Leadership Advice From The Captain Guru: Sam Walker

When stepping into a leadership role, ask yourself, “how much can I sacrifice and how much do I care?”

That advice was from the author of The Captain Class: The Hidden Force that Creates the World’s Greatest Teams. Sam Walker imparted his wisdom to a young, eager group of underclassmen Syracuse University students in the sport management class of Rick Burton, David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics Endowed professor and author. He told the class that leadership is actually quite simple. But not easy. 

“Leadership is a set of behaviours and choices,” Walker explained. 

In the leadership context, Walker suggested that there will always be a right and a wrong decision. But usually, the right decision takes most of your time, commitment and energy. 

And that is where the great leaders rise above the rest of the pack. Walker found that elite captains and leaders sacrificed more than their teammates and they cared deeply about the team’s success. Walker stressed the idea that to these leaders the overall team was more important than anyone individual team member. A leader understands what they give to the team, not just individual members, will lead to success.

Sam Walker Leadership Book

Sam Walker’s book delves into the world of captains of sports dynasties. And they aren’t the leaders that you would typically think. The Captain Class provides a new theory of leadership and turns the pristine image of a leader on its head. These elite captains are not the most well-spoken, media-friendly polished athlete. They are gritty, aggressive players who typically shy away from the spotlight. These leaders “do the thankless jobs in the shadows.”

These captains showcase the values of being focused, relentless, committed teammates, reflecting the behaviours and values of Leaders of Evolution. Walker’s captains played supporting roles to allow their team to reach the pinnacle of success.

In the hybrid conference call with students in the physical classroom and on Zoom, Burton, a member of the Leaders of Evolution Advisory Board team, knowingly asked a question that pointed to one of Walker’s most powerful findings. 

“Are captains born or made?”

Walker referred to the notion that leadership is simply a series of behaviours and choices. Those behaviours and choices make a leader. Walker said that while his Captain Class members were elite professional athletes and obviously had talent and natural ability, their behaviours set them apart. 

We all have expectations and ideas of how great leaders should act. Walker said people often look at a leader and think there must be something exceptional about that person, that they must be so talented, making them a ‘natural-born leader.’ And he suggested maybe we idolize leaders because otherwise, we would have to come to terms with the conundrum that if a normal person can lead so successfully, why isn’t everyone a leader?

And that’s where Walker’s theory comes back into play. We can all be leaders with our behaviour and choices. It takes intentional development that can be advanced through training, courses, mentorship and self-reflection. But we might not be willing to make that sacrifice and commitment to ourselves and our team. 

“It’s about standing behind, submitting yourself to the team to make sure it gets what it needs. You must be putting in constant work, constantly communicating intensely with team members to find the issues and then find the solutions.”

Sam Walker

But Walker warned leadership isn’t about doing all the work by yourself. Leadership is about putting those around you in positions to be successful so they can provide support and assistance to their best abilities

“No one can do everything. There doesn’t need to be a big distinction between the leader and everyone else.”

Walker showed the class how this principle was being put into practise. As Walker has studied how elite captains lead a team, he says he is now studying all the different ways people can contribute to a team. He is currently working with the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams on how everyone can make a leadership contribution. He said of course there is a captain, but the captain can’t be everything the team needs. There’s someone who can be the humour, the pacesetter, the sheriff.

To learn more about intentionally developing as a leader and overall team contributor, click here to visit Emerging Leaders in Sport page.

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Leaders of Evolution are passionate about education. We expertly design and deliver technology enhanced e-learning courses focused on leadership, social and emotional learning, career readiness and sports coaching for students, teachers, athletes, coaches and the wider community.

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Emma Henzes

Enjoys telling stories through digital media and loves to travel trying the local food. While she is out of her athletic prime, Emma still loves to stay in shape and watch live sporting events with her family and friends. If you can’t find her at her laptop working for Leaders of Evolution, she’s probably at the beach.


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