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The Captain Class and the art of social loafing

My reading material during my ski vacation last week was The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams by Sam Walker. The book had me thinking about leadership and team work beyond the world of sports.

What makes a great leader? How to get the most out of a team?

To write the book, the founding editor of The Wall Street Journal’s sports section examined sports teams that achieved exceptional success and tried to figure out what drove the outstanding accomplishments. His findings surprised him, and me.

He found that the freakishly successful teams shared the same kind of captain, and it wasn’t the glamorous version of captain that would spring to your mind. Instead of the gregarious highly skilled aces, the flamboyant superstars or the squeaky clean idols, the captains were what he called the glue guys, or the water carriers. 

They were:

  1. Dogged and focused to the extreme
  2. Aggressive players who tested the limits of the rules (and sometimes crossed them)
  3. Willing to do thankless jobs in the shadows
  4. Low-key, practical and democratic
  5. Able to motivate others with non-verbal cues
  6. Courageous and willing to stand apart if it meant upholding a strong conviction
  7. Ironclad controllers of emotions

His captains achieved success not through exceptionally skilled play, but by never giving up They didn’t shun the small jobs, but instead did whatever grunt work needed to be done for the good of the team, not themselvesThey didn’t deliver flowery motivational speeches, but they held people accountable by looking people in the eye

It’s easy to quibble with the scientific method Sam Walker used to arrive at his list of exceptional teams, but with hundreds of thousands of sports teams around the world to work with he had to narrow it somehow. He almost excluded baseball which would have led me to shelve the book immediately, but—phew—baseball skimmed through his criteria sieve and I was able to carry on.

I was particularly intrigued by the idea of social loafing, an idea born out of research by Maximilien Ringelmann. Ringelmann tested the amount of effort exerted by people pulling on a rope. He started with low numbers of people and then added on. You would think that the more people pulling on a rope, the more effort would be exerted, but he found that the more people, the less effort each individual exerted. Working as a team caused people to work less strenuously than when working alone.

We’re willing to coast a little when we feel other people can carry a little of our load. 

Anyone who has ever been part of a group project has seen this kind of dynamic at play. We assume that the highly skilled star players motivate teammates to work hard and try to excel at the same level, but Walker’s examination of exceptional teams seemed to indicate the opposite. Fellow team members of superstars were willing to let them carry the load.

But when less-skilled dogged captains courageously and aggressively lead a team, individual efforts around them increase too.

Who are the people in the organizations that you work or play in who never give up? Who does the grunt work for the good of the team, not themselves? Who holds you accountable by looking you in the eye?

Who are your water carriers?

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