The One Thing the Most Legendary Sports Teams Have in Common
“When we’re talking about winning teams, we’re talking about a culture, a system, a combination of personalities that sustains winning over time.”
READ ON TO DISCOVER:
Why the charisma of Kobe and Michael Jordan is overrated—and who we should look to instead
The deceptively simple communication tactics the San Antonio Spurs used to cinch their winning streak
How to create the magic of a team far greater than the sum of its parts
Sam Walker is The Wall Street Journal’s deputy editor for enterprise and author of The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams. He recently joined Ryan Hawk, host of The Learning Leader Show, to talk about what makes a winning team, why it might be better to come off as a boring leader, and more insights from sports’ most legendary captains.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to Sam and Ryan’s full conversation, click here.
Sam: I’ve had this barstool debate a million times about what’s the greatest team of all time. I realized, when I actually started trying to figure it out empirically, that we’re not talking about the same things when talking about ‘greatness.’ A lot of people will point to the 1985 Chicago Bears or the ‘72 Dolphins or the 2004 Arsenal Invincibles, or [other] teams that won really dramatically in one season. But when we’re talking about winning teams, we’re talking about a culture, a system, a combination of personalities that sustains winning over time. You can’t completely discount [luck]. So, ultimately, I leaned on the odds of coin-flipping—if you flip a coin and get heads four times, that’s a 6% chance. At four seasons, it’s really almost impossible to chalk up a team’s performance to luck. So, I went with that threshold.
Once I had figured out what the 16 best [teams] were, I started examining them. What I was looking for was the moment they made that turn, when they transformed from a good team into an elite and outstanding one. I looked at two teams to start with, the Boston Celtics from the late ’50s and ’60s, who won 11 titles in 13 years and the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team, which, in the late ’80s, didn’t lose for four years and put on an incredible run.
I noticed immediately that their winning streaks overlapped precisely with the arrival and the departure of one player—Bill Russell and Buck Shelford [respectively]. These guys ultimately became the captains and the leaders of these teams. Frankly, I was a little skeptical because I thought it was just too easy, so I went back and examined all these other factors.
If you look at all the teams, there was no pattern. Some had great coaches, some bad. Some had money, some didn’t. Some were tactically advanced, some weren’t. Some had superstars, some had mediocre talent. The only thing they did [have in common] was the presence of this certain type of captain. A great team has many variables, but what my research showed absolutely and emphatically was that the only thing that must be present in order to build a sustained winning culture is a certain kind of leader.
Ryan: You have seven traits of these captains [outlined in the book.] The first one is extreme doggedness and focus in competition, often to the point of madness. I think of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, who some would say they were mad about competing. They’re relentless in their approach towards beating the person across from them.
Sam: Yeah, that’s who I thought of too, [initially.] We’ve always looked at Jordan and his incredible competitiveness on and off the court. He was always looking for a way to challenge himself, he’s got this hungry soul and he needs to constantly prove himself.
[But] what I’ve found in studying these captains in my survey is that [Jordan’s] wasn’t the kind of competitiveness and relentlessness we were talking about. [These captains] had the ability to be one way in competition and then completely different outside of [it]. On the field of play, they were relentless, but then as soon as the match was over, they were different. In competition, they would often do unsportsmanlike things or would push the rules to the absolute limit, but once the game was over, they would magically revert to normal. These were very quiet people generally who were introverts and homebodies. They never got into trouble off the field, they got a lot of sleep. It was a sharp divide there, [which] really distinguishes the greatest captains from the people we normally think of, like Kobe and MJ. Great leaders know when to turn it on and turn it off.
Ryan: LeBron seems to fit that. When he gets on the court, he can be the most dominant figure ever, but when he gets off the court, he can be a fun-loving guy who sings to [his kids].
Sam: LeBron is kind of a unicorn. I’ve never seen anyone in sports history who had that level of talent where he can really take over a game. And, you know, it’s not just in his offensive ability, but I mean it’s his hustle on defense and the way he plays without the ball, too. The other thing that’s anomalous about LeBron is his completely new model of leadership. He’s got a level of power no athlete has ever had, and a level of talent to match. So, you know, I think he’s a curious case.
The relentlessness I’m talking about is a little less obvious than someone like LeBron who can score 40 points a game. A good example is Bill Russell. Russell was the captain of the Celtics that set the probably-unachievable record of 11 titles in 13 years, up until 1969. In his first season in 1956-7, the Celtics finally won a championship. They made it to the finals and got to game seven against the St. Louis Hawks. There were about 40 seconds left in the game and Russell saw the 1-point lead. [He] got a rebound and charged down the court and tried to dunk the ball and missed–and he wound up underneath his own basket.
“Great leaders know when to turn it on and turn it off.”
So the Hawks very smartly made a quick inbound pass to midcourt, where a forward named Jack Coleman was waiting. Coleman caught the ball with a running start at midcourt and had a clear look at the basket and a “gimme” layup [that would] give the Hawks the lead in the final seconds. Bill Russell is about 96 feet away from the other basket. He sees Coleman get the ball and takes off. It [took] about three seconds for him to run that distance. The minute Coleman goes up and the ball leaves his fingertips, Russell appears from nowhere and swats the ball away. It careens off the backboard and the Celtics get the rebound. I did some rough calculations, and if he kept that pace running for 100 meters, he would’ve won the Olympic gold medal by a nose. It was incredible effort. The Celtics went on to win the championship.
Think about the mindset of someone who would do that. It wasn’t a scoring play, it wasn’t a statistical play. None of his teammates even bothered trying to give it a chase, and yet, he had the passion and the drive and the relentlessness to go after that shot.
Ryan: Whenever you think of a great leader, [you think of] charisma. Surprisingly, you found from your [research] that these leaders and captains were rarely charismatic. Talk about the myth of charisma when it comes to great leaders.
Sam: The people who epitomized this were amazing—Tim Duncan and Yogi Berra. Berra was famous for having a halting speech pattern and all these funny sayings, and the idea of him reading a motivational speech is kind of funny to think [about]. Then there’s Duncan, who seemed to have no personality. He gave these monotone answers in interviews, didn’t seek attention, and seemed to have a very bland emotional life. Off the court, he never fist pumped or expressed a lot of emotion. He got knocked for being boring.
When I looked at the Spurs in particular, I said, “I’ve got to figure this out because it makes no sense that this team could have superior communication.” I watched a ton of tape, I went to a Spurs game and sat behind the bench, I talked to a lot of the players. When you look closely at Duncan, he has these rituals, especially around timeouts and pregame, where he [has] these short, intense conversations with everyone on the team, usually about the task at hand. It’s about adjusting their defense or something they need to remember [for] the fourth quarter. When he talks, he’s not an animated guy, but his eyes are fascinating. He has very clear facial expressions—one for shock, one for encouragement, one for criticism. He uses his eyes very purposefully with the players.
He circulates, he talks individually, he doesn’t give speeches. In fact, none of these captains gave speeches, which shocked me. They all prefer to talk constantly, but to individuals and about the matter at hand in a practical, low-key way. The Spurs are a very talkative team. They talk constantly on the court and off the court, and Duncan facilitates that by creating an open culture where every mistake is acknowledged, every good deed is rewarded, and everything is done in the moment.
The overlap with the business world is incredible. At a study from MIT, they used very high-tech scanners to measure all aspects of conversations between [leaders] and their team: length, intensity, who was talking to whom. These communication patterns were the best way to predict a team’s performance, more so than skill or past performance or anything else. What was fascinating is that on the high-performing teams, there was always a leader who did exactly what Duncan did, circulated widely, talking to individuals with great intensity in shorts bursts. They call these people charismatic connectors.
We have a completely backwards idea of how you motivate people and how you communicate. We think you’ve got to give a speech, you’ve got to fire up the troops, you’ve got to be someone who just radiates charisma and passion and intensity, but really, the opposite is true. It’s all about a leader who is constantly engaging, constantly talking about the matter at hand in a low-key way with people with great energy and intensity. That’s a constant commitment to upholding the goals of the team, and that’s what distinguishes these great leaders. They weren’t great orators, they were practical.
Ryan: [Aside from this,] what would you say is the most surprising piece of information you learned through your research?
Sam: In the modern sports world, there’s a huge emphasis on coaching. And in the business world, CEO culture is similar, in that we tend to make the top person the face of the team. I was really amazed that there were great coaches on these teams, but there were also very mediocre coaches, and even some teams that changed coaches and kept winning. Even these elite coaches—Vince Lombardi, Alex Ferguson from Manchester United, Gusztav Sebes—who are some of the greats, none of them started to win at an elite level until they had a captain like [Duncan]. All of them saw their peak years when they had someone running the team. These captains weren’t yes men, they weren’t simply doing the coach’s bidding. They were independent minds and they took stands against the coach and against management, and even against players sometimes. [The] presence of a great coach and [an] independent partner captain who sometimes listened and sometimes didn’t, seemed to be the great formula. It’s important to have a great coach, but the great coach will never achieve top results without this kind of captain.
Ryan: I’ve got to believe, though, that a great coach can make a significant difference in a team versus a bad coach. I’ve played for good and bad coaches and I know there’s a distinct difference in my play and our team’s play when we’ve had good versus average or bad.
Sam: Coaches matter and having a great coach is definitely an asset to a team. But there’s a difference that I’ve found between winning a championship or two championships [versus] being consistently good over a long period of time, this sustained excellence that I was looking for. A great coach can power a team forward and so can a superstar. [But] there are certain teams that get to this level where they just know nothing else but winning, and it’s a culture. When that happens, it’s because there’s a captain, someone like Tim Duncan, who’s behind the scenes working his ass off to make sure that it stays that way and that culture is sustained.
Ryan: Another trait of elite captains, you write, is a talent for displaying their commitment and motivating teammates through aggressive, non-verbal means. What do you mean by that?
Sam: There were several captains who were a little different than that Duncan communication model. The first was Jack Lambert, the middle linebacker of the Steelers, and he was, in his time, considered a complete maniac. He was missing two front teeth and had this wild look in his eyes. He would crouch behind the line and hammer his legs like he was twitching with rage, he would pound quarterbacks, even if they were almost out of bounds, and he had a reputation for being fearsome. The interesting thing about Lambert [was that he] communicated with his teammates a lot. The Steelers would go to the sauna after the games to talk privately, away from the coaches, and it was a brutally honest environment where everyone’s play was critiqued, and Lambert was the first one in and the last to leave. That was his place where he really talked to the players practically about what was going on. He was very vocal also on the field.
He [also] had another quality which I just couldn’t figure out. He did things on purpose in the games because he knew that seeing these aggressive acts would fire up his teammates and intimidate the opponent at the same time. My favorite example is this game against Cincinnati in ’76, [where] the Steelers got off to a bad start and people had written them off as the defending Superbowl champions. Lambert played the most incredible game of his career and he single-handedly accounted for 10 points with fumble recoveries.
He had a deep cut on his palm and the bandages failed, blood started spurting out all over his uniform in the middle of the game. It was a complete gory mess. I asked one of the former trainers why [they] didn’t change his uniform or bandages. He laughed and said, “Oh, we wouldn’t have even approached him about that. He would’ve said no.” Lambert, he said, was the biggest motivator and intimidator he’d ever seen. He loved having blood on his uniform. Everything he did, when you look at it, was calculated, he knew the message it sent. It’s interesting because he was really small for a linebacker and his grades for athletic ability were all Bs. I don’t think he would’ve been able to play in modern NFL. Yet, he was incredible and he studied tape and was always in the right place at the right time and he made up this fearsome reputation which made him way better than he should’ve been, given his athletic ability.
These aggressive displays, these non-verbal, passionate things that leaders do have an immediate subconscious impact on people, [where we] feel a paler version of an emotion that we see in somebody else. Studies show that leaders who are able to tap into that inner connection are much more effective in terms of getting people to perform at higher levels.
Ryan: It’s about having a purpose behind everything you do. When I was looking at one of the traits, [that great captains] possess remarkable emotional self-control, it made me think of my recent conversation with Liz Wiseman where she told me “Great leaders have a buffer between the stimulus and their response.” It’s interesting that the great leaders of the best teams, as well as some of the greatest leaders in the business world, share this same feature.
“We have a completely backwards idea of how you motivate people and how you communicate. We think you’ve got to give a speech, you’ve got to fire up the troops, you’ve got to be someone who just radiates charisma and passion and intensity, but really, the opposite is true.”
Sam: That’s a tremendous point, and I think there’s a lot of overlap between sports and other team environments. A researcher named Richard Hackman spent years embedding himself with high-performing teams, teams that competed under pressure that couldn’t have a do-over—airplane cockpit crews, some sports teams, chamber orchestras, even emergency room staffs at hospitals. One of the things he cited [as important] was emotional maturity and the ability to allow reason to govern emotion. This is something these captains had in spades. It wasn’t just the ability to not overreact, it was a kind of resilience that is really uncommon.
I looked at the neuroscience on this subject, [which] shows that there are some people who have stronger wiring in their brain that allows them to override negative emotions and to return quickly to a more neutral state. There’s [also] research that suggests that we can change over time, and that through training, we can rewire our brains to react better to negative stimulus.
There are two categories these captains fell into. A lot of them just had this ability to control their emotions. My favorite example is a guy named Jerome Fernandez, who was the captain of the French National Handball team. They were playing in the Finals of the World Championships in 2009, an event that 180 million people watch around the world, and they were not favored to win. Two days before the final, Jerome got a call from his mother [that] his father was dying of cancer and was in the hospital and had days to live. They needed to tell him now because they were worried that he would never see his father alive again. He faced this agonizing decision. “Do I go home now and miss the final and let my team down or do I stay and possibly never see my father again? And what if we lose and I never see him again?”
He not only decided to stay and play and win a medal for his father, but he decided not to tell the team. He didn’t want to distract them from the task at hand. Not only did he play brilliantly and help his team upset the Croatians and win the title, but he scored a clinching goal in the final seconds on an incredible play where he was knocked to the floor and had to shoot across his body. It was really amazing. After that, he completely broke down on the court and his teammates were shocked. They had no idea what was going on or how he could’ve possibly endured that.
A lot of these captains had that natural ability, but there was one who didn’t, and this was probably one of the most interesting stories I’ve found. Maurice Richard, the “Rocket,” was famously the captain of the Montreal Canadians in the late 1950s, the only team to win five consecutive Stanley Cups. Richard was hot-tempered [and] other teams would target him because they knew he would explode. He was one of the most penalized players in the NHL. In 1955, at a game against the Rangers, he went completely berserk after getting hit by a stick in the face. He punched a linesman who was trying to restrain him and he was suspended for the rest of the year, including the playoffs, and the rest of his team didn’t win the Cup that year.
After that, he vowed to become calmer and to try to control his emotions. His penalty minutes started to fall, and as a consequence, he started passing to teammates more to make himself less of a target, and getting them involved. His scoring totals fell, but immediately, they won their first Stanley Cup. He became captain and from that moment on [was] a completely different player. Richard learned how to change and control emotion and became captain [of] the greatest dynasty in hockey.
Some of these traits people are born with, but in this case and in many of these cases, it’s just about behavior. It’s about self-control and learning to be better.