The Best Leadership Style is the One Where You Don’t Row Alone

Rowing Alone

Power” by The Score 🎵

I started reading leadership books after I started my own business. I had built 12 games with some awesome teams, but realized I had absolutely zero leadership training and that was going to be a problem. I felt like I had no idea what I was doing and I admitted that. I surrounded myself with a fantastic accountant, attorney, advisory board, but I still didn’t know what I was doing.

This was also when one of the advisors on my advisory board, Adam Kunz, suggested I apply for Launchpad2x which was a leadership program in Atlanta for women CEOs run by Bernie Dixon and the Atlanta Technology Angels. It changed my life and showed me how important it is to invest in training, but not everyone, and not every company can afford the costs of sending their people to leadership training – often they prioritize technical acumen.

Which means, in your career, you may meet many managers and executive leadership who have never had any at all.

I’ve continued to invest with various levels of expenditure. Years later I was recommended by Brandon Cox to read “Extreme Ownership: How US Navy SEALs Lead and Win” by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin (Hardcover: ~$17). This book shows a different kind of leading – harsh realities framed against the context of war and real lives on the line. Poor leadership gets people killed. There is a really great story that sticks out to me from this book. It starts with the authors talking about a team competition they put their younger leaders through to teach leadership far before that mattered in the field: Boat Crew Races.

The Leadership Swap

Teams each had a boat crew leader and there were several teams competing to win in a series of crew races.

During the course of the competition it was obvious that both the top winning team that continued to win had a great team and a great leader. The top losing team that continued to lose was not working together as a team. The young leader of the losing team thought “through no fault of his own – he had been assigned to the worst boat crew of underperformers” (Babin 47).[1]

Later, the author further clarified that this resulted in more obvious traits with “His attitude reflected victimization…and each member of Boat Crew Six focused not on the mission but on themselves, their own exhaustion, misery, and individual pain and suffering…working under poor leadership and an unending cycle of blame, the team constantly failed. No one took ownership, assumed responsibility, or adopted a winning attitude” (58).

Every time they continued to perform poorly they were punished more by their higher leadership, for example, forced to sprint and carry their boats back and forth as a form of punishment. This continued to push motivation to the ground – a test to see if they could overcome it. They could not. By that point, the losing team didn’t really believe anything would change for their fate. Each person was operating as their own person – angry with each other. Since this was a competition and not a real business environment, these team members could not quit, but the actual ramifications of that in today’s business environment are two fold – (1) the company doesn’t turn around its business and sees revenue impact and/or (2) individuals who could actually succeed and win and perform better, never end up doing so and are either fired by those who do not understand the problem or self-select out and resign from the environment.

Knowing this – those running the competition forced the leaders of the best team and the worst team to swap. This story is worth reading on your own, but what you’ll learn is this one action changed everything.

The losing team became the winning team and the original winning team came in 2nd – repeatedly. The lesson being “There [are] no bad teams, only bad leaders” (50).

Since reading that chapter, and with time, it’s become easy for me to recognize the impact of leadership styles on a team – often seen through increased regretted attrition – sometimes framed as increased unregretted attrition, but regardless, in either direction, high turnover.

Bad leaders will try to rotate out entire groups of people when they don’t really know what to do, gain a reputation for “going through people” while constantly displaying an air of victimization that they are not the problem.

Which Boat Team Was I On?!

You will hit this situation in your career many times. If you ever see your leaders swapped out, now that you know this story, it’s easy to immediately think “wait a minute…was I on the winning team?!”

…or “was I on the losing team?” and “Why did they swap my leaders?!”

Lucky for you, most situations aren’t so binary as a boat race with clear winners and losers. That example is not the only reason re-orgs happen. However, these types of stories are a great indication of what can happen after. 😊

Business leadership is nuanced. More importantly, it’s best to assume in any leadership change, maybe, neither team is the winning team. Both have areas they can improve. That “our way” is not the best way and “their way” is not the worst way. Take the opportunity to really embrace that instead of applying with rigorous passion the production spreadsheet, devops pipeline, whatever you already have right into a team.

Truly believe that, and we can go places.

Many leaders when coming onto a new team, especially if that coming on was positioned as a scope increase, will say they are “here to listen” while simultaneously planning their Grand Day 0 Strategy™ creating slide decks and spreadsheets in their off hours within the first two weeks with no cross-functional collaboration with the engineering managers now under the wing. They demand flexibility of those they wish to apply their vision to – they don’t earn it with trust. This is true regardless of whether that leader is in an engineering function, a product function, or a production function. We. must. earn. trust. Not apply and then try to get it.

Some will vocalize collaboration while their body language and actions show they have already made it up in their mind that their way was their right way. The is a tempting trap to fall into. Slow down.

For those with wisdom, this comes off as disrespectful, careless, and junior. It comes with a lot of assumptions. Believe me, no matter the age, a person can be tenured in life and still an associate of leadership. As the wisest know, you are always a student.

If I can impart anything, if multiple people in tandem are so lucky as to have the opportunity to take on anything new and exciting with passionate people who are already high performing and kind, which you will often in your life and career – that if they sit across that table: Actually believe that they might be. Be there to listen with a not-made-up brain. Be fully present and immersed in the people in front of you. It is on us to decide what to do with the time that is given to us – as a team, not as an individual.[15]

As Extreme Ownership points out – the qualities of the losing team were “individuality” over team, every person thinking for themselves, and, very clearly, low performance and anger. They had people who were no longer invested and didn’t want to be there and likely, would have left if they could have – it was swapping their team leader that made the difference, not the individuals on the team and they did so by taking a leader who was already high performing and putting them over a lower performing team not to clear that team out, but to change their motivation and leadership style entirely so both teams could win.

These days, and with more books, I feel it is never safe to assume we are coming from either the winning or the losing team. Rather showing up with a true willingness to learn, collect the ideas of others, and go with the flow in a way that establishes them as real partners in that improvement (vs bringing the entire plan and executing it) is the actual way we earn trust.

Understand the loss we are asking others to take-on with each decision we make and make the time to understand that.

With any opportunity, ask “Was I really on the winning team?” or “was I actually one boat in the middle of all of us racing when we had the opportunity to instead row as a fleet?”

[1] Willink, Jacko, and Leif Babin (2015). “Chapter 2: No Bad Teams, Only Bad Leaders.” Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy Seals LEAD and WIN. New York. St. Martin’s Press. pp. 41-62.

Header Image by Jaanus Jagomägi from Unsplash.

[15] This is the fifteenth clue to the puzzle.