I recently read a fascinating article in Business Week magazine that discussed an alternative approach to picking team leaders. Typically leaders are chosen for their prowess with the technical aspects of the job, their decision making skills, and their assertiveness in commanding others. Historically, we see these people as natural leaders, yet we also see them fail often.

The BW article talked about another approach, using the experience of the University of Maryland’s men’s soccer team. The coach, Sasho Cirovski, watched his team decline in performance and standings after 6 straight NCAA tournament showings. Naturally, with such success, the coach thought they were on the verge of a National Championship. Instead, the team declined steadily.

The coach had picked his two strongest players to be captains, but they were falling short of the skills needed to help the team. So he called his brother Vancho, who was a human resource vice president for Cardinal Health Inc. in Windsor, Ontario. He suggested that Sasho survey his players to find the real leaders in the group. Using an instrument he used at work, the players were asked questions such as “Whom do you rely upon when your team needs unity and motivation?” and “From whom do you seek inputs and opinions before making minor personal decisions?”

Also called “social network analysis,” such surveys are increasingly popular among corporate managers who want to visualize and develop their informal organizational charts.

After the players had taken the survey, Vancho called with the results. “How come Scotty Buete is not your captain?” he asked. “He’s off the charts. He’s such a big influence.” Cirovski was shocked. Buete was a quiet sophomore, a promising local rather than a sought-after-recruit.

Just hours before a midseason road game, he made Buete the team’s third co-captain. The team rallied around Buete, who went on to score the winning goal in that game and remained an effective leader until he graduated.

The coach admitted that “Scotty was the glue, and I didn’t see it.” It was a defining moment that helped propel the team to four straight College Cup appearances (soccer’s version of the Final Four) and, last year, the national championship.

The coach now plans to use the survey to identify future leaders based more on social skills than technical ones. In this is an important lesson for business.