After going through his own Hell Week only a few years prior, Leif Babin found himself leading a new generation of US Navy SEAL candidates through their own struggles on a cold Southern California night in 2008.
Since returning from his duty as a platoon commander in the 2006 Battle of Ramadi in Iraq, he became a SEAL junior officer training instructor the next year and would take Hell Week shifts, as well.
The class he was observing had begun Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL Training (BUD/S) several weeks prior with around 200 candidates; after the first two of five-and-a-half days of Hell Week, approximately half quit. According to SOFREP, only about 25% of candidates make it through the week’s intense trials of physical and mental endurance.
As Babin writes in his book “Extreme Ownership: How US Navy SEALs Lead and Win,” co-authored with his former commander and current business partner Jocko Willink, the candidates were about to learn on this particular night perhaps the most profound lesson from BUD/S: “There are no bad teams – only bad leaders.”
The SEALs candidates were grouped by height into boat crews of seven men and assigned to a WWII-relic inflatable boat that weighed more than 200 pounds. The most senior-ranking sailor became the boat crew leader responsible for receiving, transmitting, and overseeing the execution of the lead instructor’s orders.
In one exercise, the instructors had the teams engage in a constant string of boat races, requiring the teams to carry their boats atop their heads to shore, paddle the boat to a specific marker, dump themselves out of the boat and get back in, and carry through a path to the endpoint back on land.
There was a clear pattern emerging as the races proceeded, Babin writes. Boat Crew II was almost guaranteed to come in first place in every race, and Boat Crew VI was almost guaranteed to come in last place.
- Courtesy of Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
Babin and the most experienced instructor in attendance, whom Babin calls Senior Chief, kept their eyes on the leader of Boat Crew VI, an inexperienced officer who was losing his cool in every race. His behavior was unacceptable for a SEAL.
Before the start of one race, Senior Chief announced that the leaders of Boat Crews II and VI would be swapping teams. Babin says he saw the way the struggling crew leader seemed elated while his superior seemed to process frustration into resolve.
Over the next hour of races, Boat Crew II performed well but never took first; Boat Crew VI won nearly every race.
“Gone was their cursing and frustration,” Babin writes about Boat Crew VI. “And gone too was the constant scrutiny and individual attention they had received from the SEAL instructor staff. Had I not witnessed this amazing transformation, I might have doubted it.”
It was a perfect training example of the principle of “Extreme Ownership,” which Willink taught him as commander of Task Unit Bruiser when they were deployed in Ramadi. It’s the simple idea that all responsibility for any success or failure ultimately rests on a leader.
Babin has taught the boat crew race story to companies he works with through his and Willink’s leadership consulting firm Echelon Front. Babin explains the story’s lesson further:
When Boat Crew VI was failing under their original leader, that leader didn’t seem to think it was possible for them to perform any better, and he certainly didn’t think they could win.
This negative attitude infected his entire boat crew. As is common in teams that are struggling, the original leader of Boat Crew VI almost certainly justified his team’s poor performance with any number of excuses … His attitude reflected victimization: life dealt him and his boat crew members a disadvantage, which justified poor performance … [T]he leader and each member of Boat Crew VI focused not on the mission but themselves, their own exhaustion, misery, and individual pain and suffering.
When the leader of Boat Crew II took charge of Boat Crew VI …[h]e didn’t wait for others to solve his boat crew’s problems. His realistic assessment, acknowledgment of failure, and ownership of the problem were key to developing a plan to improve performance and ultimately win. Most important of all, he believed winning was possible … Rather than tolerate their bickering and infighting, he pulled the team together and focused their collective efforts on the single specific goal of winning the race.
He adds that Boat Crew II’s repetition of success had allowed it to have an effective system of teamwork in place that gave it a fighting chance even its new leader poorly coordinated and communicated his plan.
As a side note, having his team switched and still suffer under his leadership taught the ineffective SEAL candidate a valuable lesson, and he adopted it quickly enough to survive Hell Week and become a SEAL.
What it all comes down to, Babin writes, is “whether or not your team succeeds or fails is all on you.”