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The Leadership Podcast

The Leadership Podcast

Why do we do this?

We interview great leaders, review the books they read, and speak with highly influential authors who study them.

How we do this?

#1 We interview great leaders.
#2 We review the books great leaders read and write.
#3 We have fun!

Dec 11, 2019

Sam Walker is The Wall Street Journal’s deputy editor for enterprise, the unit that directs the paper’s in-depth page-one features and investigative reporting projects. A former reporter, sports columnist, and sports editor, Walker founded the Journal’s prizewinning daily sports coverage in 2009. For this episode, he dives into his book, The Captain Class -  a bold new theory of leadership drawn from the elite captains who inspired their teams to achieve extraordinary success.


Named one of the best business books of the year by CNBC, The New York Times, Forbes, strategy+business, The Globe and Mail, and Sports Illustrated.


Now featuring analysis of the five-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots and their captain, Tom Brady.


The seventeen most dominant teams in sports history had one thing in common: Each employed the same type of captain—a singular leader with an unconventional set of skills and tendencies. Drawing on original interviews with athletes, general managers, coaches, and team-building experts, Sam Walker identifies the seven core qualities of the Captain Class—from extreme doggedness and emotional control to tactical aggression and the courage to stand apart. Told through riveting accounts of pressure-soaked moments in sports history, The Captain Class will challenge assumptions of what inspired leadership looks like.


Key Takeaways

[3:05] Sam looked up to sports teams and famous locker room speeches as a youth, but he found that most teams do not run the way he thought.

[5:40] In his book, Sam looked at teams who had sustained success over a number of years and exhibited characteristics one wouldn’t expect.

[8:10] Sam researched his book with certain assumptions about teams, but was pleasantly surprised. He realized as he did more research, that he really had a lot to learn about how leadership really works.

[10:25] Some of the qualities and characteristics that team captains had were:


  • Extreme doggedness and focus in competition
  • Aggressive play that tests the limits of the rules
  • A willingness to do thankless jobs in the shadows - Humility
  • A low-key, practical and democratic communication style - They were boring people privately.
  • Motivates others with passionate nonverbal displays - Practical communication style
  • Strong convictions and the courage to stand apart
  • Ironclad emotional control


[15:40] The hardest lesson Sam learned is that if you want to be a great leader, you have to be okay with getting zero credit. Other people may be the face of the company/team; other people may get the better promotions over you and you have to be okay with that. 

[20:05] There are two types of aggression. There’s the kind of conflict that’s really personal and it’s always toxic. If a leader engages, it will destroy the team. There is also something called task conflict, which can get very heated, but is never personal. It is always with the good of the team in mind.

[25:10] When you put successful people together and they’re all working towards a goal, it ends up being a lot of fun, and it should be! They have a level of trust with their teammates and a level of humility among the group that allows them to not worry about the small stuff.

[28:15] A lot of people believe Michael Jordan was a great leader. It was actually Bill Cartwright who was the glue that held everyone together.

[30:35] We reward heroes, but that is just an indicator that the team dynamic failed. We think working late nights and making sacrifices is a good thing for the company, but if it’s just one man pulling the cart, you’re not succeeding as a leader.

[37:10] Leaders who are on great teams and have seen sustained success are running 90 miles an hour, foot on the gas, all the time. There is no such thing as a slow day for these leaders.

[43:35] Sam challenges you to think about all the managers you’ve had over the years and read this book and re-rank them based on the qualities listed in his book.


Quotable Quotes

  • “The team is so much more important than the individual.”
  • “There are a million ways to win, but every single team who had sustained success had the same characteristics.
  • “If you really want to be a great team leader, you have to be completely content that you’re not going to get the credit you deserve.”
  • “Will I be content if the team wins? Is that enough for me?”
  • “Team leaders, were often in defensive roles, and were not the face of the team or the first person you’d expect.
  • “Even if you don’t always do the right thing as a leader, just knowing what you’re supposed to do is half the battle.


  • “Emotional control is a big one. These leaders had the ability to be passionate and show emotion, and then shut it off when it was no longer helpful.”
  • “Tom Brady said, ‘It’s actually very simple. You do your job so that everybody else can do theirs. That’s it. That’s the secret.’”
  • “It’s about putting the same amount of effort, whether you’re winning big or losing badly. It’s about showing a consistent approach to your work.”

The Captain Class: A New Theory of Leadership, by Sam Walker


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