What can Navy Seals and the All Blacks teach us about leadership?

Most of us have heard the old saying, “hire for attitude, train for skill,” right? And still, most organisations have difficulty picking the “right” person to be in the team leader, supervisory and leadership positions. What many don’t realise is; mid-level leadership is crucial to team effectiveness. Often, people with high technical knowledge and skills and promoted to positions where they must guide, mentor and manage others.

That doesn’t always work out.

As a workplace investigator, the large majority of matters I investigate – for both government and corporate organisations – are rooted in a lack of leadership at the team leader/supervisory level. Simply being trained and confident in having difficult conversations – and managing the conduct and performance of those they lead – can have a significant impact on the overall team culture.

I recently watched a video from leadership guru Simon Sinek. Sinek recalled working with US Navy Seals and recounted their view on who they want in their team. And, when you think about it, you really want the top people in your Seal team if you’re going to undertake the sorts of tasks they do.

Not necessarily the most experienced or knowledgeable.

Sinek noted that Seals pick team members based on performance and trust. High performers with low trust are toxic. They ruin organisations. Less performers and higher trust are preferred. Put simply, they don’t want “a**holes”.

This reminded me of (in my view) one of the most essential leadership lessons I’ve read about, by James Kerr in his book “Legacy.” The book is about the leadership lessons of one of the greatest sporting teams in the world, the New Zealand All Blacks. P.S. I’m not a Kiwi and don’t even particularly like Rugby Union. However, the All Blacks are undoubtedly one of the greatest “sporting” teams in any sport.

Along with 14 other leadership rules, the All Blacks have a “no d***heads” rule (it’s rule #6 if you were wondering). What this means is that despite being the best player, if your attitude is not up to scratch then you won’t even make (or continue in) the team. No one is bigger than the team and individual brilliance does not automatically lead to outstanding results. One selfish mindset will infect a collective culture.

In terms of leadership and supervisory roles, the same thing applies. One could be technically great in the role but lack the ability to manage their team. The result is a team that underperforms, lacks trust, feels unsupported, engages in toxic practices, makes mistakes and is not engaged with organisational culture.

It’s even more important for leaders of teams to be skilled in people management and communication. Promoting or hiring simply for technical knowledge may not achieve a successful end game, which is a harmonious and well-performing team that are supportive and feel valued.

As a team leader (of both small and large teams) I emphasise things like trust, accountability and openness for team members. I back them one hundred percent if they make a mistake or have an outcome that is not intentional. I “run interference” from those above as long as I know what happened and there is a level of honesty. But they also know if they are deliberately dishonest then the opposite will occur.

If you’re an organisation who wants a high performing team/s, you’ll need to have the right team leaders in place. Make attitude, vision and communication a key priority for these positions. And if the right applicant doesn’t have these skills, invest in their training and development.

If you’re an aspiring leader, pay attention to these skills:

  • Professional empathy. Be curious, not judgmental
  • The ability to build rapport
  • Communication skills and the ability to have difficult conversations
  • Supportive, engaging and visionary leadership. Back your people.

I see supervisors and team leaders who are remote from their teams, don’t engage or participate, stand off from operational matters and don’t mentor, develop and support their people. This is a recipe for disaster and ultimately leads to a difficult culture, lack of trust and underperformance.

So whether you follow Navy Seal rules or that of the All Blacks, there are lessons to be learned from teams like these! If you want to learn more about how to enhance YOUR team, reach out to PICA today on 1300 649 967 or email admin@pica.edu.au.