No bad teams. Only bad leaders.
1: It was night three of the infamous Hell Week of SEAL training.
The Navy SEAL candidates were exhausted. They had slept less than one hour over the previous three days. They were shivering from the cold ocean water and cool wind. Their camouflage fatigues were “soaked to the bone and covered in gritty sand that chafed them until they were raw and bleeding,” Leif Babin writes in Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win, the book he co-wrote with Jocko Willink.
Hell Week was not a physical test. It was a mental one.
Nearly 200 young men had started in the class. “Within the first forty-eight hours of Hell Week, most of those young men had surrendered to the brutal challenge, rung the bell three times—the signal for DOR, or drop on request—and walked away from their dream of becoming a SEAL. They had quit,” Leif observes.
The students were assembled into teams or “boat crews” of seven men, established by height. Each boat crew was assigned an IBS, or inflatable boat, small. Small when compared to a ship perhaps, but large and heavy when carried by hand. These large rubber boats weighed about 200 pounds and became heavier still when filled with water and sand.
“Success resulted from determination and will, but also from innovation and communication with the team,” Leif reflects.
On land, the teams carried the boats upon their heads up and over twenty-foot sand berms and ran with them for miles upon the beach. On water, the crews paddled their boats through huge, crashing waves, which often capsized the boats and sent wet students and paddles everywhere.
The senior ranking man served as boat leader. This individual received orders from the instructors and was responsible for directing the six members of the boat crew.
“During SEAL training (and really, throughout a SEAL’s career) every evolution was a competition—a race, a fight, a contest,” Leif writes.
The instructors constantly reminded the students, “It pays to be a winner.” Second place was simply “the first loser.”
“Bad performance—falling far behind the rest of the pack and coming in dead last—carried especially grueling penalties: unwanted attention from the SEAL instructors who dished out additional punishing exercises on top of the already exhausting Hell Week evolutions,” Leif recalls.
2: Boat Crew VI was floundering. They had placed dead last in virtually every race, often lagging far behind the rest of the class.
Their poor performance earned the ire of the SEAL instructors who berated them and dished out extra punishment. Their misery multiplied exponentially.
The leader of Boat Crew VI, a young and inexperienced leader, was receiving even more attention from the instructors. SEAL officers were expected to perform like everyone else, but more importantly, they were also expected to lead.
“Let’s swap out the boat crew leaders from the best and the worst crews and see what happens,” suggested one of the SEAL instructors.
The leaders were given instructions for the next race and reported to their new boats.
Only a single individual, the leader, would change.
“Stand by … bust ’em!” came the command. And they were off. The boat crews sprinted across the beach and into the dark water, jumping into their boats and began paddling fiercely through the crashing waves.
As the race came to an end, “a miraculous turnaround had taken place: Boat Crew VI had gone from last place to first. The boat crew members had begun to work together as a team, and won,” Leif remembers.
3: It was an incredible turnaround.
“Boat Crew VI, the same team in the same circumstances only under new leadership, went from the worst boat crew in the class to the best. Gone was their cursing and frustration. And gone too was the constant scrutiny and individual attention they had received from the SEAL instructor staff,” Leif writes. “Had I not witnessed this amazing transformation, I might have doubted it.
“It was a glaring, undeniable example,” he observes, “of one of the most fundamental and important truths at the heart of Extreme Ownership: there are no bad teams, only bad leaders.”
Reflection: What surprises me about the SEAL story above? What lessons can I take from it?
Action: Journal about my answers to the questions above.