January 2016

A Failing Team: Is It the Crew or the Leader?

by Ed Ruggero

During the infamous "Hell Week" of Navy SEAL training, teams of seven sleep-deprived candidates endure a punishing physical regime that breaks down bodies and challenges even the most highly motivated. Grouped by height into crews that do everything together, including racing and carrying rubber boats (above their heads—hence the arrangement by height) that can weigh two hundred pounds when wet and sandy. They crews paddle through powerful surf that often dumps them into the cold water.

Each boat's leader is responsible for receiving the trainers' deliberately convoluted instructions, then interpreting those orders and directing the crew to complete the mission. When the boats race, the winning crew gets to sit out the next heat—a cherished respite. The last boat draws extra attention and punishment in the form of more grueling exercises.

In Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win, authors Willink and Babin tell the story of one class in which the races were dominated by Boat II, while Boat VI placed last nearly every time. In that lagging boat, "the men were operating as individuals, [and were] furious and frustrated at their teammates. We heard them yelling and cursing at each other . . . accusing others of not doing their part." The leader of Boat VI was unable to get his crew "squared away" and was catching hell from the trainers.

An instructor proposed that they switch the leaders of Boats II and VI, just to see what would happen. Navy people like to say there are no bad crews, only bad skippers. This was a chance to test that theory.

The leader of Boat II was not happy to be going to a losing boat, but the leader of Boat VI was ecstatic. "It was clear he felt that only by the luck of the draw—and no fault of his own—had he been assigned to the worst boat crew of underperformers," the authors write. "In his mind, no amount of effort on his part could make Boat Crew VI better."

The first race of the new crews took place at night. The boats disappeared into the surf and darkness while the instructors sped down the beach to the finish line, trying to use their truck headlights to see what was happening. As the boats neared the end, two were clearly out in front. Boat Crew VI crossed the finish line first, followed by Boat Crew II. The perennial last-place crew won the race because of a change in leadership, while the good habits developed among the crewmates in Boat II were almost enough to put them in front again.

The authors are clear about the discovery. "Leadership is the single greatest factor in any team's performance . . . The leader drives the performance—or doesn't."

So what must you do if one of your teams is failing?

Level the playing field. Do the teams have the training, equipment, and incentives in place to support success?

Ask the hard questions. Look closely at how the leader interacts. Does she or he create a positive, supportive environment? Do people want to follow this leader and, if not, why not? Chances are everyone "in the boat" already knows what the problem is. As the boss, you get paid the big bucks to make the hard calls. Have the moral courage to do the right thing for the team and the organization, even if it means removing a toxic leader.

Maybe it's you. It's hard to get an objective read on your own performance, but it's necessary. Find honest counsel and, if it's you, address the problem head on.

Ed Ruggero is the creator and facilitator of The Gettysburg Leadership Experience, in which participants visit the site of the Civil War battle to learn how to better lead modern organizations.