At their two-day “Muster” leadership conference in early May, former US Navy SEAL commanders Jocko Willink and Leif Babin explained how their battlefield experience could help managers rethink a simple dynamic with their team.
Willink was the commander of Task Unit Bruiser, the most highly decorated special operations unit of the Iraq War, and Babin was his second-in-command as the senior of the unit’s two platoon commanders. They formed a leadership consulting firm, Echelon Front, in 2010 and their 2015 book “Extreme Ownership” became a New York Times bestseller.
They told the crowd of 436 that they were recently working with one of their clients, an executive who really understood the principles of responsibility and discipline they teach, when one of her reports came into the room. The employee asked a question about how to proceed with a project, the executive answered, and then the employee left. Babin said he and Willink looked at each other and smiled, knowing their star pupil still had a weak point.
“Don’t give an easy answer!” Willink said. He explained that it is up to leaders to train their team members to propose a potential solution, or even loose components of one, every time they have a question about what they’re working on. Then the leader can use this as a starting point for their conversation.
This carries to the planning process, as well. Willink said that when he was working with one of his subordinates on a plan back in Iraq, he would cede decisions to his report if there was only a slightly better chance his own decision was actually superior.
If he knew from his position of power that his plan was clearly superior to his subordinate’s, then he would explain the reasons why, so that he could continue working with his guy on a new one. To be clear, he wasn’t saying he was letting his men come up with plans that would put them in danger. His point was that a leader must be willing to cede minor things so subordinates can take ownership for their work.
If one of your reports runs into a challenge with the plan you forced on him, Willink said, he will blame you for the trouble and be less prepared to react in a constructive way; if a challenge arises in his own plan, he has to answer to himself.
Looking back at the executive who quickly gave an order to her employee who had a question, the former SEALs explained that when you have your team participate in the decision-making process during an unexpected challenge, not only do you keep your team members from becoming lazy, but you’re also passing ownership to them. Doing so also gives them a better chance of completing the task successfully, because then they understand the reasons why they’re doing what they are.
Tying both points together, Babin explained later in the conference that simply informing your team about this new dynamic you’d like to implement won’t yield desired results. “It’s not what you preach; it’s what you tolerate,” he said.
More from Richard Feloni:
- 2 former Navy SEAL commanders say most managers need to rethink how they lead their team
- A former Navy SEAL commander explains the surprising way he trained his troops to respond to failure
- Here’s what I learned from working out with former Navy SEAL commanders before dawn
- A former Navy SEAL called me out for making excuses, and it changed the way I think about leadership
- Nasdaq’s CEO told Vanderbilt MBA grads how going ‘all in’ on a project no one else wanted in her 20s changed the course of her career
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