"Chop Wood, Carry Water”– 7 Leadership Traits of Elite Captains

In 1997, an undergraduate student at Wake Forest University contributed to a chapter in a clinical psychology textbook chapter titled “Blowhards, Snobs, and Narcissists: Interpersonal Reactions to Excessive Egotism”. The chapter highlighted a strong connection between how arrogant people speak and how their body language can significantly compromise a group or team’s cohesion. The remarkable thing about this study is one of the collegiate student co-authors was Tim Duncan, one of the greatest basketball players in the history of the NBA.

In his ground-breaking book The Captain Class, Sam Walker takes on the monumental task of identifying the greatest teams in the history of sport (settling on 16 teams from across the world after starting with 1,000) and identifies the unifying characteristic that made these teams so great… the captains!

Sam identified the seven following traits of elite captains in the greatest teams in history, listed here below;

One of the seven traits of elite captains is "a willingness to work thankless jobs in the shadows", to do the little things that don’t get the fanfare but are absolutely necessary for success. In short, elite leaders “chop wood, carry water”(taken from the ancient Zen proverb that reads “before Enlightenment, chop wood carry water, after Enlightenment, chop wood carry water.”)

This metaphor highlights that success in life lies in the the mundane tasks – folding laundry, doing the dishes, chopping vegetables – that are often mind-numbing but when performed with mindfulness, serve as the foundation for building character and ultimately success.

For example, Tim Duncan had a phenomenal ability to shoot and score the basketball (what is most revered and praised in basketball), but more often than not, passed to open teammates. He wasn’t worried about his statistics or how many points he scored, he was worried about winning. That’s why he set picks for other players (so they could score), played aggressive defense and protected the rim. That’s what the team needed from him, so he did it. He chopped wood, he carried water.

The leaders and captains on the 16 greatest teams in history lowered themselves in relation to the group or team to ensure they earned the right to push their team toward greater success in difficult moments. They didn’t talk down to teammates or emphasize their accomplishments. Tim Duncan could have scored more points; he chose not to so his team could win. He fulfilled the functional role on his team.

In what ways could you “chop wood, carry water” in your life? Rather than needing to go to a yoga class to practice mindfulness and stay present, what ordinary (and often boring) tasks at work, at home, or on the playing field can you reframe into an opportunity to diligently perform without the constant need for praise? The captains of the legendary All Blacks New Zealand rugby teams epitomized this, cleaning up the locker rooms after games themselves, performing the mundane tasks that shape character and ultimately leadership.

Dr. Marc Bubbs ND, CISSN, CSCS


Want to learn more about the “7 Traits of Elite Captains”? Listen to Sam Walker’s interview on the Dr. Bubbs Performance Podcast...