CM 097: Sam Walker on Creating Outstanding Teams

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Do you have the seven qualities of a great leader?

As the former sports editor of the Wall Street Journal, Sam Walker chronicled the exploits of some of the most remarkable teams ever assembled. Fascinated by their success, he spent over a decade researching which teams performed best and how they did it.

Sam lays out his findings in his latest book, The Captain Class: The Hidden Force that Creates the World’s Greatest Teams. Initially, he expected to find a magical combination of factors such as exceptional skill, brilliant coaching and remarkable strategy. Instead, he discovered something completely different: the 16 teams with the longest winning streaks across 37 elite sports succeeded because of a single player — the captain of the team. These captains were not only not the best player, but also possessed all or most of seven characteristics rarely associated with great leaders.

Sam is currently deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal, where he worked as a reporter, columnist, and sports editor. He is also author of a previous book, Fantasyland.

In this interview we discuss:

  • How talent, coaching, money and strategy rarely result in teams stringing together years of consecutive greatness
  • Why a single player, the captain of the team, is the key to the enduring success of outstanding teams
  • Why most captains were appointed by the coach, not selected by the players
  • What the analogies are for this coach-captain in the workplace
  • How these captains excel in seven ways:
    • they are relentless
    • they are aggressive
    • They are willing to do thankless jobs
    • they shy away from the limelight
    • they excel at quiet communication
    • they are difficult to manage
    • they have excellent resilience and emotional control
  • The secrets of success of players like basketball great Tim Duncan
  • Why all of the little things on a team must get done
  • Why Pele, possibly the greatest soccer player of all time, was never a captain
  • Why none of these captains were inspiring speech makers
  • What maps of team interaction reveal about captain communication
  • Why shared cognition is such an important part of team communication
  • Why superstars can sometimes decrease great team performance
  • Why sacrifice for the collective good of the team is so important to winning
  • How we should look for the least likely candidates when searching for group leaders
  • Why we should not mistake the ability to take praise as a sign of a great leader
  • Why criticizing others is a right we earn and how to earn it
  • Why elite leaders are often boring

Links to Topics Mentioned in this Podcast

Sam Walker

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



Cuban Women’s Volleyball Team

Boston Celtics

San Antonio Spurs

The Pittsburgh Steeler

Tim Duncan

Richard Hackman

Brazil’s National Football Team


Carlos Alberto

Hilderaldo Bellini

Yogi Berra

Sandy Pentland

Charismatic Connectors

Shared Cognition

French National Handball Team

Jerome Fernandez

Richard Davidson

Maurice Rashad

Montreal Canadiens

Richie McCaw

Carla Overbeck

United States Women’s National Soccer Team

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Thank you to Emmy-award-winning Creative Director Vanida Vae for designing the Curious Minds logo, and thank you to Rob Mancabelli for all of his production expertise!



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  1. Comet on January 29, 2018 at 9:57 am

    Thanks for this…highly informative!

  2. Gayle on January 29, 2018 at 7:14 pm

    So glad you enjoyed it!

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