Once upon a time, I attended a leadership conference put on by a group of Navy SEALs. The conference was the Extreme Ownership Muster and the delivery team was Echelon Front led by none other than Jocko Willink. The conference itself was incredible: it was two days long beginning at 4:00am for physical training (PT) then 8 hours of military leadership coaching. The last day was capped off with a 2 hour Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class which did my soul good. I hadn’t been in that kind of setting for a number of years and it felt good to roll again.
Throughout the conference, Echelon Front kept us fueled with food. They were highly engaged, sharing jaw-dropping stories from their military careers throughout the two days. It was a life changing experience.
At one point, Jocko shared something that stuck with me. He said “It’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate.” At this point, I had been a leader for various professional tasks for over a decade. When I heard him say that, I thought to myself do I tolerate bad behavior? It was a weird feeling, but a serious question.
The tone of it didn’t sit well with me. As a leader, it’s my job to continually grow and to teach others what I’ve learned. If at any point I become comfortable then I’ve stopped creating conditions where I can grow. When I stop growing, my team will stop growing. Here I was at a leadership conference, so I felt like I was still pushing myself… I’m still trying to grow, so that’s not the problem.
My mind trailed off and flashed back to work… everyone was doing well. We were delivering our products and meeting our deadlines. We had a good reputation and were helping other teams become better as well. We had recently been recognized by a VP for our good work. So why did I have this feeling of conviction when I reflected on Jocko’s words?
It’s What You Tolerate
The words rang through my ears again, and suddenly it was as clear as day. I’d simply overlooked the issue. Of course my team was doing good, that was the problem! They were good. Just good. They weren’t stellar, incredible, awesome, or fantastic. They were good, solid, and adequate. As their leader, I had grown complacent with our success. I had begun to tolerate too many sloppy behaviors as “good enough”. If my team was going to be better than good, they needed more discipline.
Not only does Jocko discuss the value of a leader in his book Extreme Ownership, but so does Rourke Denver (also a SEAL) in his book Damn Few. They say that the team is a reflection of their leader. A good leader can take a bad team and enable them to succeed. Likewise, a bad leader can take a great team and cause them to fail. My team’s “goodness” was my responsibility, and I needed to emphasize excellence more than I was.
As soon as I got back into the office, I tried to apply this new mindset to my team. I consciously allowed my motivation to seep into the environment. I didn’t come in guns blazing, I eased them into it. A surefire way to fail at incorporating discipline would have been to push too hard. “Hey team, I just went to a conference and now we’re going to do <insert any activity here>!” Nobody would respond to that type of attitude. Instead, I put more emphasis on enabling them to see their own situation. I didn’t need to introduce completely new ways of working to them.
I began in my 1 on 1 meetings and asked how each person felt everything was going. It was obvious that everyone knew we were doing OK, but they wanted more and weren’t saying it outright. With some of the more senior team members, I decided to be direct and say “I feel like there’s something you’re holding back.” That key phrase gave them permission to let loose, but they surprised me. They began to say exactly what was on my mind!
They said that we were good but could get better. In fact, they each knew where we could improve, too. They wanted to work on it before I ever opened my mouth! I didn’t need to provide a punch list of things to improve, and I didn’t need to motivate or force them to improve. I needed to lead them in the direction they were already trying to move!
Each team member saw things from their own perspective and saw where they were falling short. As the central figure in this web of improvement, I tried to connect the dots for everybody. Leaders have the responsibility of stepping back to see and share the big picture
Sometimes, your job is to broaden the view of your team. Connecting dots will help them see what they’re doing and how it contributes to the your mission. You don’t have to be an “official” leader, you just need to step up and take action.
If you’re interested in learning more about discipline and leadership from SEALs as I did, pick up the two books I referenced earlier. They’re filled to the brim with stories similar to my own, and are highly engaging as war stories tend to be. If you’re struggling with people around you being “good” or “good enough”, I encourage you to take a look in the mirror and see what things you are doing that are contributing to their behavior. If all else fails, shoot us an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and we’ll do what we can to help.