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Leadership Lessons Law Firms Can Learn From Sports

Business leaders often look to sports for lessons on leadership and teamwork. It stands to reason, then, that some of the greatest teams in sports history might be able to teach us some lessons about what makes a great team. Specifically, who were the real leaders of those great teams? And, do those great leaders share some characteristics that might shed some light on what it means to lead the very best?

Author Sam Walker set out to answer that question in The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams. Drawing from a worldwide analysis of the greatest teams in sports, Walker wondered what set the most elite teams apart. His conclusion is that the most elite teams shared a common characteristic, a great team captain. However, Walker noticed that the captains of these elite teams were seldom the best players on the team. Instead, Walker constructs a list of traits that these captains share – a sort of secret sauce for what leadership looks like at the most elite levels of sport.

Walker identifies seven key traits of elite captains:
1. They are “dogged” and focused when they compete;
2. They play aggressively, testing the limits of the rules;
3. They are willing to do the thankless work without fanfare;
4. They have a low key, practical and democratic communication style;
5. They motivate others with passionate nonverbal displays;
6. They have the courage to stand apart for their convictions;
7. They exercise emotional control.
Walker at 91.

In contrast, Walker notes that people are often attracted to false models of leadership. Specifically, people are often attracted to leaders who are loud and outspoken and seem to have the most talent. Walker notes that those talented and outspoken players often alienate their teammates. Further, they seldom are willing to do the dirty work or to promote democratic communication and most elite players seek out the spotlight. After all, if you’re the best player on the team, you usually expect your teammates to work to get you the ball and you expect your name to be in headline.

Walkers book may offer some insights to ways law firms might be able to build betters teams. Great teams are not built or led the way that many assume. The greatest teams are generally not simply “super teams” constructed of the best talent. Yes, the best teams have great talent, but they also have captains with the seven traits identified above. When one examines Walker’s list closely, one sees that the seven traits are actually somewhat uncommon amongst talented people.

The most talented athletes are catered to from a young age. They are heavily recruited by colleges and then drafted by professional teams. Because, they have such great talent, many are used to being the center of attention, having the team built around their talents, and being the Alpha person.

The same is true of many top lawyers. Most scored highly on college entrance exams and were heavily recruited by colleges. Most students were then, again, heavily recruited by law schools. For the top law students, many are heavily recruited one more time, by top law firms. In fact, the talent acquisition strategy of most law firms is to grab the best and the brightest. And, superficially that makes sense.

However, the lesson from the elite teams Walker analyzed is that simply adding in the most talent is not enough to be truly elite. You need to have a captain with the seven traits above to help bring the team together and lead them to the highest level.

My own experience leads me to believe Walker is right. The best teams I have worked with in my employment tended to have an unofficial leader who had most, if not all, of Walker’s traits. Those teams had a leader (not always the officially designated leader) who made sure everyone was heard. The person who seemed to always do the extra work no one else wanted. The person who always was on task, focused, and who never seemed to crack under the pressure. The funny thing is, these “captains” were not always the “stars” of the organization.

In contrast, I have also worked on teams led by “superstars.” While it is easy to recognize the intellectual talents of those leaders, I often found them to be mercurial and egocentric. They often had a hard time listening to the ideas of others. Work was done their schedule, often with little regard for the schedules of the rest of the team. Because these superstars were so intellectually gifted, the end result was often still good work product, but the process left a wake of unhappy colleagues and subordinates who quietly grumbled to themselves about the whole experience.

In contrast, one firm I know in North Carolina actually builds its litigation teams thoughtfully. Lawyers in the firm all take the Myers-Briggs test and teams are built using those profiles to ensure that teammates fit together well and know how to effectively communicate with others on the team who may have a different personality. While not exactly the same as approach as Walker is advocating, such thoughtful construction of the teams allows for greater likelihood that unexpected “captains” might arise.

The legal profession is increasingly moving toward teams of lawyers working together. It is a mistake to assume that those teams can be assembled quickly or carelessly. It is also a mistake to assume that simply building an all-star team will lead to the best results. The Captain Class provides for some interesting factors to consider in building the best functioning team and in considering who should really lead it.


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