Nature or nurture: the art of team captaincy
Across many professional sports the importance of leadership within teams is broadly acknowledged. Indeed, many teams appoint formal leaders such as captains to help provide this leadership within the team. However, while this is the case there is a lot less clarity regarding what role(s) these captains should be undertaking.
Part of the challenge here is the different nature of the captaincy position in different sports. In a sport such as cricket the captain is a key member of the organisation providing leadership and taking key decisions on the field of play. The captain in rugby union is similar in that they take key tactical decisions on the pitch, but have less formal control/responsibility compared to cricket. In other team sports such as soccer or field hockey the captain appears to be a ’leader on the pitch’ who is expected to lead by example, but the key decisions in terms of tactics and game play are taken by the coaches off the pitch. All of which suggests that to be effective in enhancing team leadership we have to think of captaincy within specific sports, rather than at a universal level. This point is important as it is crucial to understand the demands of the role, and the knowledge, skills and expertise required to meet the associated challenges.
While this might seem an obvious strategy, it has not always been the case in sport. Indeed, the selection of captains within sports teams has historically been skewed by three specific factors. First, the position the individual occupies on the team. In cricket there have been far more batters than bowlers as captains. In soccer there is the expectation that a central defender or central midfield player is preferable (because they can see what is going on – what ever that means). Second, the notion of leading by example in terms of playing ability. This has often led to the most talented individuals (playing ability) being selected, but who may not be able to work well with others. Finally, leading by example in terms of approach (willing to run through walls etc). These biases have over time led to a specific mix of individuals being appointed as captains in sports teams. Interestingly, researchers in Belgium have found that in teams across a range of sports at a non elite level the majority of the ‘leadership’ in the team was not provided by the captain. This reinforces the view that either the wrong people are being appointed as captains, or the role is redundant. I am inclined to believe the former, so we need to focus on how to select and develop the best captains for the job.
The first step has to be to first understand what the role is in the specific team, at that level, at that point in time (I have worked with teams that have needed different leadership at different points in their development). The next step is to select the most appropriate ‘leader’ to fulfil that role. Recognising that all of the required leadership within the team does not need to provided by one individual the development of a leadership group is an important next step. The other positive benefit of this group is to help to nurture the leaders of the future. When you know the demands of the role and the knowledge, skills and expertise required you can put in place a development programme that will develop the leaders of the future. This type of succession planning can help to minimise disruption through transitions and ultimately drive a team on to even high levels of performance. All of which reinforces the view that individuals who have the potential to be leaders can build upon their natural attributes to develop into highly effective leaders in their own specific context.