The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams


by Sam Walker, Random House, May 16, 2017, 352 pages

Hardcover $28; paperback $18; e-book $14

In a nutshell: The dynamics of high-performing sports teams and the people who lead them are analyzed in depth.

Who is it for? General audiences, managers, personnel directors, sports fans.

There is a common belief that the dynamics of elite sports teams transfers to the business world. Wall Street Journal writer and author Sam Walker was enamored enough by this idea that he studied and sorted through the greatest sports teams of the last century. Once the dust from his rigorous analysis had settled, he then ranked them into tiers, taking into account longevity and dominance.

Many of the teams in Walker’s highest tier may be familiar to American sports fans: New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Steelers, Boston Celtics, San Antonio Spurs. Others are teams in sports that would be relatively unknown: field hockey, Australian rules football, rugby, handball. As Walker examined the leadership dynamics of each of these teams, he found leadership behaviors of the ultra-successful didn’t follow prevailing beliefs.

The top performing teams on Walker’s list have key players who don’t seek the spotlight and are more determined to help the team win in a supporting role than to be its top scorer. A prime example is Bill Russell, the driving force with the 1956-69 Boston Celtics dynasty that won 11 NBA championships. Russell never once led his own team in scoring. Instead he focused on other areas that allowed his team to win.

There’s also the belief that the role of a team captain is best served by the player with the best skill and ability. Walker’s research finds that his top tier teams have captains who are less talented but respected and more communicative to their teammates. This allows the team’s star player to focus on making a maximum contribution, delegating the captain’s role to someone more qualified.

Walker summarizes the role of team captains of the greatest teams lead in several ways. They all are persistent and focused during games. They are aggressive to the point of skirting the rules. They “carry the water” or do the thankless jobs behind the scenes that many believe are beneath them. They practice a democratic and low key communication style and have what Walker says are “Strong convictions and the courage to stand apart.” Yogi Berra, Baseball Hall of Fame catcher for the New York Yankees, is the example of a captain who excelled in these traits.

According to Walker, the role of the “genius” coach is overrated. Although there can be some tactical innovation, coaches of the top performing teams were able to work with team leaders to convey a culture of working together for the common good. Vince Lombardi, the legendary Green Bay Packers coach, is held up as an example of this type of coach.

The teams that Walker studies are not what many see as obvious suspects in today’s media hyped sports world. We learn that the unique dynamic of a successful team depends on an egalitarian atmosphere of cooperation, not a dominating coach or player, countering the superstar mantra that dominates sports culture today.

Walker does well to make the heavy sports content relatable to those with the non-dominant sport gene. The firsthand player commentaries and team profiles are similar to the “up close and personal” stories that drive interest in non-major sports during Olympic TV coverage years. And for those looking for the geeky sports element, the comprehensive appendix list of the greatest sports dynasties ever will start plenty of heated discussions.

Chris Wendel is a business services consultant with Northern Initiatives, a community development financial institution based in Marquette, Mich. Wendel lives and works in Traverse City and can be reached at