What can fundraisers learn from the 16 most successful captains in history?

If you were asked to form a picture in your mind of an outstanding leader, I wonder what qualities you would see?

In the excellent new book The Captain Class, Sam Walker describes seven qualities which many people under-value in relation to leadership.

Walker was curious about the factor that made the biggest difference to the most successful sports teams in history. He pored over the data to find the teams that won most consistently, over periods of years. And he discovered that since records began, 16 teams were more successful than all the rest. Teams like the New Zealand All Blacks in the late eighties who won an astonishing 49 consecutive international rugby matches across a three year period. These super-successful teams included a broad range of sports, including a women’s volleyball team from Cuba and a men’s ice hockey team from the Soviet Union.

He then searched for the factor that all these teams had in common. He found the only common denominator was that their winning streak started when one particular player was the captain and it finished soon after that player left the team.

After seeing this pattern, he was left in no doubt that contrary to what some would tell you, one player had a huge effect on these teams’ success rates. In effect, he found that they had an amazing ability to lift the performance of everyone around them, so that the team’s contribution was more than the sum of its parts.

What do they do differently?

The reason the book is so fascinating (and useful to anyone who is part of a team, fundraising or otherwise) is that the qualities these 16 extraordinarily successful leaders had in common were very far from most people’s image of The Great Leader. This book does more to debunk the popular myths of the glamorous, Hollywood leader than anything I have read.

Walker discovered that the very best captains were not the charismatic stars like Michael Jordan or Pele. In fact, he found they shared 7 particular traits. Most of these traits were different from what most people would predict.

For example, in addition to the fact that none of these leaders were the team’s superstar; their communication style was low-key – none of them made motivational speeches like you see in the movies; and they did not avoid trouble, in fact, there were times they became unpopular within their organisation’s hierarchy, with fans or with external officialdom.

What does any of this have to do with improving fundraising results?

Why am I writing about the traits of the most successful captains in history, in a blog about fundraising?

In 2016 I undertook a research project into leadership in fundraising as part of the Commission on the Donor Experience. Of the most successful of the leaders I studied, a key thing I noticed that united them was how genuinely humble they were – their primary focus was not about their own fundraising projects, it was mostly about helping their team.

One leader was so focused on her team that she said ‘leadership is about being willing to die in a ditch for your team if need be.’ When you care this much about your team, she explained, everyone raises their game. These leaders talked about leadership primarily in terms of serving.

In the book Walker describes a conversation with Carles Puyol, who had been captain of the Barcelona football team between 2008 and 2013, which won an astonishing 15 trophies including four Spanish titles and two Champions League titles. Puyol had been dismissed by an opponent (Eric Cantona) as a mere ‘water-carrier’, because his role in the team was to deliver the ball to more skilful game-changers like the fans’ favourite, Zinedine Zidane. In response, Puyol said he was proud to perform the ‘water carrier’ role, as it was essential to helping his team function at the highest level. And contrary to what some would argue, Walker shows how this philosophy increased Puyol’s ability to positively influence the rest of the team.

When reading this chapter, I saw a clear parallel to the kind of leadership that Joe Jenkins (formerly of Friends of the Earth and now at Children’s Society) described when speaking at the Breakfast Club for Fundraising Leaders a while ago. He said ‘the leaders who succeed in today’s world are not so much chess masters as gardeners. They nurture and empower, creating the thriving environment in which their people can do what is needed to achieve the mission.’

So if you lead a fundraising team (or even if you don’t but you are part of a team), and especially if you enjoy watching or playing sport, I recommend Sam Walker’s book as a surprising and inspiring read.

Its reliance on hard data as well as the stories that bring it alive, did more to debunk the enduring and unhelpful myths about leadership than anything I have read. Whether you are currently a leader; or you are considering candidates for promotion; or you don’t believe you are leadership material, here are ways the book will help:

  1. As a leader. Nurture and value the unglamorous side of your role. If you genuinely seek to help those in your team, they can tell and they will respect you far more. Stick up for their interests when they are criticised by those higher up. Like Rechelle Hawkes, captain of the immensely successful Australian women’s hockey team, be an unabashed ‘watercarrier’. Your power to lift everyone’s game will increase.
  2. When appointing a leader. All that glitters is not gold, so be careful. Look beneath the surface. Value actions more than words. If there was one thing this book taught me, its that the 16 most successful captains in sport history were not charismatic playmakers, loved by the media and by those outside the team. Their immensely valuable contribution is easily over-looked and under-rated. To understand their value, pay attention to how they are respected by their team and the results they achieve, even if their ‘personal brand’ skills are not as shiny as the other person’s.
  3. Perhaps MOST IMPORTANTLY, if you are not currently a leader. (And this is the main reason I was moved to write this blog.) If you currently don’t see yourself as having the skills needed to get promoted / lead a team, all the more reason to read the book. You may re-evaluate and realise you actually have many of the qualities Walker describes. Very few, if any of the 16 captains sought the leadership role. It was the very fact that they did not want the power and the limelight, that they became so outstanding in doing whatever it took to help the team succeed.

Let me know what you think… And if you found this blog helpful, please share it…

Joe Jenkins shares his thoughts about modern fundraising leadership in the upcoming bundle for the Bright Spot Members Club. To find out how to join the club, click here.