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Seven Traits of Elite Team Captains

September 17, 2018

In my previous blog I presented the result of an interesting research study from Sam Walker.
The Captain ClassWalker discovered that the most successful sports teams that ever existed all shared one single element: they all had a team captain that was the main driver behind this success.
In this blog we will explore the character traits that separates great team captains (the 16 team 'Tier 1' captains from Walker's study) from the good team captains (106 captains that finished second place).

Character Traits of Elite Team Captains

1. Extreme persistence and focus

MissionUnlike you would expect, most of the captains in Tier 1 were not the most talented people in their team. On the contrary, they were often described as average or even lousy when they started their career.
Despite of their average skills, all captains possessed the will to keep pressing, until they achieved mastery. They all had a desire to play at their maximum capacity and to win at any cost.
This persistence in achieving results also had a positive influence on team members: it motivated team members to push harder.

2. Aggressive play that tests the limits of the rules

Breaking RulesFrom a Leadership perspective we would expect a team captain to be a advocate of fair play, to set an example for the rest. However, the captains in Tier 1 were often pushing the frontiers of the rules.
Their actions weren’t always impulsive, but in some cases premeditated and intentional. They were acts of ‘instrumental hostility’ with no intention to injure or harm, but a determination to achieve a worthwhile goal.
These captains understood that sometimes you have to push the rules to the breaking point to win, without worrying how they were perceived by the public.

3. A willingness to do thankless jobs in the shadows

Thankless JobMany ‘Tier 1’-captains lived their career in the shadow of the stars. They were not the best athletes and had no interest in becoming famous. They had only one interest: winning.
Walker discovered that the most effective team leaders are those wo do (or arrange to get done) whatever is critical for the team to accomplish its purpose.
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.
According to Walker: “The easiest way to lead, it turns out, is to serve!”

4. A low-key, practical, and democratic communication style

Open CommunicationWe all know the image of the team leader, who calls his team together and motivates them when some impossible challenge needs to be faced.
The ‘Tier 1’-captains were not talented in giving motivational speeches. In fact, they avoided them.
Instead, they created a culture of continuous feedback, strengthened with sophisticated forms of body language (gestures, stares, touches, etc.).

5. Motivating others with passionate nonverbal displays

HakaOn top of a different communication style, most of the captains in Tier 1 had an intuition for showing non-verbal, positive aggressive displays.
One of the most famous displays of this phenomenon is a routine that the New Zealand All Blacks (the only ’Tier 1’-team with 2 bursts of success) were using: “The Haka”.
These gestures created deep powerful connections among team mates, releasing an energy that lead to amazing results.

6. Strong convictions and the courage to stand apart

CourageAll of the superior captains in Tier 1 had moments where they had to stand up to their superiors or break the rules, in order to improve or protect the team.
With the risk of being perceived as trouble makers or displeasing superiors, they all aimed to increase team dynamics and cohesion.
As great leaders they found themselves in the middle of conflict, holding a delicate balance.
They created moments of positive dissent that lead to more open discussions and improved their team’s capability of solving problems.
They also understood how to avoid moments of negative dissent that decreases trust, cohesion, commitment and performance.

7. Ironclad emotional control

Emotional ControlThe captains in Tier 1 all demonstrated an exceptional level of emotional resilience, that enabled them to overcome setbacks without being defeated from it.
Some of the captains where born with this ability and some developed it during their career, with patience and practice.
They developed a kill switch for negative emotions.

So, what can software teams learn from Sam Walker’s research?
And…if you are responsible for creating high performing teams, who do you select to be the team captain?

In my third and final blog (Leadership Lessons for creating High Performing Scrum Teams) in this series I will share a few lessons that we can apply to Agile teams.


Did you become curious to the role of the Agile leader? Come and experience it in my Professional Agile Leadership (PAL-E) training!

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