7 daily habits of the best team leaders

To determine what makes the most successful team captains in sports history tick, Sam Walker, the deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal, found seven traits that all the captains had in common.

None of them were what he expected.

Walker had initially predicted the captains might have been highly:

  • Talented;
  • Eloquent;
  • Dedicated;
  • Diplomatic;
  • Charismatic; and
  • Sportsmanlike.

But Walker says he was wrong. He was able to identify seven traits the leaders had in common, but they all defied his expectations. Here are the qualities he found in the greatest team captains.

1. They stay out of the spotlight

To Walker's surprise, the most talented, in-the-spotlight players on the teams he studied did not make successful captains. Instead, it was the most humble people, willing to stay out of the spotlight and let their star teammates capture fans' attention, that ultimately led their teams to the greatest success.

These humble captains were also willing to pitch in on routine tasks, like carrying the water for the rest of the team.

2. They bend the rules when necessary

The best team captains aren't the ones who were most strict, Walker found. Sometimes, as was the case with Mireya Luis, the captain of Cuba's women's volleyball team in 1996, captains must make an executive decision to bend the rules.

Luis instructed her teammates to relentlessly insult the Brazilian team—which made them play too aggressively and ultimately lose.

But Walker also notes that these captains "aren't thugs," since once they're off the court or field, they return to civility.

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3. They communicate effectively—but not eloquently

Successful team captains don't make the grand speeches you see in sports movies, says Walker. But they are good at understanding their team members' communication styles and telling them what they need to hear. The best team captains communicate with their individual teammates one-on-one more than they communicate with the team all at once.

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4. They lead by example—to an extreme degree

This trait isn't as surprising as some of the others—but the extent to which this played out in the most successful captains might be.

Walker specifically cites Jack Lambert, the 1970's defensive captain of the Pittsburgh Steelers who refused to change some bandages on his hand so that his teammates would see the blood on his uniform as an inspiring example of resilience.

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5. They speak up when they don't agree

Walker noticed that all of the most successful captains were independent thinkers and they weren't afraid to challenge their coaches and executives when they disagreed with decisions.

Walker notes that this dissent is never personal and is motivated by the captain's sincere desire to support the team. According to Walker, the best captains recognize that conflict "is not destructive. It's essential."

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6. They don't stop. Ever.

The captains Walker studied faced serious injuries—including one heart attack—and seemingly impossible odds. They pushed through anyway, rarely missing a game.

According to Walker, doggedness "is one of the most underrated traits of leadership." That's because the perseverance is contagious. Other team members follow the example and achieve things they wouldn't otherwise have been able to do.

7. They can set aside their emotions—or use them to their advantage

In sports, as in other areas of life, emotions can be an important motivator or they can be distracting and detrimental. That's why Walker says the most successful team captains exercise extraordinary self-control and focus on the game at hand (Walker, Wall Street Journal, accessed 5/17).

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