Extreme Ownership: There are no bad teams, only bad leaders

‘It pays to be a winner!’

A Navy SEAL officer hurls condescension from the sands of a Southern Californian beach. Across the waves and out to sea, dozens of hopeful young men paddle furiously into the night.

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Own it

Amid the breakers, the men shiver and strain their way through another punishing drill. It’s ‘Hell Week’ of Navy SEAL training camp and only the toughest remain. Of the 200 or so starters, just 40 have had the strength of mind and body to make it here. This is not a fitness test, it’s a sorting exercise. The aim to extract the leaders from the rest.

The men have been grouped into teams of seven. Each team has a captain, responsible for receiving orders from the instructors and briefing, directing and leading the rest of the crew. Together they carry and paddle a hefty boat, up the beach and back, out to sea and back. For no other reason than to prove that they can. Not as individuals but by working as a team.

On this beach it pays to be a winner. The winning team is rewarded by  omission from the next round – beguiling respite for numb and tender limbs. The team that comes second is, in the instructors’ view, ‘the first loser’. It follows that the penalty for coming last is particularly harsh – unwanted attention from the instructors and additional gruelling exercises.

After several rounds, trends emerge. One team is a standout. Another is astoundingly bad, placing dead last in every race. The captain and crew of the losing team are operating as individuals, furious and frustrated with each other. They are yelling and cursing, and focussing on their individual pain and discomfort.

Bored and strategic, the instructors reshuffle the deck, swapping the captains from the best and worst performing crews. The troubled captain sees this as some kind of pat on the back, an acknowledgement that he is more than his flailing crew, his noble attempts rewarded with better stock. It is clear that he feels that only by luck of the draw – and no fault of his own – had he been assigned the worst crew. In his mind, no amount of effort could have made that crew better.

But of course, this switch is a test. A test to see whether winning, and losing, is in the hands of the captain or his crew.

The captains assume their new positions and take to the water. In the rounds that follow, the difference between the teams narrows, and narrows again, until the former losers accede the former winners. The captain of the comeback crew ushers from within, assertive and encouraging, until he is once again at the helm of a winning boat. The previously troubled captain goes the opposite way, leading the once-winning team back to last place. There is a common denominator, and it’s not the crew.

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A better way to paddle

This is a true story about leadership. It comes from ‘Extreme Ownership’, a book by Navy SEAL veterans Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. (Ever heard a more yankee name than Leif Babin? Nope, me neither. Anyway.)

Willink and Babin make a compelling case for the principle of ‘extreme ownership’. Extreme ownership means leaders of teams, large and small, take full ownership of the actions and trials and triumphs of their teams. Babin uses case studies from the military to test this theory and establish causation between extreme ownership and success.

While few (if any) of us will find ourselves captaining a paddle boat through the cold and dark, the lessons hold true in a more sanitised setting. The captain of the flailing crew clearly recognised that his team was underperforming. But, in his mind, no amount of effort could have changed that. Au contraire. Under new leadership, this team’s performance changed dramatically, propelling them from last to first.

So how was it that a single individual completely tranformed the performance of an entire group? Willink and Babin’s answer is this: ‘Leadership is the single greatest factor in any team’s performance. Whether a team succeeds or fails is all up to the leader. The leader’s attitude sets the tone for the entire team. The leader drives performance – or doesn’t. And this applies not just to the most senior leader of an overall team, but to the junior leaders of teams within the team’ (p. 49).

Extreme Ownership is as much about productivity and achieving results as it is about integrity. Because what is a captain without his crew? What is a leader without her team?

In a world of extreme ownership, there are no bad teams, only bad leaders.

Thought Leader(s): Jocko Willink, Leif Babin

Book(s): Babin, L., Willink, J. (2015) ‘Extreme Ownership’, St. Martin’s Press, New York. 

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