No, you don’t have to crawl under live machine-gun fire or lay prone for hours in the freezing surf to learn the value of leadership, but there’re lots that we in academe can learn about leadership from the Navy Seals’ Hell Week. The climactic final week of the prestigious fighting unit’s boot camp, Hell Week provides one last opportunity to weed out those not up for the challenge. After returning from a deployment in Iraq, Leif Babin found himself a Seal training instructor overseeing Hell Week. What he learned from Hell Week is simple: there are no bad teams, only bad leaders.

The Rigors of Hell Week

Babin observed a class called Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL Training (BUD/S). After two days of Hell Week, half of the original 200 candidates had quit. On one particular night, the candidates were grouped into teams based on their height and put into WWII-era inflatable boats. A leader was designated for each boat to receive commands from instructors, relay them to the team, and oversee their implementation. In one exercise, the boat teams were ordered to carry the boats from the beach to the shore, paddle to a marker, jump out of the boat, get back in, and paddle back to the starting point. Because the teams were organized by height, Boat Crew II should have won every time, and Boat Crew VI should have lost every time.

No Bad Teams, Only Bad Leaders

As the taller men in Boat Crew II won again and again, the leader of Boat Crew VI started to lose his cool. He was frustrated, and he let his emotions get in the way of his effectiveness as a leader. At this point, the instructor ordered the leaders of crews II and VI to switch places. The leader of crew VI was obviously elated, but in the races that followed, his old crew, who hadn’t won a single race with him at the helm, started winning. In fact, they won almost every time. To make matters worse, his new crew never won another race. Watching all of this, Babin was stunned. The teams were the same, and yet a huge transformation had taken place. The only thing that had been altered was the leader.

Extreme Ownership

Babin was reminded of the principle of Extreme Ownership, which he’d been taught prior to his deployment in Iraq. The idea of Extreme Ownership is that all responsibility—success or failure—ultimately rests on the leader of a group—not the group itself. Boat Crew VI’s original leader turned himself into a victim of circumstance; he’d been dealt a bad hand, and that justified poor performance. His negative attitude then affected the entire crew, which focused on the injustice of the way the teams has been divided instead of the mission. When given an inspired leader who truly believed that winning was possible, Boat Crew VI managed to win nearly every time.

Organizational Change with The Change Leader

Babin’s lesson about leadership is applicable to any company, organization, or institution with a hierarchy. Ultimate responsibility always lies with the leader, not with subordinates.

The Change Leader helps higher education institutions build leaders and create high-performing cultures that embrace change.   If your aim is to increase faculty and employee engagement and improve organization productivity and profitability, the first step is to turn yourself into a leader! Visit our homepage for more information.  Are you ready for the challenge of leadership?