“Captain Class” Leadership and an American Fiasco

“Captain Class” Leadership and an American Fiasco

(June 28, 2018) Many soccer fans (like me) are eagerly awaiting the start of the round of 16 in the 2018 World Cup.  In a timely juxtaposition, I have recently enjoyed two very compatible works – Sam Walker’s book, The Captain Class: A New Theory of Leadership, and Roger Bennett’s new podcast, “American Fiasco,” the story of the U.S. Men’s soccer team dysfunctional, disastrous showing at the 1998 World Cup.

Walker’s 2017 book (now available in paperback) is perhaps the smartest sports book since Mike Lewis’ Moneyball.  Walker posits that what differentiates the true elite dynasties in team sports is not team finances, coaching, or superstar players.  It’s all about the influence of the captain of the team.  “The most crucial ingredient in a team that achieves and sustains historic greatness,” Walker writes, “is the character of the player who leads it.”

Among the “Captain Class” leaders he identifies are basketball’s Bill Russell (Boston Celtics), hockey’s Maurice “Rocket” Richard (Montreal Canadiens), and soccer’s Didier Deschamps, who captained both Juventus and the French national team.  (Deschamps is now the manager of the French national team that’s advanced to the final 16 in the World Cup.). Among his “best of the best,” Walker also includes two eras of the New Zealand men’s national rugby team, the All Blacks, whose leadership practices are also described in my book, Leadership that Lasts:  Seven Actions toward an Enduring Impact.

Bennett, co-host of NBCSN’s Men in Blazers (and the podcast by the same name), provides a dystopian case study of what happens to teams with significant leadership problems and toxic cultures in “American Fiasco.”  The ’98 U.S. men’s team was burdened with disgruntled veterans who clearly didn’t buy into the ethos of “Captain Class” values. The team’s captain, John Harkes, was dismissed from the team before the World Cup for several reasons according to the podcast including having an affair with another player’s wife.  Alexi Lalas, now a lead commentator on Fox’s World Cup coverage and a veteran member of the ’98 team, essentially admits to Bennett that he was a negative influence.  Among his misdeeds were his complaints about coach Steve Sampson voiced directly to media.  It would have taken a pretty unique coach, not the limited Sampson, to be able to manage the abundant strife and vacuum of leadership.

The ’98 team quite evidently lacked the kind of leader described by Walker: “the captain. . .who holds sway over the dressing room by speaking to teammates as a peer, counseling them on and off the field, motivating them, challenging them, protecting them, resolving disputes, enforcing standards, inspiring fear when necessary, and above all setting a tone with words and deeds.”

As I reflected Walker and Bennett’s thoughtful, creative work, I’m drawn to several questions to consider:

  • Can “captain class”-caliber leadership be cultivated? If so, how can organizational leadership development programs accomplish this?
  • When there’s an absence of stellar leadership by front-line leaders (the team captains, regional vice presidents, or assistant principals), what should senior leaders (the head coaches, CEOs, or principals) do to strengthen distributed leadership in an organization?
  • What should senior leaders be doing to create the conditions so that “captain class” front-line leaders can do their best work?

© Tim Matheney, 2018