Top 20 Greatest Leaders in Sports History

Regardless of ability or technical prowess, almost all great teams require a leader or a number of players possessing leadership skills. This list is reserved only for on-field leaders, those who were

Regardless of ability or technical prowess, almost all great teams require a leader or a number of players possessing leadership skills. This list is reserved only for on-field leaders, those who were leaders and players simultaneously. That means great leaders who were coaches or managers, like Sir Alex Ferguson or Vince Lombardi are not included.

There is no set of attributes or specific style which makes a great leader or captain of a sports team. Some are disciplinarians, who are often very vocal and make their feelings abundantly clear to their teammates. Others lead by example, which is often why the best or one of the better players in a team is made captain. These figures see no need to rant and rave, preferring to take more of a back seat role.

Both styles can be equally effective, or an approach somewhere in between, essentially it is down to the individual and the team. Generally speaking attributes such as experience, decision making and the ability to motivate the players around them whilst maintaining discipline are considered the most necessary qualities to make a great leader.

They may not necessarily be the star players on their respective teams, but when they speak everybody listens. When they do something, people take notice. A coach can only do so much for his players, but when you have one peer that you can most relate to and respect, that can do wonders for a team.

Here are the top 20 greatest leaders in sports history:

20 Kevin Youkilis


Kevin Youkilis, or 'Youk', as he is better known to most, is a former first and third baseman who spent nine years in Major League Baseball, eight of which he spent with the Boston Red Sox. There was little hype surrounding Youk as a prospect, but when he was drafted by the Red Sox in 2004, he never looked back, becoming a key and consistent performer for the team. Soon after that Youkilis became the most vocal leader in the Red Sox team; he was named three-time MLB All-Star and two-time World Series Champion.

19 Jonathan Toews

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Good luck trying to find someone that can argue there's a better captain in the NHL today. Jonathan Toews has led his Blackhawks to three Stanley Cups in six seasons, building the modern version of a dynasty. Captain Serious is as reliable as they come, and whether he has to speak to his teammates or lead by his performance on the ice, Toews has already made himself an icon in Chicago. Don't be surprised if he's higher on lists like these by the time his career's over.

18 Douglas Jardine


Douglas Jardine has the second highest series win percentage in cricket history, as England won 83% of the series in which he led them. He was a highly controversial figure, who had a known dislike, which verged upon hatred, of Australian cricketers and fans. He invented the Bodyline bowling technique in order to combat the incredible batting ability of Don Bradman. Jardine was a disciplinarian who demanded the best from his team on every occasion. As such, he fell out with a number of lesser players, but those who made his selection were immensely loyal and Jardine brought out the best in them. His most famous victory was the 1932-33 Ashes when England defeated Australia 4-1.

17 Diego Maradona

David Cannon/Allsport

Diego Maradona is considered by many to be the greatest soccer player of all time. His captaincy of Argentina at the 1986 World Cup is arguably the most pivotal role ever played by an individual figure at a major team competition is sports history. Despite the cheating and off-field issues, Maradona's performance levels certainly led by example. He was on a different planet to every other player at that time, and he led a notably average Argentina team - barring Maradona - to victory at the 1986 World Cup, as well as being a hugely inspirational leader at Napoli for five years, winning two league titles and one UEFA Cup.

16 Maurice Richard


Maurice 'Rocket' Richard played for the Montreal Canadiens from 1942 until 1960. He captained the team when they won five consecutive Stanley Cups from 1956-60. In total he won eight championships in his 18 seasons in the NHL. Richard was the first man in NHL history to score 50 goals in one season, and also the first to score 500 career goals. Richard was often targeted by opposition teams in an attempt to combat his ability, resulting in the 1955 Richard Riots which emphasized his popularity and importance to the Montreal team.

15 Tim Duncan

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Tim Duncan has led the San Antonio Spurs to success year after year, and has earned himself an NBA Championship ring for each finger. First leading Avery Johnson and David Robinson, Duncan remained the constant in the Spurs lineup and has recently had success leading stars like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to the promise land. Duncan is a perfect case of being a leader by example, as you'll rarely ever see Duncan yelling. He doesn't have to. His actions speak for themselves.

14 Peyton Manning

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Peyton Manning is widely regarded as one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. He was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in 1998 and spent 14 seasons with the Colts, before joining the Denver Broncos in 2012. A Super Bowl champion and Super Bowl MVP once, Manning is a 14-time Pro Bowl member. His exceptional ability and leadership skills inspired the Colts to the greatest regular season run of any franchise in NFL history, in a team which were markedly average were it not for Manning.

13 Martin Johnson

Mark Pain /

If the criteria by which one measures a captain are trophies, character and skill, then few can match Martin Johnson. From his emergence at the end of the 1980s, right up until his retirement in 2006, Johnson was regarded as the greatest lock in rugby union. He is best remembered as the man who captained England to their first and only Rugby World Cup win in 2003. He is the only man to have captained the British & Irish Lions on two separate tours. He was also a great leader at club level, leading Leicester Tigers to six league titles and two Heineken Cup wins.

12 Tom Brady

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Tom Brady's greatest achievement as a leader is the way in which he gets the best out of his teammates. He has spent his entire 15 year career with the New England Patriots, taking the Pats to six Super Bowls and winning four. All this despite, at times, being surrounded by largely inexperienced players. Bill Belichick's strong leadership means that Brady's contribution has been overlooked at times, but the two-time NFL MVP and three-time Super Bowl MVP deserves immense credit for the way he's led the Pats on the field.

11 Kobe Bryant

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Kobe Bryant is one of the NBA's all-time greats, who only suffered by the comparisons drawn between him and Michael Jordan. If you compared any basketball player to Jordan they would likely struggle, so Bryant is a victim of the man whom he followed. He has been with the L.A. Lakers since 1996, in which time he has won five NBA championships, 17-time member of the All-Star team and 15-time member of the All-NBA Team. Bryant has repeatedly provided the good when the Lakers have needed him most, as all leaders should. He is both capable of leading by example and being vocal, and has developed into an exceptional leader over the years.

10 Roy Keane


Roy Keane is widely regarded as the greatest captain of the Premier League era. He won 7 Premier League titles and five as Manchester United captain. He was the club's skipper for eight years, from 1997 to 2005. As well as his league successes, Keane also won four FA Cups, one Champions League, and captained Ireland for five years. As well as being an exceptional and complete midfielder, Keane was incredibly vocal. He accepted nothing but world class performance levels from his teammate and made no effort to disguise his displeasure when he felt they could do more.

9 Jean Beliveau

Mac Juster, Montreal Star

Jean Beliveau certainly fell into that category of leaders who led by example but weren't particularly vocal. He captained the Montreal Canadiens for a decade - from 1961 to 1971 - in which time they won five championships. His overall playing career spanned 21 years, before he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame a year after his retirement. He won 10 Stanley Cup's as a player and a further 7 as an executive, as well as being a two-time Hart Memorial Trophy winner as MVP.

8 Michael Jordan


Michael Jordan may not have been the best leader early in his career, but as he progressed as a player and as a person he became a tremendous leader. His competitive drive was extraordinary, and as such, his expectations of his teammates was great. Jordan had to ensure the rest of the Chicago Bulls - and later the Washington Wizards - team did not grow discontented having to live largely in his shadow. He was an NBA Champion six times with the Chicago Bulls and was named the NBA's MVP five times, cementing his reputation as the greatest basketball player of all-time.

7 Bobby Moore


Whilst many center-halves in soccer tend to be the ranting and raving type, Bobby Moore was far from that. Moore is one of the finest defenders the world has ever seen, and was cited by Pele as the greatest defender that he ever faced. He was named in the World Team of the Twentieth Century and Alf Ramsey once said of him, "My captain, my leader, my right-hand man. He was the spirit and the heartbeat of the team. A cool, calculating footballer I could trust with my life. He was the supreme professional, the best I ever worked with. Without him England would never have won the World Cup". His greatest achievement as a captain and leader was England's 1966 World Cup win, although he also captained West Ham for 10 years, winning an FA Cup.

6 Mark Messier


One of the greatest NHL player of all-time, Mark Messier spent a quarter of a century blessing the Edmonton Oilers, New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks with his exemplary leadership skills. Aggressive and strong, Messier defied the odds in winning a title as captain of the Oilers without the help of Wayne Gretzky in 1990. Messier then headed to the New York Rangers, where he became the only man in history to win titles with two different teams. In total, he won six Stanley Cup's and was a 15 time NHL All-Star.

5 Ray Lewis

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Possibly the greatest leader in NFL history; his incredible passion and desire for the sport is infectious, and raises the level of performance from his teammates, and if it doesn't, Lewis won't hesitate to let them know. It is largely thanks to Lewis that the Ravens have consistently had one of the best defenses in the league whilst he has been there. Having been drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in 1996, he left in 2012, and is widely regarded as the franchise's greatest ever player. He has won two Super Bowls, once being named MVP, has been selected to 13 Pro Bowls and was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2000 and 2003.

4 Ricky Ponting


Ricky Ponting is widely regarded as the greatest cricket captain of all-time, captaining Australia from 2004-2011 in Test Cricket and 2002-2011 in One Day International Cricket. He has the highest percentage of series wins of any captain in history, bringing glory to Australia in 85% of the series he led them into. As well as his leadership skills, Ponting himself is one of the greatest batsmen of all-time, and certainly one of the finest of his generation, with only Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara as genuine competition. His greatest victories as captain were two World Cups and two Ashes victories.

3 Derek Jeter

William Perlman/NJ Advance Media for via USA TODAY Sports

A consummate professional and an outstanding leader, Derek Jeter is quite rightly regarded as one of sports all-time great leaders. Despite a career spanning 20 seasons, Jeter almost never made headlines for the wrong reasons. No drug scandals or fights have ever troubled him, as he was 100% committed to the Yankees, where he won five World Series as shortstop. Jeter leads by example, and his stats speak for themselves; he played more than 2,700 games, with 260 home runs, a .310 batting average and a 0.377 on-base percentage. It was that level of performance which saw him play in 14 All-Star games and winning five Golden Glove and five Silver Slugger awards.

2 Steve Yzerman


Steve Yzerman is nicknamed 'the Captain', and it's not difficult to see why. The Detroit Red Wings legend became team captain at the age of 21, a position which he held for two decades, making him the longest serving captain in North American major league sports history. In total, Yzerman captained the Red Wings in more than 1,300 games, and few individuals have had such a profound effect on a whole franchise as Yzerman has upon the Red Wings. When he was first drafted, the Red Wings were a laughing stock, but soon after becoming captain, they won their first division title in 23 years. When Yzerman retired in 2006, the Red Wings were the side many other franchises wanted to base themselves upon.

1 Franz Beckenbauer


The greatest leader in all of sports history has to be one Franz Beckenbauer. Nicknamed 'Der Kaiser' ('The Emperor') by the German people, Beckenbauer was a born leader, and a born soccer player. He was a revolutionary of the game, inventing the sweeper or libero position. He was named Bayern Munich captain at the age of 23 and West Germany captain at 24, after playing on with a dislocated shoulder in the 1970 World Cup, showing his incredible desire, determination and will to win.

As a captain, Beckenbauer won every trophy on offer at club and international level. At club level he won five Bundesliga titles, four DFB-Pokals, three European Cups, one Cup Winners Cup, three NASL titles and one Trans-Atlantic Cup. With West Germany, he won both the World Cup and the European Championship's as captain and individually, he won the Ballon d'Or twice and was named in the FIFA World Team of the Twentieth Century.

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Top 20 Greatest Leaders in Sports History