Credit: Courtesy Sam Walker

I’ve been hearing people studying workplaces in this moment talk about the need for managers to be more like coaches and less like bosses. At a high level, the experts are suggesting that managers need to be even more hands on, giving feedback and focusing on individual motivation and performance—rather than giving orders from a distance. 

That led me to think about lessons from great sports coaches that we might be able to learn from. For help on this question, I reached out to Sam Walker, a longtime sports journalist and the author of The Captain Class, in which he discusses a common ingredient of the most successful sports dynasties. While researching the question for over a decade, Walker found that virtually all instances of sustained performance involved an exceptional captain. 

Rather than being more like coaches—who in sports often are at some distance from the players—Walker suggests that managers be more like team captains, players with leadership roles exercised in the locker room and during the run of play. We spoke about this idea this week—here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for space and clarity:

What does it mean to lead an organization like the captain of a sports team?

I have a very clear definition of what I think a captain is. That’s not the definition you would apply in most cases to a CEO. Sort of team-oriented behavior, the desire to be behind the scenes, not in the spotlight, pushing things, pushing rules and norms to the edge, almost to the breaking point in times when it’s important. All the things I outlined in the book don’t necessarily seem like typical CEO behavior. But what people don’t really understand is that that captaincy model can be really effective. Because if you’re thinking about your company as a team, then you stop thinking about yourself orbiting around it or not being part of it. You start to think more about your behavior and your influence and all the ways that impacts people.

That helps to change your perspective. One thing that people get wrong about coaching and they get wrong about captaincy is they think there’s a certain element of avoiding conflict, of trying to bring people together, creating this idea of harmony and unity and always being agreeable, putting on a good public face. That’s really not what great captains do. You don’t have to be nice all the time or in a great mood. You can push back, you can create conflict. If you’re doing it for the right reasons, you create conflict inside the team. You don’t have to be everyone’s best friend. That’s not what a great captain is. And a great communicator is not someone who gets people to like them and want to follow them because they like them.

It’s about the ability to form a working plan for everyone you’re engaged with and figure out a communication pattern and style that works for them. It’s about correcting problems the minute they happen and not waiting and not ignoring things and being very proactive in your communication and sharing a lot and being very transparent. The idea of a CEO— the words imply this insulation around you, and that it’s really about how you build insulation from the group and how you control it from somewhat of a position of removal. The captain is in there with sleeves rolled up, working relentlessly all the time, showing the effort, communicating intensely with everyone, not giving speeches and grand pronouncements and making big spectacles. You’ve got to do that to some extent, but it’s really about volume: volume of communication, volume of time, the relentless, ceaseless effort.

What’s the difference between being a coach and a captain?

Longtime Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson’s definition is my favorite. He said as the coach, the manager, my job is everything that happens inside this organization right up to kickoff. That is every detail, every blade of grass that’s me. And then once the match starts, it’s my captain and my captain’s ability to execute the game plan. And I’m going to sit there, there’s nothing I can do. 

How do you identify a captain? If I’m managing a team and I should find a captain on the team who is capable of providing leadership as well—how do I figure out who that person is?

The dumb, simple 10-cent answer that I like to give people is: It sounds crazy, but walk into that room with that team and pretend that you’ve never been there before. Just walk in, look around, watch everyone interact and say, who is the last person anyone would ever think is the leader of this team? It’s probably not the pasty guy by the copy machine, but you’re probably closer to the right answer if you go in that direction. Because what I keep seeing with these great captains in sports and everywhere I go is that there’s a reticence there. They’re not in it for, to be known. They don’t think of leadership as a mark of your personal characteristics, anything you’re born with, anything that is obvious about you. Everyone thinks leadership is obvious, it’s these series of traits. And if someone has this charisma and this incredible talent or something that marks them as different or unusual or extraordinary, they’re more likely to be a leader. But that’s actually absolutely not the case. Leadership is all about what you do. It’s not about what you are like or what you say. It’s just what you do for 24 hours a day. It’s every little decision that you make. What I keep telling managers is you’re looking in the wrong places. What a lot of people do, and in sports as well, is we analyze our leadership when there’s a moment of huge triumph, like a huge triumph, huge blowout quarter, the Super Bowl. Let’s look at our leadership, it must be working.

Then there’s this other element of let’s look at the terrible loss. We should not have lost. This is a disaster we should have avoided. Let’s look at our leadership, clearly it’s failing us. And those are the moments where we tend to zero in on it. We look at the people who had the most obvious mistakes or did the most obvious, wonderful things. So we’re looking at the extremes. I always say to the manager, it’s not the big triumph or the bad thing, it’s that storm that you just got through. You don’t probably don’t want to remember it, because it didn’t turn out how you wanted, but you made it, you just barely made it.

You got through it. And you’ve probably forgotten about it. Go back and do forensics, because who led those people, because that’s when these people who just care more about the team than they care about themselves, who really care about that group succeeding—that’s when they do their work. That’s when they show up, that’s when they come in and they use these strange skills to hold that group together, and they have the agency and the authority and the skills to do it. That’s when they do their work and we don’t look at the right thing. We’re missing the moments where we see these people actually doing the work that holds the team together successfully. And those are the moments. The other thing I say to managers is stop looking for the obvious person.

Ignore all the people with their hands raised and look around them and try to find the person that’s in the back. They’re like, I don’t really want to do this. It’s hard. I don’t really think I’m a leader. I don’t see myself. I don’t care about the prestige. That’s the person who you should be thinking about. It’s also about just looking for different behavior. It’s not about who gave the big speech or who had the huge sales quarter that pulled you through. It’s not about individual achievement. It’s about the little work behind the scenes that someone’s doing just to hold a group together. If it’s not in their benefit to do so, even better. But we don’t look for that kind of behavior as managers. So it’s really just about changing your perspective and just looking at different times and different places for leadership behavior than where we usually do.

If the captain model is the right model for how to lead, what are the keys doing that when right now you’re not even in the same room with people?

It’s tough. As I discovered with these captains, so much of leadership requires a kind of deep humility, but it’s also a performance. There’s a performance element to it. So much of it is showing your relentless effort, showing your emotional control, that non-verbal communication, which is so powerful. And it’s hard to do that now. A lot of that is taken off the table. But the thing that I keep coming back to is the idea of carrying water and I’ve seen this working in remote settings now. It’s that idea of helping people.

It’s just going to your people and just saying, what’s hanging you up right now? What is the thing that you just can’t get to? What’s really holding you back? And I think in a way that is almost so much easier to do in this context, and so much more meaningful,. You can do that when we’re all together and it’s not as visceral to people. But we’re all sitting in our rooms and I’m looking around my room, I see 10 ops things that I need to do that are just big obstacles. But there are things in your inbox and in your work—there are these things that are just killing you. And we’re not going anywhere, so it’s killing us even more.

So how can people get rid of those things? And showing them that you’re committed to doing that for them. Because it helps the group collectively, not because you like them, or you want to be liked—it’s because you want to help the group collectively. I think that’s a really great step.

In this moment, there’s a lot of focus on the importance of feedback. Are there any learnings from sports?

I’ve only seen one communication model that works. It’s not about having a way with words. It is about the volume of communication. It’s just about constant, practical, real-time communication with people. Everyone’s talking about feedback, like oh, well, every other week we’re going to sit down and talk about it. No, that’s bullshit. Just every day.

They should know exactly where they stand. You have to be blunt. That’s the thing. And it’s related in a way to empathy because a lot of people are interpreting empathy in this environment as trying to maybe hold your tongue or ease off a little at times because people are going through hard things. But those two don’t work together. If you actually communicate with people and you’re very transparent and you do not hold back and you talk to them immediately, the minute something goes wrong,. It’s so important to do it right away. Don’t wait, don’t take a note and say we’re going to get to this later. Go right in. It’s really about how you do it and how you criticize because you’re criticizing.

In a lot of cases, you’re also congratulating. You’ve got to be right there in the moment with the praise. But when you’re criticizing the key is that it’s a conversation. You have to remember that for this to go well, I’m going to listen as much as I talk. If you’re not listening in that critical conversation, as much as you’re talking, you’re doing it wrong. That’s the thing, that’s the magic thing they all do, which is they listen. So when you come out of that, you feel as if you’ve been heard, you know you fucked up, but you feel as if you’ve been heard. You also have heard what you need from your leader, which is, this is the standard and this is why you didn’t meet it. That’s what you want a leader to tell you.

Then your part is, well, this is why it happened. I want you to know that I’m not making excuses. I just want you to know that I’m not lazy. I’m not dumb. This is why it happened. So once that’s happened, the standard has been upheld and the person who has been criticized feels pulled back in. What that does is create over time a talkative culture. That’s why I loved the San Antonio Spurs so much. They just talked more than any team I’ve ever seen. And it’s because they had Tim Duncan—this is his communication style. But over time you create that. Once you’ve done this long enough with a team, it’s automatic, it’s like everyone’s talking. And so everyone’s correcting everyone in the moment.

The burden on the leadership actually declines, because everything is addressed. Everything is brought up, immediately discussed and tabled. Everyone feels accountable to the group, but they also know they’re going to be heard. And they’re going to have a chance. They’re not just going to be told what to do and told, shut up, which is not productive. So that is a culture that builds over time. But, you know, that’s how you have to do it in terms of feedback. 

You studied super successful teams and the captains that have driven them. Is there someone who really stands above the rest? Who’s the best captain?

If you think about the best captain, just in terms of raw achievement, it’s Bill Russell. [Russell was the Boston Celtics’ captain and then player-coach in the 1950s and 60s.]

I can say this with some authority because I looked at every single sport in history since the 1800s, in every country in the world. No one’s ever done that. No one’s ever won 11 titles in 13 years. There was a rugby league team from Australia in the fifties that won 11 straight titles. But England came and beat the crap out of them. So they weren’t at the highest level of their sport. That’s the only competition. And I mean, what he did, the way that he just ignored convention completely and did not care what anyone thought. He was the center and a big man was supposed to score back then. They didn’t count blocks. They didn’t count rebounds. They didn’t count anything. You weren’t supposed to leave your feet playing defense when he started.

He did none of that. That’s all he focused on. So he kind of came out of nowhere, just completely subverted all the expectations of him in order to do exactly precisely the kind of things that would help his team win. And the idea that you could have 10 titles and be like, yeah, I still need to win another one—can you imagine? He was at a time when it was the Cold War and we were all thinking collectivists behavior was bad and we didn’t understand him. Everyone thought he was a weirdo. He was very unpopular in his time. Because he was doing all these things that great leaders do, but they looked bad.

Walker is now the leadership columnist at The Wall Street Journal, where he and I got to know each other years ago, and a leadership consultant.

For more about the intersection of coaching and business, he suggests reading Trillion Dollar Coach, the story of the late Bill Campbell, a Columbia University football captain and then coach who went on to coach Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt, and numerous other Silicon Valley executives. And then there’s also Sam’s book, The Captain Class, which is a thought-provoking and fun read. (If you buy a book through one of the links, we may earn an affiliate commission.)


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