What makes a great leader? image of basketball coach and players reviewing whiteboard
March 21, 2018

What makes a great leader?

WSJ’s Sam Walker discusses his book The Captain Class

Are great leaders the ones drawing attention to themselves or are they the steady heart behind-the-scenes that keep the team moving forward?

In this episode of the Tony Robbins Podcast, our host, Ana Yoerg, sits down with Sam Walker of The Wall Street Journal to discuss his recently released book, The Captain Class.

In Sam’s sports career as a reporter, columnist and editor, he has seen the best and the worst of every type of team and athlete. He has had a front-row seat to personally observe the success of some of the world’s most talented teams.

Named one of 2017’s Best Business Books of the Year by CNBC, the New York Times, Amazon, Strategy + Business, the Globe and Mail and SI.com, The Captain Class explores Sam’s observations throughout his career and what the greatest teams in history have in common – the same type of unconventional captain.

Sam and Ana discuss what we can learn from the successful captains who led these amazing teams to victory and how we can apply their winning strategies to achieve in business.

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In this lively conversation, they will take a deep dive into the behavioral and psychological traits of the successful captains of these teams – and unveil why society’s idea of leadership could be all wrong.

Bestselling author, columnist and editor Sam Walker

Bestselling author, columnist and editor Sam Walker

When we think of a leader, we tend to think of someone who is loud, flashy and draws attention to themselves.

But what Sam found out during his research was that wasn’t necessarily the case at all. The leaders discussed in Sam’s book were none of those things. Instead, they used their unconventional skill sets to achieve historic greatness.

Rather than being the center of attention, strong leaders tend to fly under the radar. They are too busy communicating with their teammates and supporting each player, including the team’s superstars, in the individualized ways that they need to be supported.

When you are building your team or business, hiring the candidates or selecting the teammates with the right qualities to enhance and empower your team is often more important than any other aspect of their resume.

A true leader isn’t always the one with the most natural talent. It’s often the one who puts the team above him or herself. That’s what leads to greatness.

This is true in sports and it is true in business. To be successful in either arena, you need to recognize your own strengths and feed off of the strengths of those around you.


[01:14] Episode introduction
[02:58] Welcome Sam
[03:10] How Sam decided to write Captain Class
[03:40] Spending a lot of time with great teams
[03:50] “What makes this team so great?”
[04:30] Once you become great – how do you stay that way?
[05:20] How the Hungarian soccer team became one of the all-time greatest
[06:00] The end of the Hungarian reign
[08:30] What makes a team more powerful than the sum of its parts?
[09:40] The key component of the Hungarian soccer team – the captain
[10:40] How juggling was a non-verbal cue to the team
[11:20] The psychological component of the game
[11:40] The importance of internal leadership
[12:00] Misperceptions of what a leader really is
[13:25] It wasn’t Messi – it was Carlos Puyol
[13:55] Why Pele was never the captain of the Brazilian team
[14:20] Captains are different than the superstars
[15:20] We think that a great leader has to be obvious
[15:40] Great leaders are better off if they’re in the shadows
[16:40] The importance of a good defense
[17:00] Bill Russell of the Celtics – the big picture view of what’s good for the team
[17:20] How to find your leaders in business
[17:40] Many businesses are getting rid of middle management – but is that a mistake?
[18:15] Leadership isn’t as important during growth
[18:40] When things go wrong – what star talent does
[19:05] True leaders care about the collective
[19:40] Entering a partnership with these leaders
[19:50] Bill Russell and the Celtics
[22:00] Great leaders are “like the verb in a sentence”
[23:20] Carla Overbeck
[25:00] The singular focus of achieving the outcome
[26:30] Every failure is a challenge to do better
[27:30] The key to sustenance
[27:50] Richard Hackman’s theories of functional leadership
[29:20] Matchers and mismatchers
[30:00] Captains that went against the grain
[30:20] The Soviet ice hockey team
[33:30] Task conflict
[27:10] The greatest Olympic team of all time – the Cuban women’s VB team
[38:30] The Atlanta Olympics of 1996
[42:30] Hostile aggression vs. pushing the boundaries
[43:50] Consider the underlying intentions
[45:10] “The Game Frame”
[45:50] Roy Keane
[46:40] Steve Jobs
[48:00] 7 traits of elite captains
[49:10] Javier Fernandez of Spain
[53:00] Does the leader really always give a speech?
[54:10] Tim Duncan
[57:10] MIT study about communication patterns
[57:50] The charismatic connector
[59:00] Using credibility to turn the team into a talkative place
[59:30] Work on your one-on-one communication
[1:00:10] Onion articles about Tim Duncan
[1:01:20] Understanding what leadership means
[1:01:50] You have to earn the role of a captain
[1:02:40] How Carla Overbeck earned her credibility
[1:04:40] Identifying the next generation of leaders
[1:06:00] Why personalities are ultimately irrelevant
[1:07:00] Great leaders may actually be the most boring on paper
[1:08:20] The sneaky praise test
[1:10:50] The biggest surprise Sam encountered
[1:11:20] The great coaches and their partnerships with the captains
[1:14:00] Alex Ferguson of Manchester United
[1:16:40] The Alpha-Betas
[1:17:10] The mistake most managers make
[1:17:30] Dealing with salary issues
[1:20:00] How to cultivate a leader
[1:22:00] Leaders assume responsibility for everyone
[1:25:20] The great unknown is leadership
[1:26:30] The Captain Class
[1:27:40] Find more of Sam’s work at WSJ

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