As my Uber pulled up to the Marriott hotel in Times Square at 4:40 a.m., I noticed two guys wrapping up a jog.
It was former US Navy SEALs Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, and they had just finished the outdoors workout I was about to start. I later learned they had gotten up at 3:15 a.m. — around the time I woke up in Brooklyn in order to show up on time — and started exercising a half hour later.
I was there to attend day one of Echelon Front’s Muster conference, a chance to immerse myself in the minds of some SEALs for 12 hours. After that and the next day’s Brazilian Jiu Jitsu introduction in Queens, I was left with a toolkit of career and fitness insights that overcame the potential pitfalls of the “civilian pretends to be in military for a day” cliché.
I had interviewed Willink and Babin a few times since 2015, but this was a chance for me to play on their field for the first time, and that meant trying one of their favourite habits: waking up before dawn to work out.
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Of the 436 people in attendance, there seemed to be at least 100 who showed up for the workout that cold morning. Plenty of them were brimming with excitement at the prospect of 'getting after it,' as Willink and Babin like to say.
Willink and Babin waived the $US2,295-$US2,895 fee for me and Business Insider video producer Joe Avella.
Muster lasted two days and attracted 436 people from 46 states and 12 foreign countries. Joe and I were there to attend the first day, May 4, in full, as well as the bonus Brazilian Jiu Jitsu lesson that concluded day two.
We jogged a few blocks to Bryant Park. I have a half marathon coming up, and the light jog got me wondering if this was going to be an easy workout catered to a bunch of the middle-aged attendants. I was getting ahead of myself, as I'd soon discover.
Willink, Babin, their Task Unit Bruiser buddy Jeremiah 'JP' Dinnell -- who joined Echelon Front last fall -- and Babin's friend, Crossfit coach Bryan Kapustinski, gathered everyone in the park. It was about 4:50 a.m. and the streets were mostly empty.
There was a gauntlet of six exercises: flutter kicks, push-ups, squats, jumping jacks, sit-ups, and burpees. We performed each nonstop for two minutes, with a sprint (or as close as I could get to one) in between.
They surprised us with a round two, and my lack of sleep combined with dehydration got me feeling a bit nauseous. I did the pushups from my knees and crunches for the situps.
The 48 burpees were done in honour of the late SEAL Charles 'Chuck Heavy' Keating IV, who was killed in action in Iraq last year -- he carried a hefty Mark 48 machine gun.
My burpees came out more like a painful and ugly step-by-step yoga routine, but I saw the SEALs also had less-than-perfect form, so I got through them.
On the walk back, the sun was coming up, and adrenaline kept my exhaustion at bay. To Willink and Babin's credit, it did feel good to get in a workout while the rest of the city slept.
As Willink later told me, 'Why do you want to get a good workout early in the morning? Well, because it sends more oxygen to your brain, it releases endorphins, it puts you in a state of mind where you can crush things, which is where you want to be.'
He said that you also realise how rewarding it is to have the entirety of the morning to get things done, and the act of getting up early requires initiative that 'is the root of the discipline that you need as a leader.'
After a shower at a local gym, I returned to the hotel around 7:45 a.m. to sign in. The guys had a merch table set up, where you could buy some Echelon Front gear, 'Extreme Ownership,' and Jocko's new children's book, 'Way of the Warrior Kid.'
The tear-proof, waterproof swag bags were pretty cool. Over the course of the day I got through the two Kill Cliff energy drinks and Honey Stinger energy bar, and made use of Jocko's brand of white tea and 'Alpha Brain' nootropics the next day. I also got a sweet Muster water bottle and a 'Get After It' gym towel to wipe up all the sweat, blood, and tears that may ensue in a SEAL workout.
Most of those in attendance were men I estimated to be over the age of 30, and a few told me they were there because they learned about Echelon Front from Willink's appearances on Tim Ferriss' and Joe Rogan's podcasts. I chatted with an NYPD captain who came to the event because he wanted to bring lessons back to his precinct.
A video introduction similar to a trailer to an action film kicked things off, and Babin and Willink walked onto the stage like rock stars. There would be plenty of heavy guitar riffs throughout the day.
Willink led SEAL Team 3's Task Unit Bruiser, the most decorated special operations unit of the Iraq War, and he created a culture of discipline and responsibility he dubbed 'extreme ownership.' Babin was the commander of one of Bruiser's two platoons. After their military service, the two of them created Echelon Front in 2010 as a way to pass on the leadership and management lessons they developed in the SEALs to a business audience.
Their 2015 book 'Extreme Ownership' became a New York Times bestseller and Willink started a podcast that's usually somewhere in the iTunes top 100 most downloaded. They launched their first 'Muster' event in San Diego last October, and it proved so successful they decided to take it on the road.
Babin said that contrary to popular belief, BUD/S training for the SEALs is just a screening process, and that training doesn't begin until you're placed into your unit. Willink explained how as a young SEAL he felt indestructible, but then things changed when the insurgency gained momentum in Iraq and he knew the situation was much more challenging than the US predicted.
The highlight of Willink and Babin's military career came during the 2006 Battle of Ramadi, in which their SEAL task unit worked with the Army, Marines, and Iraqi Security Forces over four months to win the city from al-Qaeda, a task that once seemed nearly impossible.
Willink said that many civilians mistakenly see SEALs as 'Terminator' robots, but that they're human beings with big egos that need to be carefully managed.
The fundamentals for leading a bunch of SEALs, he said, is no different from managing a group of employees in an office.
This experience led to Willink developing the philosophy of 'extreme ownership' and the '4 laws of combat.'
• A team's leadership is more important than the sum of its members talents and skills.
• Great leaders must take full responsibility for everything under their watch.
• The team's goals must always take precedent over egos.
• The best leaders communicate simply to their subordinates and ensure they understand the mission.
• These leaders must build trust with their subordinates and give them the freedom to make quick decisions without guidance.
Willink sets a mission for Babin and his men to secure a building and move to its roof to provide cover for another team. Babin's team gets to the roof only to see there are no protective walls, making them easy targets.
If Willink led his team poorly, Babin would order his men to get on their bellies and would then radio Willink to see what they should do next. If Willink led his team well, Babin would immediately move his team off the roof and take them instead to the top floor to secure an adequate position, and then he would notify Willink of the change of plans and why they were made.
After a quick break, Willink and Babin took questions from audience members who were struggling with various issues at work.
The guys played a video for us by Willink's buddy Echo Charles, who is also the producer of 'Jocko Podcast.'
It was about how Willink developed a habit of initially answering concerns from his subordinates with, 'Good.' 'When things are going bad, there's going to be some good that's going to come from it,' Willink says, and he trained his men to focus on that when confronting problems.
Willink and Babin then got into the 'the dichotomy of leadership,' which comprises 12 areas that a leader is always carefully balancing. I took notes throughout.
One of these balancing acts is how to practice extreme ownership while also adhering to the freedom of 'decentralized command.'
Willink made an interesting point that if there is up to around a 60% chance that a leader's plan will yield the desired result, compared to a 40% chance the subordinate's plan will, the leader should go with the subordinate's plan.
That's not to say, of course, that you should go with a decision that would harm your team. Willink explained that if a subordinate's plan is clearly inferior, it's the leader's job to explain why, rather than make a demand. His point was that a leader must be willing to cede minor things so that subordinates can take ownership for their work.
If one of your reports runs into a challenge with the plan you forced on him, Willink explained, 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.
Willink also added that you don't want to be an 'easy button' that doles out quick fixes. When your team members come to you with questions, he said, have them explain to you what they're thinking and make an attempt at an answer before helping them out.
Babin was the leader of the platoon that contained famed 'American Sniper' Chris Kyle, and he said he remembers one mission in which Kyle insisted that a sniping location he had picked was better than the one Babin chose. Because of the strong relationship he shared with Kyle, he could cede that decision. It turned out Kyle's opinion was the much better one.
Several people were asking variations of how to get your team on the same page when only one was following all the principles discussed, but I wanted to see what the guys thought one should do when a team was clicking but there was distrust of the boss' boss, or the head of the entire organisation.
Babin said that it may be possible to bring senior leadership to the 'front lines' and show them how your experience isn't gelling with their expectations of you, or their read of the situation -- basically, make an attempt to be transparent and helpful if there's an opportunity.
Willink added, however, that sometimes the harsh reality may be that in a large enough organisation -- like SOCOM or the US Navy -- you will have no control over what the top leadership can do. He said that during the Iraq War, there were plenty of times when there was chaos over the direction of the war or what role the SEALs were playing, but all he could do was act as the buffer between that mess and his own team, and ensure that it didn't affect them.
It was then time for lunch, which for me was pot roast, broiled chicken, greens, and then a couple cookies and iced tea. It felt good to get some food, but the reality of getting up at 3:15 to workout was hitting me hard. I found it difficult to hold a conversation.
I needed a constant source of caffeine to get through the post-lunch lull -- the entire ballroom seemed to have gotten a bit sleepy.
I was jolted awake when the speakers lit up with machine gun fire and the television screens projected intense, raw war footage.
Then the man from that footage took the stage with a rush of energy. It was JP, the newest member of Echelon Front and Chris Kyle's counterpart in the platoon Babin didn't lead.
JP's message was that the only reason he was able to survive the extreme conditions of the Battle of Ramadi is because Willink had instilled in the entire unit a 'why.'
He explained that having candid conversations with your team about what compels them to succeed is necessary if there is going to be any chance of the team's making it through a difficult situation.
In a 'Jocko Podcast' episode I later listened to, Willink said that one of the major mistakes of the Iraq War was assuming that once Saddam Hussein was toppled, the majority of Iraqis would share the same vision as the American forces did. But because the Iraqi allies didn't have the same 'why,' as JP put it, as the American troops they were fighting alongside, many American plans unravelled.
It centered on one of the most popular lines among Echelon Front fans: 'It's not what you preach; it's what you tolerate.' I saw it as an obvious yet easily ignored reminder that anything I've learned over my career and reminded myself of or told others about is meaningless if I'm not actually acting accordingly.
After a few more lessons, they told a story of the first big push into the city of Ramadi, against an incredibly dangerous al-Qaeda stronghold.
Babin said that they had become so focused on the enemy, they were losing sight of inter-team communication and ended up with a friendly .50 calibre machine gun pointed at them for that reason. The lesson was that the worst enemy you'll ever face is yourself, and regardless of what anyone around you is doing, you are always responsible for your own actions.
'Anybody who tells you that a two-day conference, you're going to turn into the General Patton of leadership, they're not telling you the truth,' Willink said. 'But you can learn the fundamentals, you can absolutely understand the fundamentals. And then you can go back into your world, you can continue to try and develop what you learned, and you can absolutely improve your leadership competency and capability.'
'The biggest takeaway that you can have from this is looking yourself in the mirror and thinking, Where can I do better?' Babin said. 'Taking ownership instead of blaming others, finding excuses, or maybe even denying that problems exist. ... And a lot of that is about checking your ego.'
I did not attend Day 2 of Muster, but made it to the introduction to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) that evening.
Willink and Charles have been practicing BJJ for many years and often discuss it on their podcast, using BJJ fighting scenarios to apply military leadership principles to the individual level.
BJJ is more like a physical chess match than a street fight, and proper technique can triumph over sheer strength. It's similar to wrestling in that matches take place on the ground, and so I got down on the mats for a couple basic defensive exercises.
I found the 'chess game' aspect of BJJ to be really interesting, and I may actually sign up for a class someday.
After talking to Willink and Babin about Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, it made sense to me why they chose to incorporate it into the Muster event -- beyond the obvious appeal of having fun.
With BJJ, anyone physically capable can become a skilled fighter who can take on any opponent of a similar or lesser level, regardless of their natural body size -- as long as they are highly disciplined.
And as one of the key Echelon Front lessons goes, 'Discipline = Freedom.'
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