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Great Leadership Is Contagious

Navy Seal basic training is brutal. It’s physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting – designed to weed out those who can’t stand up under the most extreme conditions. It’s also based on the premise that leadership matters and is purposefully designed to make leaders out of everyone on the team. 

In their book Extreme Ownership Jocko Willink and Leif Babin share a great story to illustrate these principles. As part of the training students are grouped into seven-person crews to compete in a series of grueling boat races involving paddling inflatable boats through the crushing waves of the Pacific. Each crew is assigned a crew leader, usually the most senior man on the team, who is responsible for receiving instructions, directing and leading the team. 

During one particular class, two teams stood out in stark contrast to one another. The first won every race and seemed incapable of failing. The second came in last place for every race and seemed destined to stay in last place. After watching the same outcome again and again, the chief training officer decided to swap out the leaders to see what would happen. 

Front-line Leadership Matters

As you may have guessed, the last place team, under new leadership, shot to first place. The new leader quickly put an end to blaming, complaining and finger pointing and focused the team on the immediate mission. The team came together and almost immediately began operating as one cohesive unit. 

Great Leaders Take 100% Responsibility 

What was the difference? The effective leader took 100% Responsibility for what was happening with his team. Success or failure was on him. Instead of blaming the team, he took ownership for what was happening, and more importantly, focused the team on solutions. The ineffective leader? He put the blame for failure squarely on the team. In fact, he was relieved to finally get a “good” team so he could take a break from the pain and embarrassment of always losing. 

Great Leadership Multiplies 

And what happened to the original first place team under the new ineffective leader? They didn’t drop to last place as you might expect. In fact, they continued to compete for first place, consistently coming in a respectable second. Why? Great leadership is contagious. The original leader had instilled in them a sense of ownership. They weren’t waiting on the named leader anymore and were taking 100% Responsibility for themselves and what was happening on their team. They had become leaders.

This is what great leaders do – they leave a legacy of strong leadership which translates into strong teams. 

Great leaders aren’t content to be the only one on stage. They take the blame when things go wrong and share the glory when things go right. They recognize it’s not about them; it’s about the team and creating a team culture that produces results. 

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