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20 February 2019
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Does a team need a captain?

11 August 2014  

I often use sporting analogies in this column as they provide a graphic parallel with life in any organisation; a small group doing their best to compete and overcome the opposition.

Even individual sports these days seem to involve a team. We talk about Team Murray with regard to our current tennis hero, or golf, where the player plays the shot, but they seem unable to do so without half an hour of discussion with their caddie beforehand and have trainers, dieticians, psychologists and all sorts waiting in the wings. I digress. Perhaps my editor needs to be alongside me…

I was reading the back page of the Mail on Sunday’s sports supplement this morning. Patrick Collins’ column proposed that the role of captain was an irrelevance in soccer, rugby, cricket et al, not just these days, but also as far back as Bobby Moore’s captaincy of our soccer team. The proposition that a team without a captain intrigued me, for is not the skipper the on-field leader?

In the modern world of soccer the manager/coach and their assistants seem to spend a lot more time screaming at their team from the side lines than was ever the case when I used to regularly attend games (I gave up in the mid-eighties). Perhaps in that context the leadership has moved to the side of the pitch, but Mr Collins suggests that the on field office has always been superfluous and I have not been able to find a way of agreeing.

Maybe it matters not who is wearing the armband or who has the honour of the title, as long as someone is leading and in that sense I can think of many times when there has been a gesture to have someone skipper a team for one special game. If we are going back to 1966 then Soviet Union allowing Lev Yashin to captain his last World Cup match to see out a distinguished career fitted well at the time for he was a professional who was widely respected for his skill.

I can think of many occasions when I have been part of teams that were really led by someone other than the boss. In pretty much any team where the person who is supposed to lead fails to do so there will be someone to step in and fill the vacuum. It is a natural progression and an almost certain part of human behaviour, so does it matter who has the title if a leader will almost always emerge regardless?

As long as the team knows who the leader is, there may not need to be any badge of office, but we humans do like to have some sense of order. None of the teams that I have known where the leader was not really leading have done as well as they should. There has always been an undercurrent of dissatisfaction and mistrust that I have not so far encountered in a team that is well led by the person wearing the badge.

Mr Collins has not convinced me, but he has got me pondering on the topic and that is good. Just because I’m not sure he is right does not mean that he is wrong. An interesting argument.

John Bowen is an FM consultant