How to Create Successful Teams: Lessons from the World’s Most Elite Military Unit

November 25th, 2014

Navy SEAL LogoTeamwork. It’s a concept that all of us know about. And for many of us we’re immersed in it on a daily basis.

Why then are so many teams dysfunctional?

To answer this question, why don’t we explore several teamwork characteristics from a group that many regard as the most potent military force on the planet: the US Navy SEALs.

Lone Survivor

If you’ve read the popular book or watched the recent Hollywood blockbuster called Lone Survivor, then you’re probably already familiar with the SEALs. The SEALs are widely regarded as the most elite military group in the world. When something goes bad (often times very bad) the SEALs are called in to do what they do best: get whatever needs to be done, done.

And what’s at the foundation of their success? A commitment to teamwork.

Teamwork starts early – the swim buddy

From day 1 in SEAL training teamwork is hammered home. Each SEAL candidate is paired with a “swim buddy”. A swim buddy is essentially an extension of oneself – wherever your swim buddy goes, you go. Every time. No exceptions.

Failure to stay with your swim buddy is an absolute no-no in the SEAL community and is something that will disqualify a SEAL from succeeding through the qualification process. Many SEALs will tell you the primary driver of their success is teamwork. SEAL’s must be able to rely on one another in every situation – even if that situation puts their lives at risk.

Now, most of us don’t have to risk our lives to be there for our teammates. More often that not we just need to show up, contribute, and do our part. The problem with the typical team model is that it’s broken. Since so much of what we do depends on the performance of a team, the repercussions of poor teamwork are massive.

Adopting the way of the SEAL

But what if we adopted SEAL teamwork characteristics?

Let’s examine three SEAL teamwork traits to see how they apply to us:

1)    Service. SEALs serve their country and their SEAL community. The individual is subordinate to the needs of the team in all cases. One of the primary reasons SEALs are so effective is because they can rely on each other in every situation, even if life threatening. Now, most of us don’t need to risk our lives for our teammates, but adopting a service mentality (rather than a serve-me mentality) will drive better results every time.

2)    Purpose. SEALs have a shared purpose. There is purpose to everything they do as a team – albeit at the operational level or at the community level. Although purpose can be challenging to understand for many teams, it’s actually quite simple. And it starts with “why”. If we can understand the why behind the what, and ensure that all team members are bought into it, we’ll have a much greater shot at aligning to a common and compelling purpose.

3)    Accountability. SEALs hold fellow SEALs accountable – every time, no excuses. In fact, SEALs are probably at the extreme end of it. Since lives can hinge on team performance SEALs can’t afford not to hold each other accountable. For many, it’s easy to let the performance of our team member’s slip. Often times confronting a team member’s lack of contribution is uncomfortable. The fact is we owe it to our team to ensure that all team members are held accountable for their actions. For team leaders, typically this starts with a regular cadence of feedback. For team members, it starts with forging trusted relationships with teammates and encouraging two-way communication. Regardless of how it’s accomplished, accountability is a necessary ingredient for high performing teams.

Wrapping it up

Seek to serve, align to a shared purpose, and hold your teammates accountable. These three simple tenants will serve your teams immensely.

Your friend,

Dennis P.

Got other leadership and teamwork ideas? Drop a comment below and share it with other readers.

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