At 20 years old I decided to join the Marine Corps. I think my age and experience working with teams through sports landed me in a leadership position as a Squad Leader. I was in charge of making sure that the 12 recruits in my squad were dialed in and ready to go no matter what task was thrown at us. I felt an enormous amount of pressure not only from the intended stress of the Marine bootcamp training methodology but also from myself.
I thought I should know everything and if I didn’t I was falling short. I felt that I had to be better at everything than the recruits that depended on me for guidance. I want to tell you about the experience that showed me none of that was true.
We were about 3 weeks out from a new experience that had been implemented into Marine bootcamp, the Crucible. The Crucible was a 72 hour event that was intended to be the culmination of all that we had learned to that point. One meal a day, somewhere around 3 hours of sleep a night, and a ton of humping (in case you’re not savvy with military talk that means hiking with a good amount of weight on your back), and a relentless serving of obstacles to overcome. It was pretty tough mentally and physically and the pressure was on to provide a good experience for my squad. But we hit some snags.
In that 3 week period I felt that my relationship with my squad was deteriorating. We had been real good to that point but for some reason the wheels were coming off. Our mojo was all but gone and there was some in-fighting mainly between me and the rest of the squad. Not great.
I didn’t feel that I changed anything with my leadership style so I was puzzled as to why things went South so quickly. Then a little pep talk with my drill instructor opened my eyes a little bit. Well, it wasn’t a pep talk as much as it was what we called a “thrashing”.
A “thrashing” was a method of producing grueling physical pain in the form of a 10-15 minute montage of exercise all while at least one drill instructor served you a good dose of verbal love at a very high volume. Think tabata (real tabata not what most people think tabata is) only take out the rest periods, increase the duration, and add one of the baddest dudes on the planet screaming in your ear the whole time. Fun times!
After my “thrashing” I got pulled aside by the administer of said “thrashing” for what was as close to a heart-to-heart as you could possible expect in Marine Corps bootcamp.
“Do you know why you’re on my parade deck, recruit.” he said with a slightly lower voice than normal.
“No sir!” I replied. I honestly couldn’t think of why I was there. For the most part, I only got “thrashed” when one of my squad members got “thrashed” as a show of solidarity and responsibility for their leadership.
“You’re here because you’re not listening.”
My confusion must have been visible on my face. I was a good listener and did well with instructions from our drill instructors so what’s the problem?
“Connelly, I’m going to slow this down to a belly crawl for you. You have a good squad. Some of them are better at somethings than you are but you’re still a squad leader, right? Some of them do better on some tests than you do but you’re still the squad leader, right? You’re still the squad leader because you understand mission accomplishment and you care about your squad. Now all you have to do is listen to them when they have ideas. Now disappear.”
As I was sprinting away from him a light went off.
The pressure to lead kept me from leading.
I thought I needed to know all the answers and be the top performer when all I needed to do was care about my squad and work WITH them to get where we wanted to be; on top of Mt. Motherfucker (it lived up to it’s name) getting our Eagle, Globe, and Anchors and earning the title of Marine. I wasn’t listening to my team and it caused a whole mess of problems when they needed me to be the best possible leader I could be.
Things ended up working out very well for us in the last month of bootcamp. I became more open to conversations about how we should attack obstacles in the Crucible. We worked together to ration our food and help each other deal with sleep deprivation. Everyone had a chance to contribute ideas about obstacle navigation and we had a blast the whole time through.
Fast forward to today. I’m going to share a page from my coaching manual that might be the most important part of my leadership and my team’s success. Here it is, (straight from Zingerman’s deli. I highly recommend reading their books.):
Leadership Agrees to:
- Document clear performance expectations
- Provide the resources to do the work
- Recognize performance
- Reward performance
- Provide the freedom to manage the day to day work within the guidelines established in the expectations
Staff Agrees to:
- Deliver on the expectations that the Director laid out or…….
- Negotiate through to agreement and then deliver on an alternative set of expectations
In those closing weeks of bootcamp I felt an increasing amount of pressure to be perfect. To have all the answers. That’s just not realistic no matter how good you are. My view of leadership was skewed by that stress. It caused me to close up and stop listening to my team which caused them to get frustrated with me.
Yes, people crave leadership but they also want to be heard and to be able to contribute to the success of the team with ideas and different view points. Allowing them to do so will not only create a better work environment for everyone, but will make available windows of opportunity for growth and improvement that you would otherwise never have access to.
So if you’re in a position of leadership, encourage your team to speak up when they see that something could be better and give them the opportunity to share that viewpoint with you. Even if the idea won’t work for some reason, you’re employee with walk away with a better understanding of why it won’t work which will make them that much more prepared to contribute in the future. This will give you a more confident and enthusiastic team and endless opportunities to make your business the best it can possibly be.