Thomas Bjorn and the Captain myth: How much influence do leaders in sport really have?

Richard Gillis
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Thomas Bjorn Ryder Cup Europe captain
Bjorn to lead? Europe's new Ryder Cup captain may have less influence than commonly perceived (Source: Getty)

Thomas Bjorn has been anointed as the new European Ryder Cup captain, a role that has grown from coat carrying irrelevance to the most lucrative unpaid job in world sport.

"This is not just a job, it’s a f***ing metaphor," one prominent sports agent told me while I was researching my book, The Captain Myth.

And of course, he was right.

Almost overnight, Bjorn has moved from being famous for hitting golf balls to being famous for leadership, a topic with which we have become obsessed, from sport to business and politics.

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For the next 18 months Bjorn’s every utterance will be dissected by those seeking hidden meanings, hints as to wildcard selections, foursomes pairings and the optimum length of greenside rough.

The captain is the one tangible presence in the yawning news vacuum between the end of one Ryder Cup and the final team selections for the next one.

Yet the captain doesn’t easily fit in to the template of other high profile sports leadership roles, such as European football managers, or the head coaches of the American major leagues.

The Ryder Cup teams exist for just one week every two years and, since 1995, Europe has been led by different captains at each match.

He has limited input into selection as the bulk of the teams are selected automatically depending on their performances in events in a qualifying period of between one and two years.

The captain’s only input is in the form of wildcard picks, golfers who didn’t qualify by right but who he thinks will enhance his side.

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For all these shortcomings, the Ryder Cup captain has played many roles since the first match in 1927; used as a punch bag and worshiped as a false idol.

Politicians have mined him for votes and he carries corporate messages for the advertising industry. He’s been the public face of flag-waving American patriotism and a potent symbol of European unity.

But the rise of the captain poses questions that go beyond golf.

Why do we so willingly buy in to the cult of leadership? Do the results tell us anything useful about the link between leaders and performance? Do happier teams play better, or is team spirit just another attribution error, a mistake we make in the rush to link cause and effect? And ultimately, does he matter?

One thing we know for sure. The way we talk about the captain says more about us than it does about him.

Richard Gillis is author of The Captain Myth: The Ryder Cup and Sport’s Great Leadership Delusion. Published by Bloomsbury in the UK and US.

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