In the last two decades, as television revenue poured in, the world’s major sports leagues grew wealthy beyond their wildest imaginings. The international sports industry will take in an estimated $91 billion this year, a sum not too far behind the global market for cancer treatments.
The money has changed the nature of what sports teams do. Winning is no longer the key to profits. Today, the most important measure of success is TV ratings, and in their eagerness to put on a good show, teams have bid up the prices for the most bankable commodities in sports: the kinds of superstar players and coaches people tune in to watch.
The ongoing furor over executive pay is the business world’s corollary. And while that debate seems likely to rage for years to come, it obscures a hidden reality that corporations and sports teams share: top-shelf talent is overrated. It’s the mid-level people who don’t get much credit–and in many cases, don’t think they even deserve it–who often pull more weight than they’re usually thought to.
Why Star Players Rarely Make For Winning Teams
Last year, the top 10 NFL coaches earned an average of $7 million, while the league’s highest-paid players earned more than $30 million–both about six times their equivalents in the 1990s. Top soccer players in England’s Premier League have seen their incomes multiply even more, and the $16 million salary Manchester City’s manager, Pep Guardiola, reportedly earned this season is nine times what Manchester United paid Alex Ferguson in 2000.
These sought-after superstars and celebrity coaches have seen their influence grow substantially, too. On many teams, in fact, there is now a tug-of-war between leadership and control.
Many years ago, I set out to identify the greatest individual teams in sports history across the world and to see what, if anything, they had in common. I devised a series of eight qualifying tests, ranging from how many members a team must have (at least five), to how long its dominance lasted (at least four seasons), to whether it competed against the world’s top competition and amassed a streak of wins or championships unique to its sport.
In the end, only 16 teams made the cut. The list includes familiar names such as the 1956-1969 Boston Celtics and lesser-known units such as Cuba’s 1990-2000 women’s national volleyball team. (The full methodology and results are detailed in my book, The Captain Class.)
But the second part of the study–what these “freak” teams had in common–yielded the biggest surprise. It was not the presence of a superstar, superior tactics, money, or even a genius coach. Their only shared trait was the presence of a particular kind of captain.
These men and women were not what I’d expected. They were rarely major talents. They weren’t charismatic speechmakers. They generally played supporting roles, carried water for their teams, and clashed with referees and management. On and off the field, they acted as independent intermediaries, selectively adopting the wishes of their coaches or teammates depending on the situation. Put simply, they were middle managers.
The Best Of The Mediocre
This kind of go-between is a vanishing breed in modern sports and modern business alike. Many teams simply give the captaincy to their best player. Several prominent teams including the Celtics, New York Yankees, and Toronto Maple Leafs have decided to go without captains. They assign the duties instead to a core group of player-leaders or consolidate power in the hands of the coach.
In the business world, where open-plan offices and multiple Slack channels have cut through old hierarchical barriers, many companies have followed suit. They’ve embraced “flat” structures where middle managers are culled and star workers lead the way, often reporting directly to top executives.
But it’s not always clear that this model works. In 2013, Ethan Mollick of the Wharton School collected the names from the credits of 854 video games to see which employees were most crucial to a game’s success, as measured by revenue.
In an industry that prizes dazzling content, it’s logical to assume that the “creatives” who design games are more impactful than the “producers” who oversee mundane details like budgets and deadlines. Yet Mollick found that the opposite was true. Designers accounted for 7% of the variation in revenue between games, while producers accounted for 22%. In the end, middle managers made a bigger difference.
“They are not interchangeable parts,” Mollick concluded.
Those findings echoed a 2003 article in Harvard Business Review by Thomas DeLong and Vineeta Vijayaraghavan, whose research showed that the “unsung commitment” of a company’s “B” players is more valuable over the long term. Because they don’t demand attention, play supporting roles, put the company’s goals before their own, and challenge ideas they disagree with, B players provide enormous stability–especially in tough times.
To sustain greatness, in other words, recruiting “alphas” may be less important than building a solid core of “alpha betas“–not the best of the best, but the best of the seemingly mediocre.
Most of us, if asked to assemble the ideal team leader, would choose someone whose captaincy skills are obvious; a person who, as the Stanford social psychologist Deborah Gruenfeld puts it, “possesses some combination of superior charm and ruthless ambition that the rest of us don’t.”
Yet in real life, Gruenfeld says, research shows that people who boldly claim status inside an organization are not the ones who most readily and reliably attain and hold power. The best leaders are those who believe they’re less deserving than they really are.
The captains of these 16 teams would not have given spellbinding job interviews. They rarely stood out. They took a functional approach to leadership by doing the daily managerial grunt work. Put simply, they led from the back.
My research suggests that modern organizations should stop stigmatizing middle management, and that any leadership search ought to start with the candidates who are the easiest to overlook. The most enduringly successful captains may be hiding in plain sight.
Sam Walker is the Wall Street Journal‘s deputy editor for enterprise. This piece is adapted with permission from his new book, The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams.