NYT Best-Selling Author at "Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble."
Chances are you’ve never heard of Carla Overbeck. She was captain of the U.S. national women’s soccer team that won Olympic gold in 1996 and the World Cup in 1999, a team that over four years of international play posted an 84-6-6 record, making them one of the winningest squads in the history of sports.
Overbeck was arguably the key to their success -- “the heartbeat of that team and the engine,” and “the essence of the team,” as one teammate put it. Yet no one has ever heard of her. She wasn’t the best player on the team, or the most talented. She played defense, and rarely scored, though she played almost every minute of every game. To the outside world she was invisible, but to her teammates she was indispensable.
Overbeck also had one habit that seems kind of eccentric: When the players arrived at a hotel, she would carry everyone’s bags to their rooms for them.
That story about Overbeck schlepping the luggage appears in The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams, a remarkable new book that challenges some conventional ideas about leadership.
Its author, Sam Walker, is an editor at the Wall Street Journal and an avid sports fan. He set out more than a decade ago to study the greatest teams in sports history and figure out what traits they shared. He reckoned you could apply those same principles to business.
Over the course of 11 years, Walker studied 1200 teams in 37 sports. He traveled around the world conducting interviews. After all that he could find only one thing that extraordinary teams had in common, and it wasn’t what you’d expect.
It was not the coach. It was not a superstar player. The key to success was that each had an extraordinary captain -- like Carla Overbeck.
“The most crucial ingredient in a team that achieves and sustains historic greatness,” Walker argues, “is the character of the player who leads it.”
What’s more, the great captain is not always a great player. In fact, as with Overbeck, the best captains are often not the superstars. They’re often less gifted than their teammates. Yet they still manage to be great leaders.
Walker calls these players “water carriers,” and tells the story of Didier Deschamps, captain of the French national soccer team. In 1996, before a big match, the captain of a rival team Deschamps as a “limited” footballer and a “water carrier.” It was true that Deschamps didn’t score much. He mostly focused on passing the ball to others.
But his teams won games -- including the 1996 match where an opponent mocked Deschamps as a water carrier.
After that game, reporters asked Deschamps about the taunt. No doubt they were hoping Deschamps would offer an insult in return. Instead, he declared, “I don’t mind being called a water carrier.”
Elite captains don’t have to be big point scorers, but they do have some things in common. They’re fierce competitors. They play aggressively, to the point of testing the rules. They do the grunt work, the “thankless jobs in the shadows.” They’re the kind who insist on playing even when they’re injured, who practice longer and train harder than anyone else.
Does any of this map to the world of business? Walker thinks so. We hear a lot about “visionary” CEOs, especially in Silicon Valley. The new generation of tech founders is treated like celebrities or even superheroes. These days even venture capitalists receive the Jay-Z treatment, with their faces plastered on magazine covers alongside claims about their unique superpower abilities to predict the future.
But Walker’s book makes me think maybe the best leaders are the quiet ones, the ones you don’t hear much about, the ones who don’t hog the spotlight and don’t want to see their photograph on the cover of Wired or Fortune.
They’re the business equivalent of Carla Overbeck – quiet, in the background, but leading nonetheless.
And carrying the luggage. What on earth was that all about? It’s not the kind of thing you expect a leader to do. Leaders are supposed to show up surrounded by an entourage, with people carrying bags for them.
So why did she do it? The theory is this. Apparently, Overbeck was a relentless taskmaster. She pushed her teammates relentlessly both in practice and during games. Slack off during a game, or slow down, and you’d get an earful from her, usually in some rather colorful language. She had no problem shouting at her teammates, telling them to shape up or work harder.
But because she had carried the bags, she had earned the right to be a tyrant. Carrying the bags mean that once the team took the field, “she could say anything she wanted,” her coach says.
When the U.S. team won the World Cup in 1999, they all went on a big victory tour. Overbeck skipped the celebrations and flew home to North Carolina. On the day of the big rally in New York City, she was doing laundry.
Overbeck led one of the greatest teams in all of sports history, and yet most people have never heard of her. And that was fine by her: “I’ve never cared about getting my name in the paper,” she said. “As long as my team wins, I’m happy.”
I love this story because it’s such a great metaphor for the way a terrific boss treats her employees. She doesn’t spend her time “managing up,” trying to raise her own profile and win a promotion for herself. She doesn’t try to grab credit. She cares about her team and wants them to do well. She leads by example. She works harder than anyone else. She doesn’t demand your loyalty, she earns it. She might also be the toughest, most demanding boss you’ve ever had. But you would walk through fire for her.
It’s striking how many great captains were humble, selfless players, who seemed to believe that leading people is, paradoxically, a lot like serving them.
Anyone who aspires to be a manager, or is already managing people and hopes to get better at it, could learn a lot from The Captain Class, and be inspired by Carla Overbeck.