Book Review: The Captain Class

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The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams by Sam Walker will be a great read for you if you are a sports fan. If you’re a business person, not so much.

Let’s start with a basic description of what you’ll find between these covers. This is a book about a particular kind of captain as the key factor in the success of a limited group of sports teams. They must be teams of five or more where the players interact with their opponents and work together. The team must be in a major sport and play in the world’s top competition. And, oh yes, they must be consistent for an amazing number of years.

College sports are left out because the teams don’t last for a long time. It means that Walker downplays the importance of coaches, but that’s an accurate observation for the teams he studies. We’re talking about professional athletes and coaching is usually not as important as many other things for them. By the time they’re pros, they know how to get the best performance out of themselves.

That’s not a problem if you’re a sports fan. Walker shares interesting facts and tells interesting stories. But I review books for business readers. If you’re one of them, you won’t find a lot to help you on the job.

You can pull some good lessons for business out of this book. There’s an excellent section on research into what makes effective teams, for example, but you’re going to need to pry out the lessons and apply them yourself. Walker doesn’t help you much. That’s mostly because business and sports are different.

Right now, you may be thinking “Duh!” But that simple truth is one reason why it’s hard to draw lessons from Walker’s research.

Sports teams practice more than they play, but for business, every day is game day. When you play a sport, you play in a limited and precisely defined space for a limited time. Business goes on everywhere. And business is 24/7/365. And that’s not all.

Sports is zero sum. There are winners and losers and you know which is which. In business, that’s not necessarily true. Much of the time, a business is a winner in one area and a loser in another, or, several different businesses all benefit from the same transaction.

In business, system matters much more than in sports. We have a host of business examples of this, one of the most dramatic of which is the formation of NUUMI, where Toyota took over a GM plant that had been one of the worst plants in the GM system. Toyota rehired almost all workers who’d been at the previously awful plant and turned it into one of the best plants in the world.

And there is the problem of breaking the rules. One of Walker’s conclusions is that a common behavior of the “great captains” is to “play to the edge of the rules.” That’s fine when the biggest penalty you can have is to miss a couple of games or pay a fine. But if you act in business the way many of the captains are portrayed as acting, you’re not likely to get great results and you are likely to get a lawsuit.

One Business Lesson this Book Teaches

Walker describes his captains as avoiding the spotlight and caring mostly about the team’s success. That’s a good lesson for business leaders, but you don’t have to look at sports to get it.

Several writers, including Jim Collins, have pointed out that the most effective leaders are the ones who put the team’s or company’s success ahead of their own glory. There’s an entire literature on servant leadership that says the same thing. And one of the most hard-nosed managers in business history, Andy Grove, went out of his way to describe it, calling it “The right kind of ambition.”

Bottom Line

If you’re a sports fan, The Captain Class will be a fascinating read. You’ll probably learn about sports you didn’t know much about before and new things about sports you’re familiar with. That’s what happened for me.

But if you’re looking for a book with lessons on business leadership, I’d suggest looking somewhere else.


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