No Bad Teams, Only Bad Leaders

Extreme Ownership Chapter 2

This is part of an ongoing series of chapter-by-chapter discussions on Jocko Willink and Leif Babin’s book, Extreme Ownership. This review covers Chapter 2: No Bad Teams, Only Bad Leaders. Go to the full book study here.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

The Observation

In chapter 2 of the book, Extreme Ownership, Leif Babin relates an observation from his time as an instructor at Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL Training (BUD/S). He recalled one class, started with almost 200 men but had dwindled to less than half of that number as the men faced the extreme challenges of Hell Week. During Hell Week, those who remained were assigned to 7-man boat crews. With the other boat crew members, they faced tests meant to try them mentally and physically. For example, they would be instructed to carry their boat down the beach for a distance, enter the water, paddle a course, then hit the beach again. These challenges were essentially races, pitting each boat crew against the other.

Image of 4 BUD/S Boat Crews entering the surf, showing the author that there are no bad teams, only bad leaders.
100216-N-7883G-123 CORONADO, Calif. (Feb. 16, 2010) Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUDs) students participate in Surf Passage at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado. Surf Passage is one of many physically demanding evolutions that are a part of the first phase of SEAL training. Navy SEALs are the maritime component of U.S. special forces and are trained to conduct a variety of operations from the sea, air and land. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kyle D. Gahlau/Released)

And this is where he made the crucial observation. First, he saw that Boat Crew VI was the clear victor in just about every race and that Boat Crew II was consistently in the last place. Then, he conducted a “split test” of sorts: change one thing and observe the outcome. Boat Crew II and VI’s leader were swapped, with all other team members remaining in place. The surprising thing happened: the recurring first-place performance followed Boat Crew VI’s leader to Boat Crew II!

The Principle

Granted, Boat Crew VI did not sink to the last place. Thus they didn’t lose all of the good habits, attitude, and performance gained under their first lead. But clearly, the change in leadership made all the difference for Boat Crew II. The performance that was inherently achievable by the 7 members (they weren’t “bad”) was revealed by the actions and influence of their newly-assigned “good” leader. Thus, this is the basis for Babin’s conclusion; there are no bad teams, only bad leaders.

CLoseup of Boat Crew VI, highlighted in Extreme Ownership Chapter 2, No Bad Teams, Only Bad Leaders.
070202-N-5169H-476 CORONADO,Calif. (Feb. 2, 2007) – Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) students ride a wave in on their inflatable boat. Surf passage fosters teamwork among boat crew members. BUD/S students must endure 27 weeks of intense training in order to graduate from the program, followed by six months of SEAL Qualification Training (SQT) before they can wear the trident of a U.S. Navy SEAL. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Marcos T. Hernandez (RELEASED)

Other Evidence

I am not sure that I could accept this principle, based entirely on one observation. I need some more evidence. Babin provides this with a quote from Colonel David Hackworth, US Army (Retired), backed by his battle experiences in Korea and Viet Nam, and countless other leadership situations.

There are no bad units, only bad officers.

Colonel David Hackworth, US Army (Ret), About Face: The Odyssey of an American Warrior

Then, Babin both reads my mind and caps-off the principle, with: “[Hackworth’s quote] captures the essence of what Extreme Ownership is about. This is a difficult and humbling concept for any leader to accept. But it is an essential mindset to building a high-performance, winning team.”

What it Means

Babin spends the rest of the chapter (8 pages) explaining what this principle means to him and applying it to a business situation. He used the principle while consulting a business that was failing to achieve and shows how, when applied, the ship was turned around. Only after realizing that the team was not the cause of the problem, but the leaders were, the Chief Technology Officer made a personnel change that corrected the problem.

US Navy SH-60B flying, where I spent thousands of hours with my "Boat Crew."
SH-60B carries 3-5 people – My Boat Crew!

But for me, my mind is racing to many situations, both now and in the past. Teams I have been part of, teams I have led. Successes and failures. Have I adequately considered my role in the results of the team as the leader? During my naval career, I have several thousand hours of flight time as the Helicopter Aircraft Commander (HAC, as we called it). The three-person crew’s level of performance on each mission was more about me as a leader and less about each crewman’s abilities and skills? Yes. Same for the 17-person detachment I led during a 6-month deployment. No bad teams. Their performance was a reflection of my leadership.

It is a mindset change, for sure. You can’t have Extreme Ownership of the team, the process, and the results without it. As a leader, I am responsible for mission accomplishment, mission success, and, yes, mission failure. The team achieves the results, but the results flow through the leader. Only then can I do away with excuses and misplaced intentions. Only then can I truly take command and lead.

How about my band? That’s right; I am the leader of a musical group with guitars, keyboard, bass, drums, violin, and lead/backup vocals. There is no bad… band, only bad… band leaders!

Does this chapter bring to mind any of your past successes and failures as a leader? Does it change your thoughts about responsibility and accountability? Let me know what you think.

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