What does it take to be the best of the best — a truly great sports team? What’s the secret to their success?
It’s a question Sam Walker, the founding sports editor for the Wall Street Journal, spent more than a decade investigating.
“I would go to the World Cup and the Olympics and cover the Super Bowl and European soccer title championship games, [so] the only thing I really saw with any regularity were great teams, and I wondered what it was that made them so much better than every other team,” he tells ABC RN’s Sporty.
What was originally supposed to just be a sports’ column ended up taking him on a long journey down a rabbit hole to find the answer, and resulted in a book.
Sam began by asking athletes why their team was so much better than any other team in that sport.
“I asked Tom Brady, the great American football quarterback, the question and he said, ‘You do your job so that everybody else can do their job, there’s no big secret to it,'” he recalls.
“Maybe there was something simple … some element that allows a team to become exceptional for a long period of time that is right in front of our faces, so close to our noses we can’t even see it.
He wondered if the answer was a combination of great coaches, fans, management, team culture, or a superstar player.
In the end, he discovered that every great sporting team that had sustained excellence over a long period of time all had one thing in common — and it wasn’t what he expected.
Which teams are the best?
The first thing Sam had to do was identify the most successful sporting teams of all time.
“I had to look at literally every team in the history of sports, which is what I did,” he says.
The mammoth exercise involved analysing 37 different categories of sports from all over the world, dating back to the 1880s.
“It was crazy, and there were tens of thousands of teams that I looked at,” he says.
He also had to define “team”. Are ice dancers a team, or is that a partnership? He settled on teams comprising at least five players. He excluded sports where the sides aren’t engaged in direct play with each other, such as rowing.
Then there was working out the benchmark for “excellence”.
“I wanted to study teams that had sustained excellence, that had won for a long period of time. So I wound up setting the bar at a minimum of four years of dominance,” he explains.
“A team [also] had to have done something unique, whether it was the number of titles they won or their winning percentage over time.”
From tens of thousands of teams, just 17 met all his criteria and made it onto the top list. Another 106 teams narrowly missed out.
The top 17 teams included a wide variety of sports: men’s and women’s soccer teams, rugby, basketball, handball, volleyball, American football, and Australian Rules.
The famous 1990s Chicago Bulls side that won six NBA titles in eight years didn’t make the shortlist. Instead the Boston Celtics team which won 11 titles in 13 seasons in the 1950s and 60s did.
The earliest team to make the list was the Collingwood Football Club that won four VFL premierships from 1927 to 1930. The Australian women’s hockey team, the Hockeyroos, from 1993 to 2000, also made the cut.
Now Sam just had to work out what their secret to success was, the common factor they all shared.
It took him 11 years.
‘I noticed early on these odd characters’
Initially, Sam thought the prevailing catalyst could be put down to sheer talent.
“I assumed that greatness was probably just a function of better talent, but I quickly realised that most of those teams were not really, on paper, the best, most talented team,” he says.
Then he turned to tactics.
“Again, there were some teams that were tactically brilliant and others that really weren’t at all or weren’t really remarkable,” he adds.
Sam also ruled out money and resources — teams from Cuba and Hungary who excelled and made his list had far fewer resources and talent pools than other teams.
“I really thought it would be coaching, and that’s where I spent a lot of time,” Sam says.
He says any great team needs a combination of things such as a great coach and talent.
But there was one common element that glued together every great sporting team that has sustained excellence over a long period of time.
“The one thing that was common was that thing that I noticed early on, these odd characters,” Sam says.
“When I started looking at them, it was obvious. The beginning of the winning streak and the end of the winning streak for all of these teams corresponded very closely, if not precisely, to the arrival and departure of one player, and that player in every single case would become the leader or the captain of the team.”
As individuals, all of these captains differed greatly in personality, but they all shared one thing in common — their approach to leadership.
Sam interviewed all the living captains on his list, collected anecdotes, and spoke to their teammates.
“They approached leadership exactly the same way and made exactly the same kinds of decisions. So it was a philosophy of leadership and management that they shared in common,” he says.
And their philosophy of leadership wasn’t what Sam expected.
“I thought that a leader had to be a superstar, someone who could put the team on their back and then win the game single-handedly when they needed to,” he says.
“I assumed they were the most charismatic person, someone with great magnetism who everyone was drawn to. I thought they would be diplomats, people who would resolve conflicts inside the team, create harmony.
“[But] they were really not superstars for the most part and they really didn’t like attention. Many of them were not charismatic at all, they preferred to avoid attention, to labour in the shadows.”
They were often difficult to manage, they would push back, and create conflict on the team at times.
Sam adds that a lot of people think that leadership is about your output, but it’s really about your input, and what you do for that team behind the scenes.
“These captains were willing to do whatever it took to help the team win, whether they got credit for it or not,” he says.
“You have to really be willing to sacrifice of yourself and then do all those little acts of service and labour behind the scenes to help the team.”
He also noted that these captains he studied rarely liked giving speeches.
“They would pull people aside in the moment when they needed something, whether it was encouragement or a talking to, and they would have a very intense conversation,” he says.
“It was a conversation and they would listen and talk and there would be this high level of engagement and eye contact in a very one-on-one way, not in front of other people.
“That’s how they communicated, and that’s a lot of work. Not everyone has that motivation to put that kind of work in.”
The Last Dance
While the 1990s Chicago Bulls didn’t make Sam’s top 17 list (they were on his longlist) they did have something in common with the top teams — and it isn’t Michael Jordan.
“Everyone thinks Michael Jordan was the leader of that team but he wasn’t. He was the most valuable player but absolutely not the most valuable leader,” Sam says.
“I like to go back to the moment where I think the dynasties began, and for that team it was December 19, 1990, and before that date they had never won a title, and Michael Jordan had played for six seasons and had not won anything or even made it to the NBA finals. And that was the day they started winning.”
Sam says the Bulls won 12 of the next 13 games, and turned into the team that would win their first championship that year.
“I went back and looked at what happened on that day, and that was the day when Phil Jackson, the second-year coach at the time, decided … he made an announcement that Bill Cartwright was now going to be a co-captain of the Bulls along with Michael Jordan,” he says.
Although he lacked charisma and wasn’t the best player, Sam sees Cartwright as the leader who brought the successful qualities he’s identified to the Chicago Bulls.
“He’s someone who actually sacrificed scoring in order to do all the rebounding and the blocking and the fundamental things that the team needed. But really more importantly he was the mentor to the younger players,” he says.
“That team was really divided: it was Michael Jordan and everybody else, and everybody else resented him. Jordan did not fit the profile of a great captain for several reasons, and one was that really the way he attacked his teammates personally is just not something that elite leaders do, and no-one wanted to play for him.”
Sam says the day Cartwright was appointed co-captain was the day the 1990s Chicago Bulls turned into a real team.
He also adds that Jordan wasn’t originally a fan of Cartwright, but he later acknowledged that without him the team would never have broken through and been so successful.
How others can benefit from this leadership style
Since Sam published The Captain Class: A New Theory of Leadership in 2017, he’s worked with professional sports teams, Olympic teams, military units, and businesses.
“You find a lot of people who have the right instincts but are not motivated, they just don’t want to put the work in, because it’s a lot of work,” Sam explains.
But he says it’s possible to create a successful team environment by adopting the qualities of the greatest sports leaders of all time: doggedness, selflessness, emotional control, principled dissent, functional leadership and practical communication.
“Leadership is actually very simple. It’s a behaviour pattern, but really anyone can change their behaviour, and that’s what blew me away about these captains,” he adds.
“They lived at different times, different sports, completely different backgrounds, even personalities, but they all learned through trial and error that this is how you do it.”
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