Make no mistake about it. Training to be a Navy SEAL is brutal. Roughly 15% of those that enter BUD/S (the name of the SEAL training program) graduate. If you enter training in the winter, your odds decrease to 10%. Imagine looking at the cast of the movie 300 – a bunch of super ripped, highly conditioned, very competitive athletes – and then dismissing 126 out of a 140 of them. That’s what happened during my time in BUD/S.
To say that I was in charge would be an exaggeration but the truth is that I was the only officer and therefore class leader of BUD/s class 205. 139 enlisted men and me – fresh out of the Naval Academy – charged to lead this class through the toughest military training in the world in the dead of winter. The professional cadre of SEAL instructors were in charge, but I felt an obligation and a responsibility to lead by example and to keep as many candidates in the program as possible.
At the beginning, I tried to save everyone. I didn’t want anyone to quit. I tried to pull them in and surround them with help. I worked to bring together the team and help one struggling guy hold it together through a tough time.
Why did I do this? Simple. I thought that someone quitting was a reflection on me as a leader. It was my fault when someone quit. At the beginning, I viewed success as having 140 out of 140 candidates graduate from BUD/s Class #205. I thought that if I could pull that off I would be a hero. I’d be the best SEAL Class Leader ever.
Want to know the reaction of other real seasoned SEAL’s when I shared this? They laughed. In fact their perspective was that if I was actually able to pull that off then the perception in the SEAL teams would be that SEAL Class #205 was the weakest ever and that the instructors had failed.
Over time I figured out what the instructors, other candidates and I were really building. We were solidifying a group. We were hardening a unit. We were searching for those men who had a purpose for what they were doing and why they were there. (See Never Ring the Bell, why having a sense of purpose makes all the difference). There was a purpose for every push-up. If a BUD/S candidate was not all in then it was better for us and for THEM to let them go. My thought on building teams and leadership changed. I went from savior mentality to Darwin reality. Our team got stronger and tighter as the weeks went on.
I learned a lot through this process and I have used those experiences in my business and personal life since that time. If you are facing tough leadership decisions or tough discussions with employees, consider these two lessons learned during the worst of times:
The first important lesson: you can’t save everybody. At the beginning of training I’d work hard to get guys to hang in there. A guy would come to me in the morning and tell me he was going to quit. I’d rally a strong team around him and convince him to stay. And he would quit that afternoon. That was painful for me and for him. SEAL training was designed to build a tough, hardened team and there were certain people that weren’t cut out for it and that is OK. Same goes for your team. You need people committed to being a part of the team. Those that aren’t committed need to move on. It’s better for you and your organization. It’s good leadership to have measures in place to help non-team players find the door. Most importantly, it’s best for the employee who doesn’t belong and is struggling to stay.
The second lesson: test your teams. No matter how much time you spend carefully choosing the members of your team (or working with a team you’ve inherited) you will not know how people are going to respond to challenges until they face them. Many of the guys that quit were a complete surprise to me. They seemed on the outside to have all of the raw material needed to become a fantastic SEAL. Then they quit.
Don’t let this happen to you. Find ways to test your teams. You don’t have SEAL instructors to do the dirty work of separating the wheat from chaff so you have to do it in a different way. Role play difficult scenarios. Pose tough questions. Use the current challenging environment to your favor and delegate a significant challenge to a subordinate. Where appropriate, allow failure and see how the team reacts. Play out “what if” scenarios with your team to see how they respond when things go sideways. Create pressure and make your team uncomfortable.
Once you have a committed and “battle” tested team, there will be nothing that you can’t accomplish.