In their 2018 book “Extreme Ownership” Jocko Wilink and Leif Babin, these former US Navy SEALs lay out a compelling view of the facets that compromise true leadership. It’s the kind of book that I often return to for inspiration because the truth of what they describe rings so true in my day-to-day experience.
One of their aphorisms is that “there are no bad teams, only bad leaders.” To bring the point to life, they recount an anecdote taken from an infamous phase within SEAL selection called “Hell Week.” During Hell Week the candidates are put into teams and then pitted against each other in competition after competition. The winners are given a few precious moments of rest while the other teams repeat the exercise. All the groups are incentivized by the same reward, striving to reach the same goal (usually to be the fastest) and given the same conditions to succeed or fail.
After a few days, as Wilink and Babin recount, a winning team (read top performing) and losing team (read underperforming) amongst the groups became evident. As an experiment, they switched the young officers in charge of each team, so that the leader of the winning team took over the chronic losing team, and the leader of that team took over the role of leading the winning team.
Within no time at all, the previous losers were becoming top performers, winning most of the physically brutal competitions. The previous winning team continued to perform well under the new leader but were now challenged by the newly led and invigorated team who was suddenly the top contender.
The story is a powerful punchline to their point that there are no bad teams, only bad leaders. I’m often reminded of this in my work with senior managers and leaders undergoing transformation because some of them are quick to lay the blame for the issues that they are struggling with at the feet of their teams. They will point out that the teams which they’ve inherited aren’t fit for purpose, or that they’re unable to attract the right talent needed to be successful. Reminding them that it’s their responsibly to lead and not just mange can be tricky.
Yet, I’m also a bit skeptical about the point too. Do I believe that a good leader can take a poor performing team and turn them around? Absolutely! But I believe that the team has a much to do with that success as the leader does.
Bear with me here while I take what may seem like an obvious point and try to peel back another layer.
It seems to me that to even want to try to be a Navy SEAL is a selection process, of sorts. You’re getting people who aspire to be there and who believe themselves ready to undertake the challenge. By the time candidates get to Hell Week and are placed in their teams, you’ve narrowed the pool down to those whose hunger to be there has been tested. They’re clear about what they need to do.
In the context of Hell Week, there are no bad teams because the teams are full of highly motivated people who want to be there and who want to win. How they were organised, how they communicated and worked together to solve the problems in front of them is where leadership made the difference. The teams were already composed of high performers. But is that true in a work or project context?
Some will argue that the leader is the one who sets the purpose, motivates, enables trust within the team, sets the tone, and does all the important work of getting the foundations right so that they can be a good team. Clearly this is true, but it’s a oversimplification which over-emphasizes the role (and impact) of the leader and which denudes the role of the individual people within the team.
The leader needs the buy-in of the individual members of the team. And the leaders needs a team with the right skills, experience, willingness and importantly attitude to be part of the team. Perhaps that old chestnut, ”there is no “I” in team,” has something to it. Engaging the right people to be part of the team is as critical as having a leader. In the SEAL context that is implied, Hell Week is a part of a selection process and it’s specifically designed to weed out those who don’t; have the mental, emotional and physical toughness to be SEAls.
A good team is as important as a good leader.