Leadership Lessons from Extremely Successful Sports Teams

Winning Team

In this blog I will share a number of Leadership lessons from the World’s Greatest Sports Teams.
It is based on research that Sam Walker (founding editor of the The Wall Street Journal’s sports section) published in 2017 in his book: ‘The Captain Class’.

Finding Extremely Successful Teams

In the last 18 years I worked with many software and leadership teams. Every now and then these teams are awesome, highly energized and delivering high value products to their customers. However, most of them never get to taste this kind of success.

My gut feeling tells me that only 5% of these teams can be classified as extremely successful.
I felt a growing desire to answer two questions: “Can I measure how successful these teams are?” and “Can I find a pattern or magic formula that explains this success?”
Measuring the success of these teams is almost impossible, since in most cases my data is lacking, incomplete or the teams no longer exist.
Finding a pattern or formula is even more difficult without this measurement.
A little frustrated by this dilemma, I started looking for different ways to answer them.

A few months ago I was reading ‘The Captain Class’ by Sam Walker and I got really excited about his discovery!
As the founding editor of The Wall Street Journal’s sports section, Walker had access to a large amount of data on the most dominant sports teams in history.
From thousands of teams that ever won a title, he systematically eliminated those with some or incidental successes. He ended up with no more than 16 teams (which he called the Tier 1 teams), marked worldwide as the best sports teams that ever existed.

On this Tier 1-list are teams like the New Zealand All Blacks, the New York Yankees, Barcelona’s football team and the Soviet Unions ice hockey team. All teams that dominated for at least 4 consecutive seasons, winning every worldwide recognized competition.
Walker’s research exposes some very interesting lessons about leadership and creating successful teams.

The Formula to Extreme Success

Once the most successful teams were identified, Walker started looking for a success-formula.
He researched all probable causes that could have made these teams so successful:

  • The presence of a superstar in the team
  • The level of overall talent in the team
  • The amount of financial resources
  • The quality of upper management \ institutional excellence
  • The impact of the team’s coach
  • The team cohesion

Walker could not point at either of them as the linking pin between all teams in Tier 1 (called the Alpha Lions).
While investigating the influence of individuals to the teams’ successes, he made an astonishing discovery:
For all 16 teams, 1 person’s presence overlapped precisely with the success period: the team captain.
After an extensive search to find more overlapping factors, the team captain was the only factor that connected all 16 teams in Tier 1.

So what kind of Leaders were these 16 team captains and what character traits separates them from their peers in Tier 2?

Seven traits of elite team captains

If we would summarise the character traits of a typical sports team captain like Michael Jordan the list would probably contain a combination of attractiveness, strength, talent, skill, charisma, charm and fair play.
However a thorough analysis of all 16 team captains in Tier 1 has led to different insights. Their character traits are in many cases the complete opposite of what you would expect.
In total, Walker discovered 7 character traits that made these captains so successful in leading their teams.

Trait 1: Extreme persistence and focus

Unlike 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.

Trait 2: Aggressive play that tests the limits of the rules

Breaking Rules
From 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.

Trait 3: A willingness to do thankless jobs in the shadows

Thankless Job
Many ‘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!”

Trait 4: A low-key, practical, and democratic communication style

Open Communication
We 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.).

Trait 5: Motivating others with passionate nonverbal displays

On 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.

Trait 6: Strong convictions and the courage to stand apart

All 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.

Trait 7: Ironclad emotional control

Emotional Control
The 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?

Leadership Lessons for creating High Performing Scrum Teams

The Scrum Master role has a lot of overlap with the team captains from Walker’s research.
Another overlap with Walker’s research is the role of the sports Coach: the Agile Leader, responsible for the Scrum Teams.
So, what lessons can Agile Leaders or Scrum Masters learn from these sports teams?

Lesson 1: Scrum Masters make the difference between Good and Great teams

Inner Leader
Walker’s research proves that having an inside-Leader (or team captain) is the most important factor in making a team successful.
It wasn’t strategy, management, money or superstar talent that made the difference: 106 Teams had similar characteristics but all ended second place (the so called Tier 2 teams). It was the presence of a Leader, fighting on the battlefield with the team, who made the difference between good and great.

In Scrum, it is the Scrum Master role who has most overlap with the captains from Walker’s research.
In times of high pressure and when things get rough, the Scrum Master is the leader, working with the team from the trenches. For this reason he will have the most impact on the teams’ performance.
No coach, manager or process can help a team better in these circumstances than the Scrum Master.

Lesson 2: Agile Leaders enable Scrum Masters to Lead

Transfer Responsibility
Many Scrum Masters I encounter, only take up day to day routine tasks (such as hosting Scrum events and planning meetings), because their manager handles all leadership-related work.
The ‘Tier 1’-captains in Walker’s research proved that their Leadership was most effective, because they were part of the team. The duty of their coach was to create an environment that allowed this to happen.

An Agile Leader should help Scrum Masters to develop the character traits of a ‘Tier 1’-captain, so Scrum Masters can also become Agile Leaders. While some Scrum Masters might have a natural talent to Lead, some will develop these talents along the way. The challenge for the Agile Leader is to understand when to delegate these responsibilities, once the Scrum Master becomes more mature.

Alex Ferguson, the legendary coach of Manchester United once said: “As hard as I worked on my own leadership skills, and as much as I tried to influence every aspect of United’s success on the field, at kickoff on match day things moved beyond my control.”

Lesson 3: Scrum Masters are Servant Leaders

Servant Scrum Master
We have come to expect that the best leaders are often those with:

  • Exceptional talent
  • Mesmerizing characters
  • High market-value
  • Superstar ego’s

The evidence Walker presents (the best team captains are Servant Leaders), proves that this is a distorted picture.

Many Scrum implementations I have seen reflect that same distortion. We often think that Scrum Masters are highly technical super-heroes that follow orders from an even greater hero-leader. As a result Scrum Masters are often selected on their technical skills and their super-hero status.
The most effective Scrum Masters I encountered, had the character traits that Walker found in his research.

Walker’s research proves that Scrum Masters do not have to be superstar heroes with deep technical skills. Instead, they should be humble, have a relentless drive to learn and play to win. While doing this, they should support team members in growing and becoming technical experts.

Lesson 4: Agile Leaders are also Servant Leaders

Servant Leader
Walker could not find any evidence that the sports coaches (the equivalent of the Agile Leader) of the ‘Tier 1’-teams had a direct impact on their success. With regard to the contribution of the coach, his research lead Walker to a number of conclusions:

  • the coaches were not prizewinning strategists
  • most were not inspirational figures
  • the coaches did not have a big impact on a player’s performance
  • changing coaches had no\low impact (many of the ‘Tier 1’- teams coaches came and left during the burst of success)
  • there were no real unifying principles\character traits like with the teams’ captains

What these coaches did have in common:

  • They gave their captains the room to be a leader for their team
  • They all enjoyed close and contentious relationships with their captains
  • They all had been decorated captains before moving to their management position

This allowed them to understand what makes a good captain and identify the perfect person to lead the players.

All coaches of the ‘Tier 1’-teams understood that to achieve great success, they needed a player on the field who could serve as their proxy.

The consequence of delegating Leadership to a Scrum Master is that the role of the traditional manager will change. The focus of an Agile Leader might be different, but the roles and required skills\character traits have a lot of resemblance.
True Agile Leaders are also Servant Leaders. They work closely together with the Scrum Masters and dare to step aside, once the game is on.

Lesson 5: Agile Leaders create a Learning Environment

Walker’s research shows us that being a great leader is not (always) genetically determined, it can be learned.
All ‘Tier 1’-captains started off with having early struggles in their captaincy. These struggles lead to a breakthrough moment that left no doubt about their desire to win.
As a result they focused, worked hard and pushed themselves and others to keep learning.
Coaches and managers of Agile teams need to create an environment where it’s safe to fail and where people get enough opportunity to learn from their mistakes.
It is the Scrum Masters job to show the team how to be persistent in reaching their goals and learn from their mistakes.

Lesson 6: Positive dissent is essential

Scrum uses closed feedback loops as a mechanism to continuously improve, eliminate waste and create incremental value.
All ‘Tier 1’-captains from Walker’s research understood that their teams needed positive dissent in order to make such a feedback loop work.
Like the captains in Tier 1, a Scrum Master needs to create an atmosphere in his team where conflicts are not driven by ego’s but by the will to win.
To achieve such an atmosphere, a Scrum Master needs to act on the edge of the status quo.
To be excellent, it is sometimes necessary to challenge existing processes, bad decisions or test the limits of existing rules.


One of the biggest struggles in becoming a true Agile Leader is to delegate responsibility.
Walker’s research shows that Leaders who are able to delegate these responsibilities to their Scrum Masters, create the most successful teams. If the Agile Leader and the Scrum Master work closely together, they can achieve amazing things!

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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