I was watching one of those pseudo-documentaries about the American Navy SEALs on the History Channel the other night(1), and an interesting little tidbit came up during the part where the teams are trying to get their boats past the surf and out into the ocean. If you’ve never seen this exercise (or “evolution” in Navy-speak), it’s actually an entertaining spectacle.
Instructors divide the class into boat teams, each with a student leader. Then there’s all the usual running around with the inflatable dingy carried above their heads, yelling and screaming, push-ups in the sand, and so on. When the surf conditions are just right (the ideal seems to be a combined high-tide and a storm surge, with multiple metre-high waves), the instructors send the boat teams out in the surf. The first team past the surf gets to sit out the next evolution. Everyone else, on the principle that “second place is first loser”, gets to do more running around with the dingy above their heads, push-ups in the sand, etc.
You just can’t get past the surf without everyone working together. You can see a clip of the exercise here: Navy SEAL BUD/S Training – Surf Passage(2)
In the episode I was watching, the instructors noticed that one team was consistently last (and therefore earned their special, unwanted attention), and one team was consistently first (and got the break). So the instructors decided to run an experiment. They took the crew leader(3) from the worst boat and switched him with the leader from the best boat.
The two crews switched results in the race, dramatically and immediately. The last place boat became the first place boat and vice-versa.
Without clear purpose, direction, and motivation provided by somebody, anybody, the team fails and the team suffers for it. Without changing the other members of the team, changing the leadership changes the team’s performance,
When There are Too Many Leaders
I was mentoring at a student civic innovation competition last year. The students were from several different institutions and disciplines (architecture & design, finance, business, marketing, social innovation, etc.) The challenge was to take an under-utilized civic space and research, analyse, and propose a low-cost, community-centred update of the space in a weekend. Then pitch it to a panel of judges.
It’s an interesting human-centred design exercise, and an interesting team-work exercise. Also they don’t get a lot of sleep.
One team ended up going in circles. They were unable to decide on a design, agree on a way forward, or complete the work. In the end it came down to having one too many leaders. Two of the students in particular saw themselves and driving the process forward. What they didn’t realize was that by pushing so hard for “their solution” they were shutting down the creative process, collaboration, cooperation, and frustrating everyone else on the team with their bun fight.
Listening was non-existent and ego ruled. Despite attempts by myself and another mentor, they never really overcame this friction and failed to win in any category at the pitch competition.
What Kind of Leadership Do You Need?
So what? We need to think carefully about the culture, structure, and ground rules of our teams – how they’re put together, how decisions get made, its purpose, and how it’s going to succeed.
In a military context teams need high levels of trust. The ability to resolve conflicts and make decisions quickly, to coordinate effort, and to motivate members (such as promotion up the chain-of-command.) Hierarchy has its advantages, but…
Not everyone is a soldier. Collaboration, creativity, problem solving, and execution are the order of the day. This means everyone pays attention to the other team members(5), everyone contributes, and nobody hi-jacks the process. Leaders need to be comfortable with messy, even uncomfortable conversations while making sure everyone contributes and stays focused on the task. It’s hard and requires a high emotional intelligence, but then good leadership always has.
(1) Don’t get me started on how the History Channel doesn’t have any history on it, although my sweetie and I really enjoy watching Forged in Fire together. As long as you know what you’re in for (not history, but rather entertainment) then it’s all good.
(2) I find the music overly dramatic and unnecessary, but some people like that sort of thing. The camera shots from the drone are pretty cool though.
(3) This is a common feature of military training – assigning leadership duties to the students. It lightens the load for the instructors, trains the students in leadership and accountability, and is invaluable in motivating everyone to do their best to make sure everyone cooperates when it’s their turn. It’s a great development tool in any context.
(4) Nothing wrong with consensus, if that’s what you need. Just be ready to take a very long time to make decisions, and have a very clear process for collaboration, discussion, and conflict resolution.
(5) This is where women have an advantage over men. So if you’re trying to solve a really difficult, complex problem, one way to stack the deck is to have more than one woman on your team.