A former Navy SEAL commander says you can't be a great leader without knowing when to be a follower

Business Insider/Jessica TylerFormer Navy SEAL commander Leif Babin led ‘American Sniper’ Chris Kyle.
  • Leif Babin is a former Navy SEAL commander and the coauthor, with his former SEAL boss Jocko Willink, of “The Dichotomy of Leadership.”
  • Their leadership consulting firm Echelon Front has worked with more than 400 businesses since its founding in 2010.
  • Babin said strong leadership requires knowing when to be a follower, and that a mission he led with “American Sniper” Chris Kyle on his team illustrates the point.

Former Navy SEAL commander Leif Babin knows that, as a leader, it can be difficult to keep an ego in check. But it’s necessary.

“As a leader, you’ve go to be decisive, you’ve got to make calls, you’ve got to be ready to step up and lead even in the most difficult circumstances,” he told Business Insider. “And yet, if you want to be the most effective leader, you absolutely have to be a follower as well.”

Babin was one of two platoon leaders reporting to Jocko Willink, who led US Navy SEAL Team 3 Task Unit Bruiser in the Iraq War. The two founded the leadership consulting firm Echelon Front in 2010, and their firm has worked with more than 400 businesses.

In their new book, “The Dichotomy of Leadership,” Babin shares a story of a mission that illustrates his point of how a leader must also be a follower.


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During the 2006 Battle of Ramadi, Babin led a night mission where his SEALs were providing cover for Army soldiers and Marines. The late Chris Kyle, of “American Sniper” fame, was Babin’s point man. At one point, the team gathered on a roof to determine where they would set up a sniper overwatch. Babin and his leaders decided they would move to a certain building for that, but Kyle countered with a different selection that was not close to Babin’s choice.

Babin outranked Kyle, but he also recognised that Kyle had the most experience with sniper missions of anyone on the team, including himself.

“‘Leading’ didn’t mean pushing my agenda or proving I had all the answers,” Babin wrote. “It was about collaborating with the rest of the team and determining how we could most effectively accomplish our mission. I deferred to Chris’ judgment.”


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It was a call Babin said turned out to be the right one, and led to a successful mission. In the book, Babin reflected on a moment when he was a fresh platoon leader, and a stubborn refusal to acknowledge a suggestion from a team member who was lower in rank but had more experience led to a failed training exercise. It was fortunate he learned the lesson before deploying.

“Had we gone with my initial choice – had I disregarded Chris and overruled him because ‘I was in charge’ – we would have been highly ineffective, disrupting virtually no attacks, and that might very well have cost the lives of some of our brethren,” Babin wrote.

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