Lessons in leadership
The best examples of leadership often come from the military, where decision making happens in a context of life and death pressure.
In business, it’s rarely that serious, but the lessons of what good leadership looks like can be applied directly.
I recently read a fantastic book on leadership, called Extreme Ownership: How US Navy SEALs Lead And Win. I highly recommend a read.
Accepting your role as a leader in your own business is the first step. So many small business owners want to pretend that they are not leaders, that they’re still one of the team. You can’t do it.
You own the business. Who else should the rest of your team look to for leadership?
There are nine key lessons on leadership contained in the book. Let’s look at each one briefly.
Lesson 1: Take extreme ownership
This one is simple enough to explain although, for some people, it can be challenging to implement.
“If it’s not working, it’s your fault.”
If you are the leader the buck stops with you. No excuses.
Where do I see this not being followed? When leaders blame the team for poor outcomes or business performance. Even if a team member isn’t up to speed, you hired them, or you continue to let them stay in your business. The buck must stop with you.
Lesson 2: No bad teams, only bad leaders
Following on from the extreme ownership example above, getting the most out of your team is your responsibility. Once again the biggest challenge I see in accepting and owning this point is when you end up blaming the rest of the team.
In the book they give a great example of half a dozen teams competing in a very challenging Navy SEAL selection exercise requiring teamwork. The top performing team, who are dominating, are led by an effective leader. The worst performing team are led by someone blaming the team for their substandard performance.
When the leaders get swapped, the effective leader takes over the worst team. In the ensuing exercises the worst team improve dramatically and become the second best performing team. The point here couldn’t be clearer.
Lesson 3: When it comes to performance standards it’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate
I’ve written previously about the importance of values and standards in an organisation. It’s not what gets asked of people that matters, it’s what people actually do.
I’m sure all of us have worked for organisations or bosses that preached one thing while exhibiting personally, or accepting from their team, much lower standards of performance.
In the case of the leader not walking their own talk there’s a credibility issue. In the case of tolerating lower standards from the rest of the team there is a direct and negative flow-on effect with team performance, and it becomes impossible to hold anyone accountable for anything.
If there is a standards issue in your business and you are the leader, then it’s up to you to address it and to live and enforce the standard.
Lesson 4: You must be a true believer in the mission
If you are not a true believer in your mission then you have to take more time to get clarity around your vision. If you don’t believe in what you are trying to do it will be impossible to get anyone else to do so.
This one shows up in almost every small business I work with. They don’t have a credible business plan that contains a vision for where they are headed. A credible business plan is one that you believe in and want to make happen; it excites you. It is not a tick-in-the-box exercise.
How do you become a true believer in your mission?
You can do this by asking yourself better quality questions. For example:
- Why am I doing this?
- Why am I sacrificing myself for this project?
- What is the higher purpose? (A purpose bigger than money)
- What’s worth doing even if I fail?
The answers to these questions have the power to transform an organisation.
Lesson 5: Check your ego
It’s easy to get wound up when something doesn’t go as you would like. This can happen with your business partners, other team members, or external suppliers that you rely on to deliver services to you.
Rather than getting on your high horse when something goes wrong, ask yourself this simple question:
“Was this person deliberately trying to sabotage me/the company/the mission?”
If the answer is ‘no’(as it almost always will be), then calm down and go and talk with them about the problem.
It’s easy to convince ourselves that people are acting maliciously, when often they are just coming at a problem from a different point of view.
Checking your own ego and fronting up to a problem early, ready to listen and discuss, can nip a lot of future dramas in the bud.
Lesson 6: Support each other – no silos
In any team environment it’s imperative that everyone acts as part of the team. However, as your business grows it’s all too easy to end up with silos (stand alone departments or teams) that don’t work well together.
I’ve seen this happen in the smallest firms where the front office (salespeople) and back office (administrators and paraplanners) seem to be at cross purposes.
It’s vital that the leaders within the business address this. They need to help everyone see how they all contribute towards a great outcome for the most important person in the business: the client.
“There is no ‘I’ in team.”
Lesson 7: Keep plans simple
Running a business is complicated enough. Keep plans simple. Otherwise when the pressure comes on (as it always does) things can go wrong and the complexity can escalate and overwhelm you.
Having completed a simple plan you can always set a new (simple) plan and go again. However, if you try to bite off more than you can chew in the planning phase it’s easy to go around in circles and feel frustrated at the lack of execution.
My definition of ‘business hell’ is having seven projects that are 95% completed. Incomplete projects add no value and tie you up in knots. One project 100% completed can make an enormous difference.
Lesson 8: Prioritise and execute
If you do find yourself in the midst of a crisis, try seeking input from your team in developing solutions. Once you’ve identified some options it’s imperative that you prioritise and execute.
How? By doing the first thing first until it’s 100% completed. Then do the next thing until it’s also 100% completed. Simple.
As the leader, make sure you are focusing all effort and resources toward solving the highest priority task.
Lesson 9: Decentralise command
Teams should be a maximum of four to five operators only. That means in a larger firm you’ll need to split your whole team into smaller effective units.
Leaders of the individual teams must be clear on the overall mission and the goals of the mission; the commander’s intent. It’s your job to ensure they are clear (see Lesson 1 on extreme ownership, Lesson 4 on belief in your mission, and Lesson 8 on prioritising and executing).
The mission command model requires the leader to provide:
- A clearly defined goal
- The resources
- The time frame
The rest is up to the individual at the coalface.
A clear understanding of the leaders intention and the right training are key to implementing the mission.
I really loved this book. These lessons provide some simple and actionable guidelines for becoming a better leader within your business. You’ll be the leader your business needs to keep on succeeding.
Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, gave birth to a generation of leaders forged not in classrooms through hypothetical training, but on the front lines of war through hands-on experience. U.S. Navy SEAL Teams were at the forefront of this transformation, emerging from the triumphs and tragedies of war with an understanding of leadership in the most challenging environments. Jocko Willink and Leif Babin are just such leaders – highly decorated Navy SEAL officers who served together in some of the toughest combat of the Iraq War.
Together, they developed leadership lessons and organisational practices through years of experience. Today, Babin and Willink apply these principles in the boardroom via their company Echelon Front. Across the country, they demonstrate how the SEAL approach to leadership that made them successful soldiers can help countless organisations and individuals achieve the highest level of success. With Extreme Ownership, their proven plan is available to everyone.