I recently had the chance to get up before dawn and spend a day learning about leadership from two former US Navy SEAL commanders, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin.
Willink led SEAL Team 3 Task Unit Bruiser, the most highly decorated special operations unit of the Iraq War, and Babin was his second in line, the more senior of two platoon commanders. They formed a leadership consulting firm called Echelon Front in 2010, their 2015 book “Extreme Ownership” became a New York Times bestseller, and Willink’s podcast is one of the most popular in the country.
Willink and Babin invited me and Business Insider video producer Joe Avella to their two-day “Muster” conference in New York in May and waived the roughly $US2,500 fee.
I attended the first day of Muster in full, and even though I had read their book and interviewed them a few times before, I picked up some practical insights that I could take back to the office. But still, while I understood the intense discipline and responsibility that the concept of “extreme ownership” entails, I wondered how the guys thought that dynamic should play out beyond the relationship between commander and direct report, manager and employee.
In an afternoon question-and-answer session, I asked Willink and Babin how they recommend putting their leadership principles into action when you, as either manager or employee, lose faith in your boss’ boss, or even the head of your entire company. Business news cycles are often dominated by stories of scandals or failures at large companies, and I was wondering about the many employees underneath the leadership team, each with their own goals and concerns. I wanted to see if Willink and Babin ran into that themselves during their time in the SEALs.
They gave me two answers that could each be preferable in certain situations, or be enacted simultaneously.
Bring the senior leaders to the frontlines.
Babin explained that he understood the question’s scenario firsthand. “Believe me, I’ve been the chief drinker of haterade when it comes to that stuff.”
He said that a typical mindset shared both on the battlefield and in the office is, “Keep the senior leaders away. I don’t want them here scrutinizing me. I want to be able to do my thing.” And within that mindset, it’s assumed that if you disagree with the senior leadership, bringing them closer to you will only make the situation worse. But in Task Unit Bruiser, Babin said, they forced themselves to embrace the opposite approach.
“You should welcome that and invite the senior leaders to see what the actual truth on the frontlines is, and give them the opportunity to make those decisions,” he said. “You can’t be blinded by ego to think, ‘Well, they just don’t know.'”
If you have a problem with the direction of your company, or of the branch you belong to, then make an attempt to “lead up the chain of command,” as Babin said, and express your concerns by informing those above you of your experiences.
Be a buffer between your team and turmoil.
There are times when you will simply be powerless when it comes to problems at the top. It’s during these times that you need to be a strong leader for your team, Willink explained.
Willink said that when he served in the SEALs, there was constant debate within not only the SEALs but every branch of the military around the overall direction of the Iraq War, as well as strategies applied to different missions. “There was a lot of turbulence above us in the chain of command,” he said. “And the higher up you go, the more turbulence there is.”
“And the biggest thing you end up doing as a good leader in those bad situations, is you become a really solid buffer between all that crap and the way your world is.”
It’s about getting your team to focus on their mission, and being aware of the turmoil above you but not letting it affect your performance. Willink said that regardless of what was happening within the SEAL teams or over in Washington, he kept any of the in-fighting from reaching his men.
“My guys are going to hear the message the right way,” he said.
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