Book review: The Captain Class

“The Captain Class”; by Sam Walker; 333 pages; Random House, 2017.

Sam Walker began with one simple question. Through his research, the  quest took a new direction. By the time he had completed his journey Walker had produced something both intended but also serendipitous. The outcome is both ironic and coincidental.

book The Captain ClassThat’s a rather sloppy yet concise summation of Walker’s second book, “The Captain Class” an examination into why sports teams not only become great but freakishly so, historically so. Through years of research Walker, a longtime reporter and editor with the Wall Street Journal, has created not only a thought-provoking and potentially controversial method for identifying those elite teams, but far more. He discovered a common thread that joins those squads and in the process compiled a book that is as much about business, management and politics as it is about athletic achievement.

It is, in short, a fascinating study of leadership disguised as a book about sports. And goodness knows the current presidential administration needs to read it badly.

Walker, a former sports writer and editor who covered many of the most significant events of the 1990s, originally  set out to find a foolproof method for determining the greatest teams throughout the past century of international sports. That in and of itself would be painstaking endeavor. His goal was to find a formula for identifying the greatest  teams across the spectrum of men’s and women’s sport from baseball, basketball and hockey to team handball, field hockey, volleyball, rugby and U.S. football, Australian rules football  and international football. He wanted to go well beyond barroom and sports talk show arguments into purely analytical facts that coldly define the successes of hundreds upon hundreds of teams.

A nearly impossible task on the surface.

First he developed a quantifiable system for identifying what he called elite or freakishly successful teams throughout more than 100 years of sports history. His research yielded dozens of great squads that were then assigned tiers. Tier one teams are the elite, a listing that included only 16 teams in all. The Collinwood Magpies, who ran roughshod through Australian rules football from 1927 to 1930 made the list of 16 as did the Boston Celtics from 1956 to 1969, the New York Yankees from 1949 to 1953, the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1974 to 1980 and the San Antonio Spurs from 1997 to 2016.

While the Celtics, Yankees and Steelers would be fodder for any barroom debate, the biggest surprises are the teams not in Tier one. For example, Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls from 1991 to 1998 failed to crack the group of 16. Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers from 1961 to 1967 also just missed the cut.

The whys of Walker’s system are laid out in plenty of detail and would certainly be a starting point for several heated sports-related discussions. But as it turns out this is only a means to a larger end. In the process of his research, Walker became fixated on what if any common threads linked the most successful teams in any sport. What pushed those teams to the freak level. And throughout Tier one and in plenty of Tier two teams, he found one. What Walker discovered is that while elite teams have talented players, some were no more talented than teams that did not become elite. Many had legendary coaches but others were barely coached at all. No, the one unifying factor turns out to be a galvanizing captain, a central lockerroom figure. In Walker’s Tier one teams, the captain was in place when the period of incredible success began and no longer there when it stopped.

Walker looked for the leadership characteristics those captains had in common. Nearly all deferred to team goals as opposed to personal achievement. Many were quiet and unassuming. The vast majority were not the most talented players on their respective teams. All had unique communication skills. Each one of the captains had a burning desire to win but harnessed those emotions or, in the case of Maurice Richard of the Montreal Canadiens, had to beat back personal demons for the sake of team success. Former Wake Forest All-America and now retired NBA star Tim Duncan led by sharing and communicating. It’s instructive to learn, as Walker points out, that the Jordan Chicago Bulls only became a Tier two dynasty when Bill Cartwright was named a co-captain with Jordan, whose individual drive often overwhelmed teammates.

“The Captain Class” is broken into easily digestible chapters with provocative titles, “Do coaches matter?” “Carrying water,” or “Uncomfortable truths.” Each chapter, like a self-help book, lists a couple of leadership takeaways readers should process before moving on. The book closes with a thorough look at how Walker’s system works and identifies all the Tier one and two teams, listing why the twos fell just short of the elite.

Walker also laments the demise of the captain in sports culture in recent years. Teams have turned from that system to one in which all players can be captains. It’s as much a sign of the transient nature of team rosters that sports dynasties might be near an end as well. The New England Patriots are one Super Bowl win away from moving into Tier one, it might take a while for another team to emerge.

In many ways, sport reflects modern culture. Captains or leaders in today’s corporations or industries seem to also be in decline. The current administration of President Donald Trump offers the most visible example. There is a vacuum of leadership in the White House, largely because the president himself knows so little about what it takes to be a leader. He’s not alone.

Walker himself sums it up best in one of his 13 chapter takeaways.

“The captains profiled in this book … were not abundantly talented or charismatic. Most of the things they did to help their teams become dynasties were functions of behavior and experience – of the skills they developed and the choices they made on the job. Great leaders do not need to be glamorous. They only need a knowledge of what a successful effort looks like and a plan to get there. They do not need to remind people how great they are. If anything, they should give the impression that they don’t believe they’re worthy of leading at all.”

Something to be learned here for people in all walks of life.



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