Assuming leadership position on athletic team can help in performance

December 17, 2004

Taking a key leadership role in professional sports such as team captain can actually enhance athletic performance, rather than serve as a distraction, according to a Penn State researcher.

Statistical data indicate that when National Hockey League players held the important post of team captain, they were better players than in years when they had no leadership responsibilities. This was true even after weighing individual performance during the prior season, says Dr. David V. Day, professor of industrial/organizational psychology.

"Although it is an honor to wear hockey's badge of leadership - it has been called 'the most prestigious player leadership honor in pro sports' - the designation of captain is more than merely formality," Day notes. "Team captains have many on-ice and off-ice responsibilities. As noted in the official NFL rules, captains have sole authority to speak for the team with referees regarding disputed calls and rule interpretations. More informally, they often have the authority to call team meetings; serve as the bridge of communication to the coach, general manager, news media and fans; and have also been known to influence important personnel decisions.

"The findings are counter to conventional wisdom in the league," he adds. "As one team coach put, 'Give him the 'C' (for captain) and watch him falter.' Instead, it should be, 'Make him a captain and watch him soar.' The importance of being a team captain in the NHL likely provides a captain with additional resources in terms of help, protection and opportunity that may be less available to non-captains."

The fact that the NHL captaincy is linked with a performance boost instead of a performance drain can likely be attributed to the culture of leadership promoted in the league.

"Other organizations could learn from the NHL in terms of building a similar culture of trust and respect around their own leadership roles, although this culture takes time to develop," Day notes.

He is lead author of the paper, "Assessing the Burdens of Leadership: Effects of Formal Leadership Roles on Individual Performances over Time," which appeared in the fall issue of Personnel Psychology. His co-authors are Hock-Peng Sin, Penn State doctoral student in psychology, and Tina T. Chen, a human resources researcher with Sempra Energy, San Diego, Calif. The researchers analyzed figures on 201 NHL players who played beginning with the 1967/68 season and who served as team captain for at least one year or more during their active careers.

Teams with leadership cultures motivate players to serve as leaders and assume the responsibility that goes with being a leader. If players view the costs of leading as outweighing the benefits, they will not want to lead.

However, when an organization places a premium on leadership development, while at the same time promoting high expectations of team solidarity and interdependence, individual players are more inclined to make accomplishments of the overall team paramount. This in turn builds the stuff of authentic leadership, Day says.

"A second-order effect of such a leadership culture is creating a deeper 'bench strength' of potential leaders in an organization who are willing to take on formal team leadership responsibilities when needed," he adds.

"These results support the inference that taking on formal leadership responsibilities in a team is associated with better individual performance relative to other players without formal leadership responsibilities," Day notes. "This was true regardless of any differences between players such as physical stature, position, age, experience or frequency of being a captain."

Penn State

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