So how is it that in just four years, facing stiff competition, a pair of former Navy SEALs have risen to the top ranks of executive coaching, shaking things up with an intensity and physicality rarely seen in the sector?
Jocko Willink and Leif Babin served together in Iraq during some of the most intense periods of combat the conflict saw. Shortly after leaving the US Navy, they founded Echelon Front “to educate, train, mentor and inspire leaders and organizations to achieve total victory.” They’ve also published two New York Times Best Sellers: Extreme Ownership in 2015 and The Dichotomy of Leadership in 2018. Mr. Willink’s “Jocko Podcast” is one of the most listened-to podcasts in the US.
Given the number of ex-military leaders writing books and giving speeches, what is it about these hard-bodied combat veterans that has enabled them to build such a devoted following – one that reaches beyond the business world? Brunswick’s Raul Damas and Edward Stephens did a grueling early morning workout to prepare for the interview, though both still felt slightly intimidated.
Why is military experience seen as a source of insight to business leaders?
JW: The US military is widely recognized as the world’s greatest leadership development program. Combat is the ultimate teacher, the harshest and most difficult instructor. It teaches lessons that you will never forget.
LB: Combat is like life amplified and intensified. Emotions run higher. The fear is more real. And the decisions leaders make have the ultimate consequences. So, if leadership principles are proven on the battlefield, then why not utilize those same principles in business? Even though the environment changes, leadership doesn’t change. Whether you’re trying to sell more widgets or are on the battlefield trying to kill insurgents, you are trying to get a diverse team unified behind a plan to execute the mission as efficiently and effectively as possible. That’s leadership.
How would you respond to the claim that military leadership works because subordinates are required to follow orders?
JW: Those who would argue this have watched too many movies. If you give military personnel an order that could get them killed or if they don’t believe in the mission, they will push back against that order. Anytime a leader finds themselves thinking that they have it harder than someone else, that their challenges are greater than others face, it’s merely an excuse. Don’t give yourself that excuse.
LB: And when people talk about “rigid command structures” in the military, they should realize that the best teams don’t operate in a rigid manner – not in the military, not in business, not anywhere. I want my subordinate leadership to question me. I want them to develop their own plans. The optimal teams operate with a collaborative methodology. They work together to come up with a plan and execute it. This is true in the military and the civilian sector.
Leif, you’ve talked about the tendency for leaders to over-prepare, to over-plan. What’s the sweet spot and how do you know you’ve hit it?
LB: Planning is crucial. If you don’t plan for likely contingencies – that is a failure of leadership. But as with everything else, there is a dichotomy: Planning can be taken too far. If you try to solve every single potential problem that might arise, you overwhelm your team, you overwhelm your planning process and you overcomplicate decisions for leaders. This creates greater problems for the team rather than solving them.
How do you know when you’ve found the balance between planning enough but not too much? When your team is able to quickly react to problems, overcome them and effectively execute to accomplish the mission.