Mar 17
March 17, 2020

Challenge Your Stories

As an officer in the SEAL teams, I was naturally offered the structure, culture, and efficiency of leading an elite team. However, after leaving the active duty SEAL teams and venturing into the business world as an entrepreneur, I realized that building an elite team wasn’t anywhere near as simple as the SEALs made it look!

I struggled, time and again, through my multiple entrepreneurial ventures to do this until I finally began to piece it together – laying the groundwork for the stories I detail in my book Staring Down the Wolf.

Elite teams that are firing on all cylinders and accomplish great things together are committed to seven key principles: Courage, Trust, Respect, Growth, Excellence, Resiliency, and Alignment. All of these are present in an elite team, deeply committed to forge the character worthy of uncommon success.

Practicing these values allows leaders to distance themselves from their ego in order to focus and refine their sense of authenticity and humility. Understandably then, the team responds in kind, feeling the genuine sense that, “We’re in this together, rowing in the same direction” as a result of their leader fostering a community of authenticity and camaraderie.

The term Staring Down the Wolf is based on a Native American metaphor used to explain the important difference between fear and courage to young leaders. Simply put, the Native Americans explained the ‘fear wolf’ resides in the head (the thinking mind often guided by ego-centric beliefs) while the courage wolf lives in the heart (the essential nature of a leader’s passion and purpose in the world). This metaphor warned these young leaders that the wolf that you feed the most will be the one that’s going to dominate one’s behavior. The book is called Staring Down the Wolf for a reason. You must stare down your fear wolf to get to lead with courage.

Yet our society does not emphasize the importance of connecting to our heart. We therefore often get stuck in our head, thinking that leadership is all about strategy and tactics, inadvertently feeding our fear wolf.

Neuroscience research explains that humans are naturally wired for negativity. We have five times as much negative mental processing and fear-looping going on in our head as we do positive thoughts and emotions. Positivity comes from the heart and requires purposed intention to practice. My book is founded on this Native American metaphor to demonstrate that you can perform and lead courageously. However, if you don’t intentionally work on staring down the fears that hold you back from courageous behavior, you will never be able to authentically lead with courage.

Courage is therefore the foundational commitment for building an elite team. Both the leader and the team must work on this every day, by increasing tolerance for risk and taking a stand around what is important. Elite teams radically focus on what’s most important and avoid the distractions inevitably surrounding their goals.

The second commitment, trust, is then derived from courageous action and becomes an outcome of this behavior. However, trust is also a practice—cultivated through humility and relentlessly following through on your verbal commitments. When you take absolute ownership of everything that you say you’re going to do, and do it, you become transparent–a leader with no personality “masks.” Take off the mask of perfection! Take off the mask of invulnerability! Take off the mask of not having any emotional, soft underbelly! Inauthentic masks are the most dangerous obstacles to fostering trust in leadership and as a team.

Respect is then the third commitment. It is both a by-product of courage and trust, but likewise, respect is also an intentional practice, emphasizing the importance of how you communicate and connect. Respect is about having those challenging “In-The-Moment Conversations” and allowing yourself to engage in productive conflict. What’s left unsaid is going to fester. Poor communication can grind an environment to a halt and really stultify performance. Respect is gleaned through absolute integrity: what you say, what you do, how you do it, and who you are all must be in alignment.

When a workplace culture is built upon courage, trust and respect, then you can really open yourself to the fourth commitment of accelerated growth. Look at the work environment as your primary mechanism for growth. And so, you could ask yourself, “Where do I go to grow?” Well, you go to work to grow. I’m talking about ‘vertical’ character development growth, not just skill development, which I consider more ‘horizontal’. The more you grow vertically, the more you effective you will be at delivering your horizontal skills. Then, once you unlock your vertical growth, both vertical and horizontal development begin to accelerate. But growth can’t happen if you don’t have the courage, trust and respect to back it up. Those four commitments must be synchronized to work to support each other.

The fifth commitment is the relentless pursuit of excellence in everything you do. Practice innovation, curiosity, and simplicity. You should do this every day because no plan survives contact with reality! The challenges are going to keep coming at you, sometimes faster and faster. In these moments, you must start to develop resiliency, the sixth commitment.

Resiliency is best summarized, “Fall down seven times, get up eight, with a smile on your face.” Elite teams have all those qualities of the first five commitments, but the sixth is what allows them to consistently practice these values day in and day out. For scaling companies, it’s a long haul. Many lose motivation or get burnt out, injured, or sick. Elite teams avoid these common obstacles. They have a constant process of renewal because they intentionally focus one day at a time, like a warrior. One day, one lifetime. Today is the opportunity to get it right and do things a little bit better. Take care of yourself, recover, and get a great night’s sleep! Then go at it again the next day.

The capstone commitment is alignment. Alignment requires a relentless, almost maniacal communication strategy. I call it battle communications. You need communication from the leader to the team on the vision and the mission. Always ask, “What does victory look like? What are the boundaries for behavior? What is off-limits?” There should be seven or ten touch points a day with the whole team.

That has incredible power. When everyone is very clear about the vision for what they’re shooting for, and the mission and the boundaries are clear, then your team unlocks autonomous behavior. Elite teams don’t have to run something up the chain of command or wonder if they’re making the right call. They know that their action is going to be backed by the leadership because they’re an elite team and they’re committing to these seven commitments together every day.


— Mark Divine

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