Former Navy SEAL commanders explain why 'there are no bad teams, only bad leaders'

Jocko willink leif babin echelon frontBusiness InsiderFormer Navy SEAL commanders Jocko Willink and Leif Babin are the authors of the New York Times bestseller ‘Extreme Ownership.’

When Leif Babin became a Hell Week instructor for Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training (BUD/S), he had already served as a Navy SEAL platoon leader in the most decorated special operations of the Iraq War.

Still, he learned a profound lesson about leadership: “There are no bad teams, only bad leaders.

Babin and his former task unit commander and current business partner, Jocko Willink, recently visited Business Insider’s New York office for a Facebook Live Q&A. Babin told a story about learning this lesson through BUD/S, which he also shares in his and Willink’s bestseller “Extreme Ownership.”

In one exercise, Babin explained, SEAL candidates were grouped by height into boat crews of seven men and assigned to a WWII-relic inflatable boat that weighed more than 200 pounds. The most senior-ranking sailor became the boat crew leader responsible for receiving, transmitting, and overseeing the execution of the lead instructor’s orders. They were to go through a gruelling string of races that involved running with the boat and then paddling it in the ocean.

After several rounds, one particular team came in first and another in last nearly every time. The instructors decided to switch the leaders of the best and worst teams, and the results were remarkable. Under new leadership, the formerly great team did relatively well but was a shadow of its past self, and the formerly terrible team placed first in nearly every race.

Navy seals bud/s trainingSeaman Kyle Gahlau/Navy Visual News Service via FlickrStudents assigned to Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL class 282 participate in Rock Portage at Coronado Island in 2010.

The once-great team had practiced enough with each other to accomplish something even under bad management, but the bad leader was unable to command respect or maintain synchronicity. Meanwhile, the excellent leader had taken his new team from last to first by getting them to believe that they were just as capable as his former team, and that bickering with each other during the exercise would not be tolerated.

During the Facebook Live interview, Babin explained that he and Willink see the same behaviours in the companies they work with through their leadership consulting firm, Echelon Front.

He said that managers will often ask them to come in and fix their underperforming teams. And while there are certainly underperforming employees who may need to be fired, it would be silly to think that an entire team should be fired due to their own incompetence, Babin explained. So before anyone is let go, bosses need to correct their own behaviour.

“One of the things that I learned from that boat crew example is that most people want to lead,” Babin said.

“The team that was failing there, they didn’t want to be on the failing team. They wanted to win. … It’s about checking the ego — it’s about being humble, to recognise what can I do better to lead my team.”

Babin said he can remember times from his years with the SEALs where he thought, “If I just had a better team, I would do better.”

“Wrong,” he replied to this train of thought. “If I was a better leader, my team would have been better, and that’s what leaders have to recognise and step up and make happen.”

You can watch the full Facebook Live Q&A below.

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