn’t score many points because his team didn’t need him to. He didn’t care about statistics or personal accolades and didn’t mind letting teammates take the credit.

Only how many titles we won.” Russell devoted himself instead to defense, and to doing whatever grunt work fell through the cracks.

His resistance to basketball awards was a rejection of the universal instinct to separate individuals from the collective. His brand of leadership had nothing to do with the outside world or how he was perceived. It was entirely focused on the internal dynamics of his team.

his style of captaincy was just so unusual that nobody recognized it. The public never connected his atypical leadership to the atypical success of the Celtics.

It’s true that these Tier One captains, in the contexts of their various sports, looked like one-offs. They were certainly nothing like the flawless leaders of our imaginations. As I compiled their biographies, however, I noticed something else: how closely they resembled one another. To a spooky degree, their behaviors and beliefs, and the way they approached their work, lined up. The impulsive, reckless, and putatively self-defeating behavior they exhibited was, in fact, calculated to fortify the team. Their strange and seemingly disqualifying personal traits were not damaging but actually made their teammates more effective on the field. These men and women were not aberrations after all. They were members of a forgotten tribe.


  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.

FIVE   They Just Keep Coming Doggedness and Its Ancillary Benefits

The era of the mercenary international soccer superstar, or Galáctico, had not yet begun.

After playing mostly on the left side of the defense, he’d been slotted in at center back, mainly because nobody thought he had the speed to play wide.

Puyol had taken Figo’s betrayal personally. At the very least, the job of defending Barcelona’s honor would fall to a patriot.

“I had only one purpose and that was to stop him,” Puyol said.

Looking back, Puyol acknowledged that the day he marked Figo was the day he became known in Barcelona. But that wasn’t what mattered to him. “We won,” he said, “which is most important.”

One of the highest compliments coaches can pay athletes is to describe them as relentless, to say that they just keep coming.

If any Tier One team leader best embodies the virtue of doggedness, it is Lawrence Peter Berra, the catcher for the New York Yankees.

Though people mocked his swing-at-everything approach, Berra hit .280 in his first full season in New York, posting a near-elite .464 slugging percentage and striking out only twelve times.

He was not a very good catcher.

During spring training in 1949, the Yankees’ manager, Casey Stengel, decided to send Berra to school. He brought in Bill Dickey—a legendary former catcher and Hall of Famer—to teach Berra how to play the position. The two spent hours together as Dickey tweaked everything from Berra’s positioning and signal calling to his throwing mechanics.

At the same time, three of the Yankees’ veteran pitchers—Eddie Lopat, Vic Raschi, and Allie Reynolds—decided that if they wanted to win, they, too, would have to help make Berra a better catcher. The pitchers, who had become close friends off the field, even gave this mentorship a nickname: the Project.

From his shaky beginnings, Berra went on to win fourteen league titles with the Yankees in nineteen seasons and ten World Series titles overall, the most for any player. He set a record for home runs by a catcher and won three MVP awards. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972.

The main point of difference is that their natural ability seemed to bear no relation to the size of their accomplishments. Something enabled them to set aside their limitations and tune out the skepticism from their critics. But what was it?

Carol Dweck has become one of the world’s preeminent experts on the subject of how people, especially children, cope with challenge and difficulty.

While solving the easy problems, most of the children spoke positively about the test and their performances. They were uniformly happy and confident. But when faced with the harder “failure” problems, most of the children’s moods turned dark. They said they didn’t like the test, or felt bored or anxious. When asked why they thought they weren’t doing well, they didn’t attribute their struggles to the difficulty of the problems—they blamed their own lack of ability. Faced with adversity, their problem-solving skills deteriorated, too. They simply stopped trying.

A smaller group of kids had a different reaction, however. Faced with the failure problems, they kept working. They didn’t think they were dumb; they believed they just hadn’t found the right strategy yet. A few reacted in a shockingly positive way. One boy pulled up his chair, rubbed his hands together, and said, “I love a challenge.” These persistent kids, as a group, hadn’t been any better at solving the easy problems. In fact, their strategies suggested that they were, on average, slightly less skillful. But when the going got tough, they didn’t get down on themselves. They viewed the unsolved problems as puzzles to be mastered through effort.

The helpless kids were preoccupied with their performance. They wanted to look smart even if it meant avoiding the difficult problems. The mastery-oriented children were motivated by the desire to learn. They saw failure as a chance to improve their skills.

What Dweck ultimately discovered is that these children had different ideas about the nature of ability. The helpless kids viewed their skills as fixed from birth. They believed they were either smart enough to do something, or they weren’t, and it was up to others to render a verdict. The mastery kids had a more malleable sense of their intelligence: They believed it could be grown through effort. “They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein,” Dweck said, “but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.”

While common sense suggests that a person’s natural ability should inspire self-confidence, Dweck’s research showed that in most cases, ability has very little to do with it. A person’s reaction to failure is everything.

Can a captain’s doggedness make an entire team play better?

The same unceasing drive was something displayed by Russell, Puyol, Berra, Richard, and every other captain in Tier One. Early struggles culminated in a defining moment, a breakthrough that left no doubt about their desire to win at any cost. And in each case, after they had established this fact, their teams began to turn the corner. The pattern was so consistent that it suggested their doggedness might, in fact, have been contagious.

While the force applied did grow with every new person added, the average force applied by each person fell. Rather than amplifying the power of individuals, the act of pulling as a team caused each person to pull less hard than they had when pulling alone. Later researchers coined a name for this phenomenon. They called it social loafing.

The less identifiable one person’s effort is, the less effort they put in.

They wanted to see whether one person giving a maximum effort could incite others to improve their performances. The scientists grouped their shouters in pairs and, before they began shouting, told them that their partner was a high-effort performer. In these situations, something interesting happened. The pairs screamed just as hard together as they had alone. The knowledge that a teammate was giving it their all was enough to prompt people to give more themselves.

The Fordham study seemed to confirm my suspicions about Tier One captains: Their displays of tenacity could have positively influenced the way their teams performed.

Puyol dashed over to the trainers with an expression of cartoonish urgency. Unless Barcelona wanted to substitute Puyol (which it didn’t), the only option was to staple the wound right there on the sidelines. Puyol was fine with that. His only concern was that the process went quickly. As the trainer examined the cut, Puyol impatiently grabbed at the staple gun as if he wanted to employ it himself. When the trainer snapped the staple in place, Puyol didn’t flinch. He ran to the touchline, manically waving his hands at the referee. Minutes later, with Puyol back in place, Barcelona’s Lionel Messi scored the winning goal. In an interview, Puyol described the incident as “nothing.”

I have always felt I had to give everything. That’s how I’ve always been. It’s my way of respecting football and respecting my teammates.”

“Winning is difficult,” he said, “but to win again is much more difficult—because egos appear. Most people who win once have already achieved what they wanted and don’t have any more ambition.”

I asked him whether he thought his effort was contagious. “I think that when you see a teammate go to the maximum and give everything—I don’t mean myself, but anyone—what you cannot do is to just stand there and let another team’s player pass right by you,” he said. “If everybody is giving one hundred percent and you are only giving eighty percent, it shows. So I think it makes everyone go to one hundred percent.”

• One of the most confounding laws of human nature is that when faced with a task, people will work harder alone than they will when joined in the effort—a phenomenon known as social loafing. There is, however, an antidote. It’s the presence of one person who leaves no doubt that they are giving it everything they’ve got.
• The captains of the greatest teams in sports history had an unflagging commitment to playing at their maximum capability. Although they were rarely superior athletes, they demonstrated an extreme level of doggedness in competition, and in their conditioning and preparation. They also put pressure on their teammates to continue competing even when victory was all but assured.

SIX   Intelligent Fouls Playing to the Edge of the Rules

In training, the Cubans would raise the nets by eight inches to match the height of the men’s game. They strengthened their legs by leaping one hundred times onto a tall box while holding weights. “They hit harder than some men’s teams,” noted Mike Hebert, a retired American volleyball coach who saw them practice. “Every attempt appeared to have the spiker’s reputation riding on it.”

“Listen here,” Catalina said. “I didn’t give birth to a daughter so she could go and cry in front of her adversary. And don’t go to the hairdresser anymore, because I saw you changed your hair. You went to Atlanta to play volleyball, not to get your hair groomed!”

Luis was part of something larger than she was and had a responsibility to control her emotions. There was no choice but to find a way to pull her team through this.

“In Atlanta we were past strategies,” Luis told me. “It was fundamental. We were out for victory at any cost.”

Shouting expletives at your opponent wasn’t explicitly barred by volleyball’s code of conduct—but it certainly violated the spirit of sportsmanship.

There are two activities in polite society in which it’s okay to do harmful things to other people in the pursuit of victory. The first is war. The second is sports. Part of the deal, however, is that there are some lines not to be crossed.

The guiding principle is that it’s not whether a team plays hard to win but that it plays with honor.

Sport was supposed to be the province of upright ladies and gentlemen. You wouldn’t try to psych out your opponents by calling them names.

The one captain I’ve met who epitomized what people expect a modern leader to be is Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees.

One of the things I noticed about the Tier One captains was how often they had pushed the frontiers of the rules in pressure situations, sometimes with ugly results. What I had not understood is that these flare-ups were not always impulsive acts performed in the heat of battle. In some cases, they were premeditated.

With Brazil ahead 10–3, Luis leaned over and shouted the first insult across the net. Bitches.

Luis called the players together at the end of the break, without the coaches present. If things continued like this, she told them, they would lose. She and Carvajal had been prodding and insulting the Brazilians; now it was time for everyone else to join in.

At this point, the strategy entered its most dangerous phase. Scheffer, the referee, summoned the two captains to his chair and asked Luis why her team was insulting the Brazilians. “I told him, ‘Don’t worry, it won’t happen again.’ ” Then she walked back to her teammates and made a gesture that appeared to say “Cool it.” But rather than hedging her bet, Luis decided to double down. Once safely out of earshot, she told them, “Girls, we have to keep insulting them!”

“Termino,” the dejected Brazilian commentator said, emphasizing each syllable. “Ter-mi-no.”

The match would be remembered as one of the greatest shootouts in volleyball history but also one of the sport’s biggest embarrassments. Its legacy is confusing. What Luis had done wasn’t some impulsive act like McCaw’s extended foot—it had been a calculated offense that violated every definition of fair play. It had also worked. The slurs had woken up the Cubans while discombobulating the Brazilians to the point that they contributed to their own defeat. “They got what they wanted,” Brazil’s Virna Dias later said.

How are we supposed to view Luis’s “leadership” during this match? Was it the mark of a true champion or a brute?

In 1961, Arnold Buss, a psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh, published one of the first comprehensive books about human aggression. He concluded, based in part on laboratory experiments, that people exhibit two distinct flavors of aggression: The first is a “hostile” one driven by anger or frustration and motivated by the reward of seeing someone hurt or punished; the second is an “instrumental” one that isn’t motivated by a desire to injure but by the determination to achieve a worthwhile goal.

“You have to distinguish between assertiveness and aggression,” Buss said. “There is a low correlation between them.”

In a 2007 book, Aggression and Adaptation: The Bright Side to Bad Behavior, a team of American psychologists noted that nearly all of the most highly ambitious, powerful, and successful people in business display at least some level of hostility and aggressive self-expression. The authors didn’t go so far as to argue that these behaviors constitute “moral goodness,” but they didn’t dismiss them as the mark of evil, either. “Aggressive behavior offers avenues for personal growth, goal attainment and positive peer regard,” they wrote.

They didn’t test the boundaries of the rules in order to hurt people, although injuries to bodies or feelings were possible. Their goal was to win.

These were aggressive acts that pushed the limits of what’s acceptable, but they were also instrumental.

This idea, that aggression is a skill, is something many elite captains instinctively endorsed.

‘intelligent’ or ‘useful’ fouls, but they remain fouls, and I took yellow cards so that we didn’t face worse consequences.” The key, Deschamps said, is to maintain self-control and to know when it’s okay to foul and when you are “too far up the referee’s nose” to get away with it. “It’s something you feel. It’s a feeling. It’s a form of intelligence.”

Trying to hurt opponents for the sake of inflicting pain wasn’t right, but roughing them up for the purpose of rattling and distracting them was.

While competing, they wrote, athletes exist in a “game frame” where they engage in “game reasoning” that allows them to adopt a code of behavior different from the one that applies in the outside world.

They called this phenomenon bracketed morality. This suggests that when athletes take the field they enter a parallel universe—one with different boundaries in which doing what’s broadly considered to be moral isn’t always the correct move. In other words, once somebody enters the game frame, they judge their own behavior differently, even if the outside world does not.

Aggression, she said, “is part of the game, too. And how you do it is important. I don’t think we did this in a cruel way. It wasn’t meant…I don’t know how to tell you. It wasn’t nice, but it was a show that derived from the pursuit of a medal.”

always tried to transmit joy, or energy, with my smile,” she said. “It motivated my team.”

People who are aggressive all the time, she said, “are just rude.”

the difference between leaders who worry about how they’re perceived and leaders who drag their teams through challenges by any means necessary. The world puts a lot of pressure on athletes, especially captains, to be champions and paragons of virtue. But these two things do not always correlate. It’s sometimes one or the other. The most decorated captains in history understood this.


When it comes to behaving aggressively, there is a persistent view that a person who does so must be suffering from some kind of psychological or spiritual deficiency. What people fail to understand is that all aggression is not the same. There is a “hostile” variety that is intended to do harm and an “instrumental” form that is employed in pursuit of a worthwhile goal. While the captains in Tier One often did ugly things, they did so while operating within the fuzzy confines of the rules of sports. The difference between a captain who upholds the principles of sportsmanship at all times and a captain who bends it to its edges is that the latter captain is more concerned with winning than with how the public perceives them.

SEVEN   Carrying Water The Invisible Art of Leading from the Back

Deschamps was unassuming but proud. Unlike Cantona, he’d already earned a pair of European club titles, one with Juve and another as captain of Marseille. Before he retired in 2001, he would become one of only three captains in my study to lead two different teams into Tier Two. How he would respond was anybody’s guess.

In the seventh century B.C., Chionis of Sparta swept the sprinting events at the Olympics. The Greeks decided to honor him by carving his name on a stone memorial at Olympia.

In the dressing room, former Manchester United captain Roy Keane once wrote, “the gap between what we do—and feel—and other people’s reality is alarming. The media hero is not necessarily the Man in here….Ditto the crowd pleaser. We live in a make-believe world created by the media, which is largely though not entirely, fiction. The fictional hero is often an arsehole.”

Beyond this, most of the Tier One captains had zero interest in the trappings of fame. They didn’t pursue the captaincy for the prestige it conveyed—if they pursued it at all. In 2004, when Carles Puyol’s teammates unanimously elected him captain, his was the only dissenting vote. “I thought it was more ethical to vote for others,” he told me.

All of my research showed that contrary to the public view, it is possible for a water carrier who prefers toiling in the service of others to become a strong captain. In fact, superior leadership is just as likely (if not more so) to come from the team’s rear quarters than to emanate from its frontline superstar. Carrying water, especially on defense, is clearly vital to a team’s success, even if it’s not something that inspires people to compose epic poems or chisel their names in stone.

But after Duncan got his hands on the trophy, I watched him carry it calmly across the room and open the bathroom door. He pulled his teammate and closest friend on the team, David Robinson, inside with him, and slammed it shut. Whatever emotions needed to pour out of Duncan in that moment, they were none of the public’s business.

Duncan’s selfless approach to basketball did earn him one prominent fan, however. Bill Russell, the other basketball captain in Tier One, raved that Duncan was the league’s most efficient player, the one who wasted the least motion—and emotion—on the court. Russell especially admired the way Duncan played without the ball. “He sets picks to make the offense operate,” Russell said, “not necessarily to get himself a shot.”

It’s not sexy. But it’s efficient.”

When Duncan retired in 2016, his teams had won five NBA championships and had made the playoffs in all nineteen of his seasons. Individually, he managed to set the most impressive mark of all—winning more games with one team than any player in NBA history.

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’re motivated by the prestige the role conveys rather than a desire to promote the goals and values of the organization.

One of Hackman’s central beliefs was that people were far too quick to assume that the success or failure of a team was directly attributable to the person running it. “We mistakenly assume that the best leaders are those who stand on whatever podium they can command and, through their personal efforts in real time, extract greatness from their teams.” In reality, only 10 percent of a team’s performance depended on what the leader did once the performance was under way. But when it came to that 10 percent, Hackman found no evidence that a leader’s charisma, or even their specific methods, made any difference. It didn’t even matter if the leader performed all of the key leadership functions on the team—all that mattered was that these jobs got done. When good leaders saw these conditions eroding, they would tinker with new strategies to get things back on track. Leaders, Hackman believed, were more effective when they worked like jazz musicians, freely improvising with the flow of things, and less like orchestra players, who follow a written score under the direction of a conductor.

“From a functional perspective,” he wrote, “effective team leaders are those who do, or who arrange to get done, whatever is critical for the team to accomplish its purpose.”

The Tier One captains had varying levels of talent. Some were superstars in their own right—most were not. Duncan’s basketball skills put him at the high end of the scale. When his team found itself in a precarious situation, his teammates knew that if he wanted to, he had the ability to swoop in to save the day—to take the big shot. Most of the other captains didn’t have that power. They had unspectacular skills or played rear-facing positions.

She was a defender whose skills, according to one former coach, were “average at best.” She did not project the kind of confidence, or game-changing ability, leaders are supposed to display. But Overbeck’s humility had an upside for the team. By getting rid of the ball as soon as she had the opportunity, she increased the amount of time it was at the feet of superior athletes—and because she rarely left the pitch, this selfless instinct helped the team generate more scoring chances. The same functional mentality touched everything she did, even off the field. When the U.S. team arrived at a hotel after some grueling international flight, Overbeck would carry everyone’s bags to their hotel rooms. “I’m the captain,” she explained, “but I’m no better than anybody else. I’m certainly not a better soccer player.”

After some brutal conditioning drill, “they’d be dying, and I’d be like, ‘F-ing Norway is doing shit like this.’ I’m sure they hated me.”

The Fordham study of shouters (see Chapter Five) showed that hard work is contagious and that one player’s exertion can elevate the performances of others. But Overbeck’s brand of doggedness had another component. Her work ethic in training, combined with her bag-schlepping humility on and off the field, allowed her to amass a form of currency she could spend however she saw fit. She didn’t use it to dominate play on the field. She used it to ride her teammates when they needed to be woken up, knowing that it wouldn’t create resentment. Anson Dorrance, who coached the team from 1986 to 1994, said he believed Overbeck carried the team’s luggage so that when she got on the field, “she could say anything she wanted.”

“She had a genuineness about her,” her teammate Briana Scurry said. “You knew she was on your side, even if she was laying into you. Carla was the heartbeat of that team and the engine. Everything about the essence of the team—that was Carla.”

If the chief responsibility of a team leader is to direct the other players on the field, then by all rights these captains must have found ways to influence, if not control, the team’s tactics.

For some Tier One captains, this “quarterbacking” function was plain to see.

said of Cuba’s Mireya Luis. “She wouldn’t get mad, but if you did something wrong she would immediately correct it. She would correct any of the mistakes the players made because she had great vision for volleyball.”

Deschamps’s approach to leadership was as functional as it gets. On a team, he said, “you can’t only have architects. You also need bricklayers.”

As he talked about his time playing with Zidane, Deschamps made an interesting point—the relationship, he said, went both ways. Yes, he served Zidane by making sure he got the ball, but Zidane relied on him to make those passes. Zidane, he said, “also needed me.”

The idea that a player who serves the team can also create dependency was something I had never considered. Deschamps, as his team’s primary midfield setup man, was able to dictate the action ahead of him by deciding which players got the ball. His superstar teammates not only looked to him for passes, they coveted his approval.

His job was to hold the middle of the field and mark the other team’s best striker—a role that required him to stand his ground while the world’s biggest, fastest players plowed into him like a tackling dummy.

We assume that the team is the star and the star is the team. On the seventeen teams in Tier One, however, the captains were rarely stars, nor did they act like it. They shunned attention. They gravitated to functional roles. They carried water.

The great captains lowered themselves in relation to the group whenever possible in order to earn the moral authority to drive them forward in tough moments. The person at the back, feeding the ball to others, may look like a servant—but that person is actually creating dependency. The easiest way to lead, it turns out, is to serve.

EIGHT   Boxing Ears and Wiping Noses Practical Communication

As much as Carla Overbeck hated the public eye, her cloak of reserve dropped the moment a match began. “I was very vocal,” she told me. If a teammate stuck a tackle, she said she would be the first to praise her, “but if they weren’t working hard, I would let them know that, too. If I got on someone for not working hard, as soon as they would shred somebody I would be all over them, telling them how great they were.” Didier Deschamps said that within the confines of his team, he was rarely quiet. “I talked during the warm-up, I talked in the locker room, I talked on the field, I talked at halftime. And I kept talking afterward. You have to talk. That’s how you can correct something.”

During Jack Lambert’s captaincy of the Steelers, the team had a long-standing tradition of gathering in the sauna after games—away from the coaches and the press—to both decompress and have unvarnished conversations about how they had played. It was a no-bullshit zone where candor reigned, accountability was demanded, and no one was above criticism.

Viktor Tikhonov, the taskmaster coach of the Soviet Red Army hockey team in the 1980s, was not beloved by his players. But by requiring them to train and compete under intense pressure, apart from their families, for as many as eleven months a year, he forced them to bond so tightly that their identities were no longer distinct.

One of the most convivial teams in Tier One was the 1949–53 New York Yankees. On this team, veterans didn’t haze the rookies the way Yogi Berra had been hazed—they took them under their wings. They eliminated cliques by hosting team barbecues to which everyone was invited. It was this team’s collection of veteran pitchers who, in 1949, took it upon themselves to help turn Berra into a formidable catcher.

Berra did some of his finest work when his pitchers were struggling. Sometimes he’d tell them to take it easy, or crack jokes to cut the tension. Other times he lit a fire. “Yogi made you bear down,” said the pitcher Whitey Ford.

“Berra proved not only to be a good listener,” the author Sol Gittleman wrote, “but what every catcher must be: the subtle psychologist and manipulator of his pitchers.”

One of the oldest puzzles of human interaction is why some groups of people, but not all of them, learn to operate on the same wavelength—to think, and act, as one. Scientists who study group dynamics have found some evidence that over time, when a group of individuals become accustomed to performing a task together, they can develop something called shared cognition.

Other researchers have shown that when a team begins to master “unconscious” communication, its overall performance improves significantly—even if the skill level of each individual member stays the same.

Over seven years, starting in 2005, a group of researchers from the Human Dynamics Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studied teams from twenty-one organizations, ranging from banks to hospitals to call centers, to see how they communicated and how those communication patterns influenced their performance.

Right away, the MIT study confirmed what we all suspect: that communication matters. Whether a team was packed with talented, intelligent, and highly motivated individuals, or whether it had achieved solid results in the past, its communication style on any given day was still the best indicator of its performance.

The MIT researchers found that a key factor was the level of “energy and engagement” the members displayed in social settings outside formal meetings. In other words, teams that talked intently among themselves in the break room were more likely to achieve superior results at work. How much time every member of the group spent talking also proved to be crucial. On the best teams, speaking time was doled out equitably—no single person ever hogged the floor, while nobody shrank from the conversation, either. In an ideal situation, Pentland wrote, “everyone on the team talks and listens in roughly equal measure, keeping contributions short and sweet.”

The researchers were also able to isolate the data signatures of the “natural leaders” of these productive units, whom the scientists called charismatic connectors. “Badge data show that these people circulate actively, engaging people in short, high-energy conversations,” Pentland wrote. “They are democratic with their time—communicating with everyone equally and making sure all team members get a chance to contribute. They’re not necessarily extroverts, although they feel comfortable approaching other people. They listen as much as or more than they talk and are usually very engaged with whomever they’re listening to. We call it ‘energized but focused listening.’

“We have to keep playing,” he said. “We don’t sit back.”

In addition to the words he used, he felt it was also important to touch people while talking to them and to synchronize his words with his body language. “You have to match up what you want to say with your facial expression,” he said. “The players know when I’m happy or not. They can hear it and they can also see it.”

Words are an important part of the equation—but there’s a lot more to it.

Body language was by far the most significant factor. Their words barely mattered.

The results, the authors wrote, “suggest, first, that our consensual intuitive judgments might be unexpectedly accurate and, second, that we communicate—unwittingly—a great deal of information about ourselves.”

In his 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence, the psychologist Daniel Goleman outlined a theory based on an idea that scientists had been kicking around since the 1960s. Goleman believed that a person’s ability to recognize, regulate, conjure, and project emotions is a distinct form of brainpower—one that can’t be revealed by a standard IQ test. People who have high emotional fluency understand how to use “emotional information” to change their thinking and behavior, which can help them perform better in settings where they have to interact with others. Goleman also believed that emotional intelligence was closely correlated to the skills required to be an effective leader, and that it can be more significant in this regard than IQ or even a person’s technical expertise.

Spurs players kept up a never-ending dialogue: “Come on, do the work…get to the middle…step back, step back…can’t stop moving…pace, pace…not too much, Patty…red, red, red…look behind, beeeehiiind!”

During their unrivaled nineteen-season streak of consistency, the Spurs won five NBA titles by playing grinding defense, running disciplined plays with picks and screens, and excelling in the low post. The Spurs were never the stars of the NBA’s offensive or defensive statistical tables. But they were outliers in one category: communication. Like other Tier One teams, the Spurs spent a lot of time talking among themselves, mostly as a means of tightening their choreography.

A guy that wants to put the pressure on himself.” Compared to most of the captains in Tier One, Duncan seemed to have a profound lack of affect.

The Onion once poked fun at Duncan for this in an article with the headline “Tim Duncan Hams It Up for Crowd by Arching Left Eyebrow Slightly”).

There was one thing about Duncan that caught my attention, however—his eyes.

His face might have been inscrutable, but his eyes never left any mystery about what he was thinking.

It was during timeouts, when he wasn’t playing, that Duncan’s eyes came fully alive. They were always moving—darting around to scan the faces of teammates and coaches, the referees, the video board, even the fans. Duncan had several timeout rituals. The moment the whistle blew, he’d pop up from the bench before everyone else and walk out to slap hands with the players as they came off the floor. Then he would vector over to the assistant coaches’ huddle to have a look at their notes (something few NBA players do). When San Antonio’s coach, Gregg Popovich, knelt down to address the team, Duncan would stake out a spot just behind his left shoulder. From this vantage point, he could see what “Pop” was scribbling on his dry-erase board and add his input when necessary. This vantage point also allowed him to monitor the body language of his teammates sitting in front of him.

After every timeout, when Popovich finished talking, Duncan would seek out one or two teammates, speaking with them softly but intently, sometimes wagging his finger as he explained a strategic point. He also touched them often, slapping hands or butts, tossing an arm around their shoulders, or, in lighter moments, playfully bumping them. As I watched him run this circuit, I realized that all of Duncan’s movements were calculated. Like those charismatic connectors in the MIT study, he circulated widely among the team and was democratic with his time. He felt comfortable approaching everyone. He listened as much as he talked and never broke eye contact.

“Tim always finds ways to get the message across, even if it’s little, quick, and short. If something needs to be said, he’ll say it. If not, he’ll leave it alone. So when he does speak, everyone listens.”

The great irony of Duncan’s leadership was that even though he didn’t like to talk, he worked hard to create an environment in which talking was encouraged.

“He doesn’t judge people,” Popovich said of Duncan. “He tries to figure out who they are, what they do, and what their strengths are. He just has a very good sense about people. When we learned that about him…we knew we were going to be able to bring almost anybody here, unless they were a serial killer, and he was going to be able to figure out what to do with them.

In addition to exploring the power of body language, the Harvard study of teaching fellows examined another idea—whether there was an ideal combination of gestures and expressions a person can make.

Ambady and Rosenthal noticed that the lowest-rated teachers had a tendency to sit, shake their heads, frown, and fidget with their hands. Those gestures seemed to be ones worth avoiding. The highest-rated teachers were generally more active than the others, but beyond that their gestures were all over the map.

Charisma was not some universal, repeatable, or even easily recognizable quality in a person. There was no “correct” set of mannerisms that increased one’s odds of making a favorable impression.

In other words, whatever notions we have of what traits make somebody charismatic are implicitly wrong. It doesn’t matter what kind of body language or speech pattern people use when communicating with others. What matters is that they develop a formula that works for them.

Other Tier One captains used a different approach. They engaged with their teammates constantly—listening, observing, and inserting themselves into every meaningful moment. They didn’t think of communication as a form of theater. They saw it as an unbroken flow of interactions, a never-ending parade of boxing ears, delivering hugs, and wiping noses.


They led without fanfare.

One of the great scientific discoveries about effective teams is that their members talk to one another. They do it democratically, with each person taking a turn. The leaders of these kinds of teams circulated widely, talking to everyone with enthusiasm and energy. The teams in Tier One had talkative cultures like this, too—and the person who fostered and sustained that culture was the captain. Despite their lack of enthusiasm for talking publicly, most of these captains, inside the private confines of their teams, talked all the time and strengthened their messages with gestures, stares, touches, and other forms of body language. The secret to effective team communication isn’t grandiosity. It’s a stream of chatter that is practical, physical, and consistent.

NINE   Calculated Acts The Power of Nonverbal Displays

Lambert’s most powerful weapon on the field, however, was something intangible. He scared the living shit out of people.

“I’m really not that wild, either. I’m emotional, but I know what I’m doing. It’s a series of calculated acts.”

“He was probably the biggest intimidator on the team,” Milie said. “He liked having blood on his uniform.”

On the field, he went out of his way to project extreme passion and emotion. This seemed to me like an altogether different impulse—a more primal form of communication that belonged in a separate category.

In his 1960 book, Crowds and Power, Canetti described the way an emotion could sweep rapidly and wordlessly through a group of people, creating an irresistible impulse to join in. “Most of them do not know what has happened and, if questioned, have no answer; but they hurry to be there where most other people are,” he wrote. “There is a determination in their movement which is quite different from the expression of ordinary curiosity. It seems as though the movement of some of them transmits itself to the others.” In the crowd, “the individual feels that he is transcending the limits of his own person.”

Canetti believed that people didn’t decide to join mobs; they were moved to do so by an emotional contagion that seeped into them unconsciously, creating a simultaneous alignment of their biology. That contagion would drive them to pursue some unified course of action, even at the risk of injury or death. A crowd, Canetti wrote, “wants to experience for itself the strongest possible feeling of its animal force.”

The discovery of these reactive cells, or mirror neurons, as the scientists called them, offered the first physical evidence that the phenomenon of brain interconnectedness that researchers had observed in groups might be the result of a complex, hardwired neurochemical system in our bodies that operates below consciousness.

Yet dozens of experiments done under the umbrella of “emotional intelligence” have made one thing clear: Many effective leaders can—and do—use this subconscious system to manipulate the emotions of their followers. Daniel Goleman and another psychologist, Richard Boyatzis, writing on this subject in 2008, said they believe that great leaders are the ones “whose behavior powerfully leverages this system of brain interconnectedness.”

surface acting. This occurs when a person puts on an expression, or takes some subtle action, to try to influence the people around them.

What all of this research shows is that anyone who wants to change the emotional composition of a group—whether it’s a Viennese mob or a football team—can do so by tapping into an invisible network that connects all people together. Strong leaders, if they are so inclined, can bypass the conscious minds of their followers and communicate directly with their brains.

New Zealand’s native Maori tribe were renowned warriors, famous the world over for their intimidating facial tattoos, their skill at wielding giant staffs made of wood or whalebone, and celebrating victories in battle by eating the roasted hearts of their enemies. The haka, which is basically a group dance, was an ancient component of Maori warcraft, a tightly choreographed spectacle of ignition performed in a variety of circumstances but mainly before battle. The haka was meant to paralyze the enemy with dread by conveying the idea that the warriors had come under the influence of the gods. It was also used to create a collective frenzy among the warriors that put their bodies into perfect sync. The message it sent, as the haka expert Inia Maxwell put it, was that “we’re going to battle and we’re not really expecting to come back alive or injury-free, so let’s throw everything at it.”

Ka Mate. To perform it, the All Blacks lined up at midfield before kickoff in a wedge formation facing the other team. The ritual began when the haka leader, standing in the center, shouted, “Kia rite!” (“Be ready!”)

“Ringa pakia!” (“Slap the hands against the thighs!”)
“Uma tiraha!” (“Puff out the chest!”)
“Turi whatia!” (“Bend the knees!”)
“Hope whai ake!” (“Let the hip follow!”)
“Waewae takahia kia kino!” (“Stamp the feet as hard as you can!”)

“Ka mate, ka mate?” (“Am I going to die, am I going to die?”)
“Ka ora, ka ora?” (“Or will I live, or will I live?”)

Shelford forced the All Blacks to practice the ritual, and then practice it some more. As the weeks rolled on, his team became increasingly engrossed in the performance. “It started to mean something to them,” he said.

Shelford’s reinvigorated haka clearly became a source of energy for the team and a problem for its opponents.

Maurice “Rocket” Richard. The legendary center Jean Béliveau once wrote that Richard “embodied a force, an energy, something that rubbed off on many of his teammates and carried us to five straight championships.”

“The Rocket was more than a hockey player,” his former coach Dick Irvin said. “It was his fury, his desire, and his intensity that motivated the Canadiens.”

Inside the dressing room in the final minutes before the game, Richard would swivel his head methodically from one side of the room to the other, stopping to stare at each of his teammates until they met his eyes. When he was done, he would make some clipped statement, like “Let’s go out and win it.” Given what we know about emotional contagion, deep and surface acting, mirror neurons, and the speed at which the brain registers strong emotions, this tactic suddenly takes on a different cast. It’s as if Richard knew that by locking his beams on people and making them see his face, he could download his own intensity right into them.

If there is a pathway into the minds of human beings that bypasses consciousness and absorbs the emotions of others; and if this pathway can be activated by the sight of a bloody uniform, a hair-raising tribal dance, or just a deep stare; and if these displays can propel a team to run faster, jump higher, hit harder, and push through pain and exhaustion, then these captains must have been masters of the art.

Philipp Lahm, the German soccer captain who, like Deschamps, led two different teams into Tier Two (more on him in a moment), summed it up well. Lahm believed that without passion, even the best teams won’t win, and that the passion of one player could elevate the performance of an entire unit. When a leader does something dramatic on the field, he said, “it releases energies you didn’t even know you had.”


Our brains are capable of making deep, powerful, fast-acting, and emotional connections with the brains of people around us. This kind of synergy doesn’t require our participation. It happens automatically, whether we’re aware of it or not.

TEN   Uncomfortable Truths The Courage to Stand Apart

He hadn’t just played through some routine malady. He’d suffered a heart attack.

Yet Vasiliev’s extreme act of rebellion hadn’t injected any of these toxins. Rather, it set in motion a series of events that brought his teammates closer, cemented his leadership, and paved the way for the team to reel off one of the seventeen most dominant streaks in sports history. There was a strong circumstantial case to be made that the moment Vasiliev attacked his coach was the moment his team made its turn toward greatness.

But all of the Tier One captains, to varying degrees, stood up to management during their careers.

“Red Teaming,” in which a team working on a project will designate one person, or a small group of people, to make the most forceful argument they can muster for why the idea that’s currently on the table is a bad one.

Some dissent is a good thing—a strong leader should stand up for the team. Vince Lombardi once said that a captain’s leadership should be based on “truth” and that superior captains identify with the group and support it at all times, “even at the risk of displeasing superiors.” Nevertheless, there’s a line between a level of dissent that’s effective for a team and a level of dissent that destroys its cohesion.

A few captains in my study, however, had engaged in a different, more explosive kind of dissent. They hadn’t just spoken out against their coaches or managers, they had also publicly criticized their teammates.

To prod the others into improving by calling them out.

Even more remarkably, he didn’t play a set position. Depending on the team’s tactical needs at any given moment, he would switch between defense and midfield, from the left side to the right.

Richard Hackman, the Harvard organizational psychologist who studied performance teams and extolled the virtues of functional leadership, had also observed the role leaders play in helping groups navigate conflict. All of his research supported one strong conclusion—all great leaders will find themselves right in the middle of it. In order to be effective, Hackman wrote, a team leader “must operate at the margins of what members presently like and want rather than at the center of the collective consensus.”

Hackman believed that dissenting wasn’t just a crucial function of a leader but a form of courage.

Hackman’s research left little doubt that teams need some internal push and pull in order to achieve great things.

Jehn had conducted studies on teams that showed that certain kinds of disagreements didn’t have a negative effect—in fact, teams that had high levels of conflict were often more likely to engage in open discussions that helped them arrive at novel solutions to problems. The worst outcomes came when groups engaged in thoughtless agreements.

In 2012, Jehn and two colleagues published a meta-analysis of sixteen different experiments based on 8,880 teams. The paper’s goal was to test a theory Jehn had developed about the nature of group conflict. Jehn believed that “conflict” needed to be better defined. She believed that dissent inside teams took several different forms. One was something she called personal or relationship conflict, which is defined as the manifestation of some personality clash—an interpersonal ego-driven showdown between a team’s members. This kind of dispute was distinct from another form, task conflict, which is defined as any disagreement that isn’t personal but arises from, and is focused on, the actual execution of the work at hand. There was a difference, she believed, between teams that squabbled because the members didn’t like one another and teams that fought over their different views of how to solve a problem they were working on.

Teams that had engaged in personal conflict had shown significant decreases in trust, cohesion, satisfaction, and commitment—all of which had a negative impact on their performance. For teams that had undergone task conflict, however, the effect on their performance was basically neutral. Arguing about the job at hand hadn’t helped them, but it hadn’t hurt.

“We have found that task conflicts are not necessarily disruptive for group outcomes,” the authors wrote. “Instead, conditions exist under which task conflict is positively related to group performance.”

To lead effectively, Lahm believed, a captain has to speak truth not only to power but to teammates as well. “It’s a totally romantic idea that you have to be eleven friends,” he said.

As much as we might be conditioned to fear it, dissent inside a team can be a powerful force for good. It’s also clear that great captains have to be willing to stand apart when they believe it’s necessary—to endure that “pain of independence” the researchers describe. There are limits, of course. No team can sustain itself for long if the captain, or anyone else, stokes the kind of conflict that’s based on petty hatreds or personal beefs. The principled stands they take must be aimed at defending their fellow players, the way Valeri Vasiliev did, or by keeping the camera pointed squarely at tactics, as Philipp Lahm did by dissecting Bayern’s personnel decisions.

All of this suggests that in any high-pressure team environment, even beyond sports, dissent is a priceless commodity. A leader who isn’t afraid to take on the boss, or the boss’s boss, or just stand up in the middle of a team meeting and say, “Here’s what we’re doing wrong,” is an essential component of excellence.

ELEVEN   The Kill Switch Regulating Emotion

Hawkes had all the classic traits of a Tier One captain. She didn’t score much, wasn’t exceptionally fast, and did not display dazzling stickwork. She focused on her conditioning and on perfecting the sport’s quieter, more team-oriented skills—trapping the ball, passing, tackling, changing directions.

Charlesworth had come to believe that by eliminating the fixed captaincy, the other players would feel more responsible for the outcome, which would empower them to work harder on the field. He believed that a revolving captaincy would end any politics or jostling among the players for the role.

“social loafing” that the French scientist Maximilien Ringelmann first observed.

push everyone into taking a leadership role. He required the players to change their uniform numbers constantly and forced everyone, even the stars, to sit out games occasionally in order to keep them hungry and motivated. In 1996 he had named four players, including Hawkes, as permanent members of a “leadership group,” which was later expanded to six. The members of the group would take turns filling the captain’s role on the field.

Once the season began, the open captaincy became a source of tension. The players suspected one another of lobbying for the honor, and when match captains were announced there were sour faces in the dressing room. Cliques hardened.

“The wheels fell off a little bit,” Hawkes recounted. “I don’t know if I can put it down to leadership. Subliminally, maybe I took a step back. Maybe the loss of the captaincy did have a psychological effect on me that I wasn’t aware of.”

When I asked Ric Charlesworth about his decision to name Renita Garard captain for the final, he said he hadn’t given it much thought; he hadn’t considered, or known, the effect it would have on Hawkes.

Even though her coach questioned her fitness to lead, Hawkes had the strength of character to block out her humiliation, remove her own concerns from the equation entirely, and continue leading the players in the face of enormous pressure.

After eighteen months of humiliation, just a few hours before it was set to end, she had to cope with the biggest setback of her career. She may have had the right sort of brain to handle these things—it might be as simple as that. But when I asked her about this ability, she didn’t see it as a sign of her exceptional biology. Emotional control, she told me, was just another form of discipline.

“You have to regulate emotion,” she said. “You can bring it back at some later stage, but when you know you’ve got something to do, you can remove it from your thoughts, put it in a vault, and get on with what you need to get on with.”

After meeting the Dalai Lama in India in 1992, Davidson decided to turn his attention to a more practical question. He wanted to know whether people could train themselves to be more resilient. Over the years, Davidson had become a strong believer in the concept of neuroplasticity, the idea that people’s brains will physically change over time and that those changes can depend on their life experiences.

What Davidson wanted to know was whether people could make positive changes intentionally.

He set out to explore a theory he’d long suspected to be true—that meditation, especially the long, grueling kind that Buddhist monks engage in, might cause this kind of brain rewiring to occur. Are people who meditate better at recovering from adversity?

The meditation experts, Davidson said, “exhibited something that we have identified as one very important constituent of well-being, which is the ability to rapidly recover from adversity.”

There is one thing we can say with certainty, however: At times when they were flooded with negativity, these captains engaged some kind of regulatory mechanism that shut those emotions off before they could have deleterious effects. In other words, they came equipped with a kill switch.

There’s no doubt that great captains use emotion to drive their teams. But like aggression and conflict, emotion comes in more than one flavor. It can enable, but it can also disable. During their careers, the Tier One captains all faced some issue that stirred up powerful negative emotions—an injury, a rebuke, a personal tragedy, even a climate of political injustice. These captains not only continued playing through setbacks—they excelled. They walled off these destructive emotions in order to serve the interests of the team.

A person’s ability to regulate emotion is largely governed by the kind of brain wiring they’re born with. Nevertheless, our genes provide us with a little wiggle room, and our brains do possess the ability to change over time. Scientists also believe it’s possible that we can force them to change through patience and practice. The Tier One captains suggest that this might be true. They displayed and, in one case, developed a kill switch for negative emotions.

PART III   THE OPPOSITE DIRECTION Leadership Mistakes and Misperceptions

The fact is that in the history of human events, nothing draws a larger and more diverse audience than two elite groups of athletes competing.

Part of our desire to join a great collective stems from the desire to be nobly led. We want to be inspired. We are programmed to respond to brave, steadfast, and fiercely committed leadership—the kind we see on great sports teams.

TWELVE   False Idols Flawed Captains and Why We Love Them

A master of aggressive displays, Keane once said that when he sensed his team getting too comfortable, he would make a reckless challenge or a bruising tackle just to “inject some angry urgency into the contest.”

“Aggression must be met with aggression.”

The rampant aggression that made Roy Keane such an icon was the same quality that made him different from the Tier One captains.

“Anger can be an emotion of action as the physiological surge of the sympathetic nervous system can lend itself to an increase in strength, stamina, speed and a decrease in perception of pain,” he wrote.

Abrams found that the studies presented more evidence that playing angry can produce negative returns. It wasn’t just that anger could draw sanctions from the referees. Intense anger, he wrote, could also harm a player’s performance “due to impairment in fine motor coordination, problem-solving, decision-making and other cognitive processes.”

After controlling for variables like position and minutes played, the researchers found that “aggressive” players—those with the highest technical foul rates—were, in fact, different from their colleagues. Some of their qualities were positive: They were more likely to excel at tasks that required power and explosive energy, such as rebounding and shot blocking. They also tended to take, and make, more field goals. The “energy” that a technical foul creates, or the angry disposition behind it, “may facilitate successful performance in some aspects of the game,” the researchers said.

While they took more foul shots, they were no better at converting them. When it came to taking, and making, three-point shots, the players who competed in a “high-arousal state” struggled mightily. The aggressive players also showed a greater propensity to commit turnovers. “Aggressive players may be prone to recklessness, which is consistent with research showing that angry people tend to engage in risky decision-making,” they said.

Researchers have spent a lot of time looking at the question of why some people are more aggressive than others. They have suggested that these people have different kinds of brains, suffer from cognitive impairment or immaturity, or possess a “warrior gene” that predisposes them to risky behavior. One psychologist, Michael Apter of Georgetown University, theorized that aggression is driven by the pursuit of a pleasure sensation that comes from seeing a rival’s fortunes reversed.

Another idea, backed by laboratory experiments, is that some people have chronically hostile and irritable personalities—they possess a “hostility bias” that makes neutral actions seem threatening and prompts them to react angrily to challenges.

But the Case Western scientists believed that restraint wasn’t some machinelike force; it was a resource—a form of energy people kept in reserve. The levels of these reserves varied not only between people but within them. In other words, our restraint tanks will either be empty or full at any moment, depending on how often we’ve been forced to draw from them.

The key argument this study made was that restraint is finite. The more we’re forced to employ our self-control, the less of it we have; and the less we have, the less able we are to inhibit our worst impulses.

The bigger problem, when it comes to Roy Keane, is that the least effective parts of his character are what he’s most admired for—the fighting, the lack of contrition, and the unyielding barrage of hostility he directed at everyone around him. From the outside, these things made him so vividly different from other captains that they seemed to be the hallmarks of his success as a leader. They overshadowed the things he did that actually helped his team: his dogged play, his water carrying, and his unrivaled talent for making displays of powerful emotion to shore up his teammates. When soccer fans say their team needs a captain like Roy Keane, what they’re really saying is that it lacks an enforcer on the pitch who intimidates the opposition, or that the players are too soft and comfortable. These things sound good in online forums, but the evidence suggests they’re not the kinds of qualities that turn teams into long-standing Tier One dynasties.

Jordan didn’t have the kinds of violent episodes Keane did, but he was still highly aggressive, constantly probing the limits of what the referees would allow, especially in the area of shit-talking opponents.

his teams never made it to Tier One. The second is that Jordan did not match the Captain Class blueprint.

As captain, Jordan led mostly by needling and belittling his teammates, who lived in perpetual fear of his famously sharp tongue. When Jordan lost confidence in a player, he would lobby management to get rid of him.

As Cartwright once put it: “You just play until there’s no game left in your uniform.”

The second difference was the way he played basketball. Jordan rarely labored in the service of his team. He ran the Bulls’ offense as he wished, to the exclusion of the supporting cast, and judged everything the organization did by how much it helped him.

But the fact remains that the Bulls hadn’t been able to make their “turn” until Bill Cartwright joined Jordan in the captaincy. It was Bill Cartwright who carried the water, put in the work, and provided the practical communication. He was, in short, the kind of Captain Class presence the team hadn’t had.

In a 1993 interview with Oprah Winfrey, Jordan conceded that he might be a “compulsive competitor.”

Jordan’s obsession with winning never shut off. It was a permanent condition that seemed to be driven by deep emotional forces. Basketball had proved to be a good conduit for a while, but it hadn’t been enough. After retiring, he barely took a breath before setting off on a new challenge: trying to make the roster of Major League Baseball’s Chicago White Sox. Jordan played 127 games in 1994 for the minor-league Birmingham Barons, hitting a measly .202 with 114 strikeouts.

At the six-minute mark, the speech took a strange turn. Jordan told a story about his high school coach, who hadn’t promoted him to the varsity basketball team as a sophomore. “I wanted to make sure you understood,” Jordan said. “You made a mistake, dude.” The crowd laughed and applauded. Jordan poked out the famous tongue, as if he’d slipped back into game mode.

His speech devolved into a long catalog of ancient beefs as he took shots at former NBA players, coaches, and executives who’d disrespected him. It wasn’t the speech of a legend. It was the speech given by an underdog who succeeded despite everyone else’s best efforts.

The reviews of Jordan’s address were resoundingly negative. The NBA writer Adrian Wojnarowski likened it to “a bully tripping nerds with lunch trays in the school cafeteria.” Jordan, he wrote, “revealed himself to be strangely bitter.”

Like Roy Keane, Jordan played angry, but his anger wasn’t the kind that pushed him to violence—he rarely lost his temper on the court. Jordan’s anger was an elaborate fabrication. To play his best, he needed to feel slighted, which, in turn, fired him up to go out and try to prove the doubters wrong. “That’s how I got myself motivated,” he once said. “I had to trick myself, to find a focus to go out and play at a certain level.”

The captains in Tier One seemed to have a kill switch to block negative emotions. Jordan had rigged his control box to supply them with fertilizer. The problem with Jordan’s approach is that when the games ended and the arena lights shut off, his emotional appetite did not. He set off to find another game, another kind of challenge—preferably one in which he would be underestimated.

The reason Jordan quit basketball in his prime after winning three NBA championships is that nobody dared to question him anymore. He wasn’t bored, he’d simply run out of fuel. In the end, he wasn’t so much a star as a meteor. When his anger finally burned out, so did the Bulls.

Jordan’s constant criticism so rankled the veteran guard Steve Kerr that the two men got into a fistfight during preseason training camp.

The notion that he was also an elite leader is not only wrong, it does a disservice to the institution of captaincy.

Jordan and Roy Keane were false idols. As leaders, they were not purebred members of the Captain Class. For teammates, coaches, and executives, their captaincies were the stuff of a thousand migraines.

They didn’t always make for great television. That’s what we’ve come to expect, however. So that’s what we continue to get. The chief reason teams choose the wrong people to lead them is because the public judges every captain against this distorted picture.

THIRTEEN   The Captaincy in Winter Leadership’s Decline, and How to Revive It

NFL’s New York Jets took them up on it. Matt Slauson, one of the team’s veteran linemen, said the absence of captains “kind of forces guys to step up and take ownership.” After posting an 8–8 record the season before, the Jets dropped to 6–10.

“Today’s game is led by core groups of players,” explained Brooks Laich, a veteran center who’d played for the suddenly leaderless Toronto Maple Leafs. “It’s not done by one individual.”

During this period I noticed another troubling development. Many teams began naming captains for reasons that had nothing to do with their leadership ability.

Building up a player’s loyalty, or giving him a vote of confidence, was one thing. But in many cases, teams made a more fundamental mistake. They convinced themselves that the captaincy was the natural right of the player with the highest market value.

To Arsenal, Brazil, the Mets, and a host of other teams, the captaincy had come down to which superstar’s ego needed stroking, or which player cost the team the most money, or which promising youngster they hoped to build around. It had ceased to be a matter of which player was the most fit to lead.

in 2016, the sports industry took in an estimated ninety billion dollars, a sum not too far behind the global market for cancer treatments.

The amount of cash pouring in was so substantial that it changed the underlying motives of the business. From the earliest days of organized team sports, the surest path to financial success was to win. In the new economy, the chief goal was to turn your games into appointment television.

The primary beneficiaries of this new order were the rarest commodity in sports—the kind of bankable superstar players and coaches that people will tune in to watch.

As they became richer, more sought after, and more essential to putting on a good show, these celebrity coaches and athletes started throwing their weight around.

Unless the captain was the superstar, the captain was a bystander.

in Silicon Valley, is that organizations should adopt “flat” structures, in which management layers are thin or even nonexistent. Star employees are more productive, the theory goes, and more likely to stay, when they are given autonomy and offered a voice in decision-making.

Proponents of flatness say it increases the speed of the feedback loop between the people at the top of the pyramid and the people who do the frontline work, allowing for a faster, more agile culture of continuous improvement.

I started to wonder if I was really writing a eulogy.

After all this time, and all the energy we’ve spent studying team leadership, why haven’t we figured it out? Why are we still tinkering with the formula?

Burns concluded that there were two distinct types of leadership—one that was “transactional” and another that was “transformational.” Transactional leadership occurred when the person in charge cared most about making sure their underlings followed orders and that the hierarchical lines of an organization were strictly maintained. There were no appeals to higher ideals, just a series of orders given and carried out. The more desirable model, transformational leadership, only came to pass when leaders focused on the values, beliefs, and needs of their followers, and engaged them in a charismatic way that inspired them to reach higher levels of motivation, morality, and achievement. The secret of transformational leadership, Burns wrote, is that “people can be lifted into their better selves.”

Great leaders, the canon says, show a talent for navigating complexities, promoting freedom of choice, practicing what they preach, appealing to reason, nurturing followers through coaching and mentorship, inspiring cooperation and harmony by showing genuine concern for others, and using “authentic, consistent means” to rally people to their point of view.

The captains in Tier One displayed many of these traits. They were conscientious, principled, and inspirational, and connected with their teammates in ways that elevated their performances. Yet there were things about the way they led their teams that didn’t square with the definition Burns put forward. These men and women were often lacking in talent and charisma. Rather than leading from the front, they avoided speeches, shunned the spotlight, and performed difficult and thankless jobs in the shadows. They weren’t always steadfast examples of virtue, either.

Truth be told, transformational leadership seemed like a grab bag into which every imaginable positive trait had been thrown. It presented an idealized view of leadership, one that was less attainable than aspirational. Of course, maybe that’s the whole point: Leaders cut from the same cloth as Moses, Gandhi, and Napoleon come along so infrequently that no rational person should expect to meet one. The best we can do is to try to understand them, and to help the inferior leaders we settled for make incremental improvements.

After a while, people get tired of waiting for a unicorn to wander into the building, so they start looking for new ways to construct teams that don’t require unicorns at all.

I started to suspect that the real reason we can’t agree on the formula for elite team leadership is that we’ve overcomplicated things. We’ve been so busy scanning the horizon for transformational knights in shining armor that we’ve ignored the likelier truth: there are hundreds upon thousands of potentially transformative leaders right in our midst. We just lack the ability to recognize them.

“They are certainly not a group of ‘supermen.’…They are not born heroes, either; they become heroes.”

Leadership = P × M × D. Gal told me that the first variable—the P—stood for potential, which he defined as a person’s God-given leadership ability. This was a natural gift that couldn’t be taught, he said, and would start to become evident in a person’s behavior as early as kindergarten. But it also wasn’t excessively rare; many members of an army unit might have these skills.

To become a leader, however, a person with potential also needed to possess the next variable: M. “The prerequisite to be effective is motivation,” he said. These two variables were something of a twin set. People who had leadership potential often had the motivation to fulfill the role. But it was the third variable in Gal’s equation that caught my attention: D for development.

Here, Gal believed, biology played no role. Any leadership candidate, no matter how gifted, had to make an effort to learn the ropes and to prove that they had the right qualities. “You have to earn your leadership over time, to prove that your charisma is used the right way and that it flows in a positive group-oriented direction.”

People who build sports teams have started conflating talent, or market value, with leadership. They have eliminated hierarchies that allow team leaders to exist in a robust middle layer of management. They are afraid to choose leaders that defy conventional wisdom or whose penchant for creating friction inside the team works against their economic priorities.

The best set of instructions I have come across—the one that most closely matches my own observations about Tier One captains—was compiled by Richard Hackman, the late Harvard social and organizational psychologist, who spent decades observing teams of all kinds as they worked. While their goals were as different as landing a plane is from performing a piece of classical music, Hackman focused his attention on comparing how their preparations and processes affected their outcomes. By doing so, he pieced together the outlines of a theory on the nature of effective team stewardship, or as he put it, the “personal qualities that appear to distinguish excellent team leaders from those for whom leadership is a struggle.” Hackman’s theory consisted of four principles:

  1. Effective leaders know some things. The best team leaders seemed to have a solid understanding of the conditions that needed to be present inside a team in order for its members to thrive. In other words,they developed a vision for the way things ought to be.
  2. Effective leaders know how to do some things. In “performance” situations, Hackman noticed that the most skillful leaders seemed to always sound the right notes. They understood the “themes” that were most important in whatever situation the team was in, and knew how to close the gap between the team’s current state of being and the one it needed to reach in order to succeed.
  3. Effective leaders should be emotionally mature. Hackman understood that leading a team could be “an emotionally challenging undertaking.” Great captains have to manage their own anxieties while coping with the feelings of others. The most mature leaders didn’t run away from anxiety or try to paper it over. Rather, they would pour into it with an eye towards learning about it – and by doing so find the right way to defuse it.
  4. Effective leaders need a measure of personal courage. The basic work of a leader, Hackman believed, was to move a group away from its entrenched system and into a better, more prosperous one. In other words, a leader’s job is to help a team make the turn toward greatness. To do this, he believed, a leader—by definition—had to “operate at the margins of what members presently like and want rather than at the center of the collective consensus.” To push a team forward, a leader must disrupt its routines and challenge its definition of what is normal. Because this kind of thing produces resistance, even anger, leaders have to have the courage to stand apart – even if they end up paying a substantial personal toll for doing so.
  5. The “strange” thing about Hackman’s four rules, as he put it, was what they didn’t include. There was nothing in there about a person’s personality, or values, or charisma. There was no mention whatsoever of their talent. Leading a team effectively wasn’t a matter of skill and magnetism, it was all tied up in the quotidian business of leadership. To Hackman, the cheif trait of superior leaders wasn’t what they were like but what they did on a daily basis.

The second challenge in choosing a leader—one that is no less vital—is knowing what kind of people to avoid.

Deborah Gruenfeld, a social psychologist at Stanford’s business school, has spent most of her career studying the roles of individuals inside organizations. She is one of the world’s leading experts on the psychology of power.

As a result, many people wrongly believe they can claim status inside an organization by “tricking” others into thinking they’re entitled to it even if they might not be. It’s an outgrowth of the old adage “fake it till you make it.”

According to Gruenfeld, the research suggests that the opposite is true. In real life, she says, people often attain and hold power within an organization by downplaying their qualifications. “We gain status more readily, and more reliably, by acting just a little less deserving than we actually are.”

They won status by doing everything in their power to suggest they didn’t deserve it.

In 2016, Bret Stephens wrote a column in the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal in which he described a conversation he’d had with his eleven-year-old son. The subject was the difference between fame and heroism. His son’s point of view on the subject was that famous people depend on what other people think of them to be who they are. Heroes just care about whether they do everything right.

Stephens went on to describe a modern phenomenon, fed by all forms of traditional and social media, in which people devote considerable energy to boasting about their talents and pretending to be great, even when they’re not. He called this “posture culture.”

When I read this, I realized that this is exactly the kind of mindset that has become tangled up with our views about captains. All too often, the people who propose themselves for positions of power are quick to trumpet their abilities. And those of us who make these decisions are often swayed by the force of their personality.

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 every day.

This instinct shouldn’t be confused with the desire to make others happy. Scientists have shown that a team’s perceptions of its work and of the efficacy of its leader often have no bearing on how well it performs. A great leader is dedicated to doing whatever it takes to make success more likely, even if it’s unpopular, or controversial, or outrageous, or completely invisible to others. A leader has to be committed, above all else, to getting it right.

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worst when they despise him,” he wrote. “Fail to honor others and they will fail to honor you. But of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aims fulfilled, they will say, “we did this ourselves.”


BOSTON, 2004
As Rodriguez glared at Arroyo, Jason Varitek, the Red Sox catcher, entered the frame. One of a catcher’s jobs is to protect his pitchers from large angry men carrying bats, so Varitek walked right up to the Yankees star, who towered over him, and delivered a message. “I told him, in choice words, to get to first base,” Varitek said. Rodriguez took a couple steps forward, his eyes narrowing to slits. “Fuck you!” he shouted. This sort of behavior was unusual for Rodriguez, who wasn’t known as a hothead. Varitek stood his ground, so Rodriguez pointed a finger at him. “Come on!”

In 98 percent of these situations, the hitter settles down. The home-plate umpire might head over to have a word with the pitcher and his manager, but that’s essentially it. This instance would belong to the other 2 percent. With a single furious motion, Varitek shoved his hands, one of them still attached to his catcher’s mitt, straight into Rodriguez’s face. The force of this lunging punch, combined with Rodriguez’s forward motion, was strong enough to jar his head violently backward and to lift his feet off the ground.

I decided to circle back—just out of curiosity—to see if there had been any one event that sparked their metamorphosis. The search didn’t take long. It was the afternoon of July 24. After the brawl ended, the energy in the ballpark was completely different. The brawl had brought Boston’s fans roaring to life, and the Red Sox players seemed energized. “Huge adrenaline surge on our end,” said the Boston pitcher Curt Schilling.

After “The Punch,” as it became known, the wandering, undisciplined vibe I’d seen in the Boston clubhouse melted away, replaced by a palpable sense of purpose.

Empiricists don’t believe in the concept of “momentum” in sports. They find it ridiculous to think that a single display of emotion by a respected member of a team could produce a contagion powerful enough to upend the laws of probability.

At thirty-two years old, Jason Varitek was entering the downslope of his career. During the off-season, the Red Sox, pessimistic about his age, his numbers, and his prospects, had lowballed him on a contract extension.

“I was just trying to protect Bronson,” he said afterward. “For protecting a teammate, I’ll take whatever comes.”

Appendix Tier One: The Elite
They had at least five members; they competed in sports where the athletes must interact or coordinate their efforts during competition while also engaging directly with their opponents; they competed in a major spectator sport with millions of fans; their dominance lasted for at least four years; they had ample opportunities to prove themselves against the world’s top competition; and, finally, their achievements stood apart in some way from all other teams in the history of their sport.

Collingwood Magpies (Australian rules football), 1927–30
New York Yankees (Major League Baseball), 1949–53
Hungary (men’s soccer), 1950–55
Montreal Canadiens (National Hockey League),1955–60
Boston Celtics (National Basketball Association), 1956–69
Brazil (men’s soccer), 1958–62
Pittsburgh Steelers (National Football League), 1974–80
Soviet Union (men’s ice hockey), 1980–84
New Zealand All Blacks (rugby union), 1986–90
Cuba (women’s volleyball), 1991–2000
Australia (women’s field hockey), 1993–2000
United States (women’s soccer), 1996–99
San Antonio Spurs (NBA), 1997–2016
New England Patriots (NFL), 2001–18
Barcelona (professional soccer), 2008–13
France (men’s handball), 2008–15
New Zealand All Blacks (rugby union), 2011–15

The “Double” Captains
Three outstanding soccer captains led more than one team into Tier Two. Because of this rare achievement, they were given special consideration in the book. Franz Beckenbauer; Germany (1970–74) and Bayern Munich (1971–76) Didier Deschamps; France (1998–2001) and Olympique de Marseille (1988–93) Philipp Lahm; Germany (2010–14) and Bayern Munich (2012–16)

On an elite team, the captain will accept the occasional rebuke, but it comes at a price. The coach has to extend the same courtesy. Belichick knew Brady wasn’t afraid to rip up the playbook. His greatest innovation was learning not to feel threatened by it.

Brady and Belichick understood that you can’t smother your partner with love—and you shouldn’t hold your tongue when it matters. You can’t learn to collaborate unless you learn how to fight.

Baseball: Major League Baseball
New York Yankees* 1936–41 Captained until 1939 by Lou Gehrig, this team won four World Series titles in a row and five of six but failed to match the record of five straight.

Atlanta Braves 1991–2005 Won fourteen division titles in fifteen seasons and appeared in the World Series five times but only won it once. B New York Yankees 1996–2000 Won four World Series titles in five seasons, falling one win short of the record. This team did not name a captain, although many say outfielder Paul O’Neill was its unofficial leader.

Basketball: National Basketball Association
Los Angeles Lakers 1980–88 Won five NBA titles in nine seasons behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar but lost in the first round of the playoffs in 1981. B

Boston Celtics 1983–87 Won two NBA titles in four straight Finals appearances under captain Larry Bird. B Chicago Bulls* 1991–98 Won six NBA titles in eight seasons with a 79 percent win rate in its title-winning seasons under captains Michael Jordan, Bill Cartwright, and Scottie Pippen but finished second and third in its division in ’94 and ’95 and dropped out of the quarterfinals of the NBA playoffs in those seasons. B Miami Heat 2010–14 Won two NBA championships in four straight Finals appearances with four captains, including LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. B

Field Hockey: Men’s International
Netherlands 1996–2000 Won two Olympic gold medals but only one World Cup and three of five Champions Trophies. B Australia* 2008–14 Won two World Cups, two consecutive Commonwealth Games, and five straight Champions Trophies but lost the ’12 Olympics and ’14 Champions Trophy.

Field Hockey: Women’s International
Netherlands 1983–87 Won one Olympic title, two World Cups, and two European titles but fell short of Australia’s marks. B Netherlands 2009–12 Won one Olympic gold medal, one of two World Cups, and two straight European titles under captain Maartje Paumen but won only one of four Champions Trophies. B

Football: National Football League
Yellow highlight | Location: 4,623
Miami Dolphins 1971–74 Won two Super Bowls, four division titles, and 84 percent of its regular-season games and recorded the modern NFL’s first undefeated season behind captains Nick Buoniconti, Bob Griese, and Larry Little but lost the 1971 Super Bowl by three touchdowns and lost in the conference playoffs in ’74.

San Francisco 49ers* 1981–95 Won five Super Bowls and thirteen division titles in eighteen seasons, amassing a .742 win percentage and earning the highest single-season Elo rating for a modern NFL team under a list of captains that included Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, Spencer Tillman, and Steve Young. But it fell short of Pittsburgh’s record of four titles in six years and failed to match the record of the 2001–18 New England Patriots, who appeared in eight Super Bowls in seventeen seasons. B Dallas Cowboys 1992–95 Won three Super Bowls in four seasons while amassing the best overall Elo rating in NFL history for any team during a four-season stretch. B

WATCH LIST Barça Dreams: A True Story of FC Barcelona. Entropy Studio, Gen Image Media, 2015. Bill Russell: My Life, My Way. HBO Sports, 2000. Capitão Bellini: Herói Itapirense. HBR TV, 2012. Carles Puyol: 15 Años, 15 Momentos. Barça TV, 2014. Dare to Dream: The Story of the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team. HBO Studios, 2005. Die Mannschaft (Germany at the 2014 World Cup). Little Shark Entertainment, 2014. England v Hungary 1953: The Full Match at Wembley. Mastersound, 2007. Fire and Ice: The Rocket Richard Riot. Barna-Alper and Galafilm Productions, 2000. Height of Passion: FC Barcelona vs. Real Madrid. Forza Productions, 2004. Hockeyroos Win Gold (2000 Olympic Final).

Australian Olympic Committee, 2013. Inside Bayern Munich. With Owen Hargreaves. BT Sport, 2015. Legends of All Blacks Rugby. Go Entertain, 1999. Les Experts: Le Doc (French handball at the 2009 World Championships). Canal+ TV, 2009. Les Yeux Dans Les Bleus (France in the 1998 World Cup). 2P2L Télévision, 1998. Mud & Glory: Buck Shelford. TVNZ, 1990. Nine for IX: The 99ers. ESPN Films, 2013. Of Miracles and Men. (Soviet hockey at the 1980 Olympics). ESPN Films 30 for 30, 2015. Pelé: The King of Brazil. Janson Media, 2010. Pelé and Garrincha: Gods of Brazil. Storyville, BBC Four, 2002. Puskás Hungary. Filmplus, 2009. Red Army (Soviet hockey). Sony Pictures Classics, 2014. Tim Duncan and Bill Russell Go One on One., 2009. Tim Duncan: Inside Stuff. NBA Inside Stuff, ABC, November 2004.

Weight of a Nation (2011 New Zealand All Blacks World Cup campaign). Sky Network Television, 2012. Yogi Berra: American Sports Legend. Time Life Records, 2004.