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.
GREATNESS AND ITS ORIGINS The Birth of a Freak Team
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.
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.
- They lacked superstar talent. Most of the Tier One captains were not the best players on their teams, or even major stars.
- They weren’t fond of the spotlight.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- They weren’t the usual suspects.
- Nobody had ever mentioned this theory. None of them had ever singled out the captain as a team’s driving force.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
THE SEVEN TRAITS OF ELITE CAPTAINS
- Extreme doggedness and focus in competition.
- Aggressive play that tests the limits of the rules.
- A willingness to do thankless jobs in the shadows.
- A low-key, practical, and democratic communication style.
- Motivates others with passionate nonverbal displays.
- Strong convictions and the courage to stand apart.
- 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.”
CHAPTER FIVE TAKEAWAYS
• 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.
CHAPTER SIX TAKEAWAYS
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.
CHAPTER EIGHT TAKEAWAYS
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.”
CHAPTER NINE TAKEAWAYS
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.
CHAPTER ELEVEN TAKEAWAYS
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
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. NBA.com, 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.