The Strong B+ Leader: “A New Theory of Leadership”

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The Captain! (well….maybe not)

Years ago, as a squadron commander, it dawned on me that sometimes the best performers in the squadron were not the individuals with the strongest pedigree.  I know many of you are thinking, “Really Bill? It took you that long?” Those who know me understand; it just takes me awhile.  In many conversations I referred to these amazing leaders as the Strong B+ players who were the leaders looking to prove they belonged and had the chops to make it in leadership positions. Honestly, I can’t think of a time when these leaders failed to impress. A few weeks ago I came across a podcast from the Art of Manliness featuring Sam Walker and about a week ago a student mentioned the same episode.  In his new book The Captain : A New Theory of Leadership, Sam, a deputy editor at the Wall Street Journal, looks at the unsung leaders who have taken their teams on incredible championship runs. 

Sam’s book celebrates captains, not all-stars, or the highest-paid players, or the most famous players although a captain may be all those things. In his view, a captain is the kind of athlete who does the right thing to help his team and teammates, whether they get credit for it or not because it’s the right thing to do.

In the book, Walker comes up with seven traits that these captains share. These often selfless, but utterly self-disciplined leaders come off as remarkably stoic. Here are the traits:

1. Extreme doggedness and focus in competition.

2. Aggressive play that tests the limits of the rules.

3. A willingness to do thankless jobs in the shadows.

4. A low-key, practical, and democratic communication style.

5. An ability to motivate others with passionate nonverbal displays.

6. Strong convictions and the courage to stand apart.

7. Ironclad emotional control.

Brett McKay (founder and editor-in-chief of The Art of Manliness) notes if the great stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius was coaching a football team, this is exactly what he’d be teaching his players. It’s also exactly what we should be working on today in whatever activity we do or sport we play (professionally or for exercise). Brett takes Walker’s rules and formats them into Marcus’s concept of “epithets for the self.” (Aurelius’ were upright, modest, straightforward, sane, cooperative).

Focused.

A competitor.

Selfless.

Clear.

Inspiring.

Courageous.

Controlled.

After an exhausting search on Google I came across several interviews of Sam Walker with some great quotes to illustrate the fact that it is not always the best player, the best pilot, or the best pedigree that makes the best leader.  Sam says, “I think if we were asked to construct a captain in a laboratory, we would pick a superstar. We’d pick someone who is charismatic, a celebrity. But what I discovered was that the great captains of these teams were not obvious people. They were rarely stars. They did the grunt work. They also had other surprising characteristics, like they embraced dissent and conflict inside their teams.

Sam goes on to note, “It can be really problematic when they (the captains) thought something wasn’t going well, and they were really relentless. And they hated giving speeches. They had a different style of communication that was much more low-key and individual. And they had incredible emotional control. I mean, to an extreme, and they also had this tendency to test the rules. I found all these examples of unsportsmanlike things they did in competition, and it took me a long time to figure…

You know, the captaincy is a funny thing. In fact, it’s fallen out of fashion. You know, a lot of teams are not naming captains. They’re naming a group of captains. They’re very suspicious of the tradition. Some of this is economics because as television supports sports, there’s an emphasis on putting on a good show. And these are the kinds of bankable stars that put, you know, butts in seats to be blunt about it.”

So what’s happened is that the superstar and the coach tend to be this sort of two poles of power on a team. And the captain’s role is really fascinating. It was always a middle manager. It was an intermediary between the players and the coaches. It wasn’t necessarily the best player. So a lot of teams simply give the captaincy to the best player, but that’s not the model that’s been successful over the years.

Sam uses the acrostic BRAVE when describing these leader captains and leverages five questions across Behaviors, Relationships, Attitudes, Values, and Environment (BRAVE leadership):

What impact? (Behaviors – implementation)

How to connect? (Relationships – communication)

How to win? (Attitude – strategy)

What matters and why? (Values – purpose)

Where to play? (Environment – context)

Bottom Line—a fascinating interview and podcast.  I will be picking up the book this week.

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