Learning from Leaders Under Pressure

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Making leadership decisions is not easy – which is why so much time and attention is given to the subject by leadership programs, ranging from school-based ones to organizations that specialize in it, such as Vistage Worldwide (for whom I serve as a Chair of New York groups). Over the years, I’ve found many stories that share how the wisdom of people who make such decisions under pressure, useful in helping me and my colleagues respond more quickly and precisely.

In Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy Seals Lead and Win, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin share hard-hitting, Navy SEAL combat stories that translate into lessons for business and life. They Jocko served together in SEAL Task Unit Bruiser, the most highly decorated Special Operations unit from the war in Iraq. Their efforts contributed to the historic triumph for U.S. forces in Ramadi, which involved difficult months of sustained combat. Recognizing the lessons apply to business and life, they started Echelon Front to teach the principles to business leader who want to build high-performance, winning teams.

A few key principles include:

  • There are no teams, only bad leaders. When a team doesn’t perform, assuming it’s the right people (as is the case for the special people selected for SEAL), it’s the leader’s responsibility to take action. Rather than tolerate their bickering and infighting, pull the team together and focus their collective efforts on the single specific goal needing to be achieved. Establish a new and higher standard of performance and accepted nothing less from the team.
  • Check Your Ego. One a team engages in a project, you are the owner of “everything!” You are in charge, so the fact that someone didn’t follow procedure is your fault. When you talk to him, you have to start with this premise ‘Our team made a mistake and it’s my fault — because I obviously wasn’t as clear as I should have been in explaining why we have the procedures we have. You are highly skilled and can do the job. Now, I need to fix this so it doesn’t happen again.’ Then engage the person in correcting the error and also becoming an owner of the outcome
  • Teamwork Means Supporting One Another. Too often organizations splinter into silos or smaller sub-teams that focus on their immediate tasks and forget what others are doing or how they depend on them. If there are obstacles to working together (e.g., internal competition), friction develops inhibiting overall team performance. Leaders need to continually keep everyone’s perspective on the strategic mission and the greater team.
  • Exceptional Performance is contagious. The key to a team’s repetitive exceptional performance is each person knowing exactly what he/she needs to do to win and doing it as part of a team focused on that goal – without ongoing explicit direction from a leader.

As you can see there are lots of pearls of wisdom in their book, so I highly recommend it. And as you develop your thoughts on leadership and team development, please share them!