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What the Navy SEALs can teach us about teamwork
One of the great fallacies of team sport is that by improving an individual athlete’s skill, you make your team better by the same amount of improvement.
Anyone who has coached will tell you this is entirely untrue.
A team’s ability to navigate complex environments with adaptive precision relies on the relationships between teammates far more than it does on an individual’s isolated level of skill.
The mythology of individualization — of individual brilliance — is strong and has somehow become ubiquitous with team development. We use terms like ‘upgrading the position’ and ‘getting more skilled at the position’ to describe team improvement.
Our practice sessions are really a set of individual skill drills that are conducted in close proximity to others who wear the same color shirt.
This is not teamwork.
Lessons from the Navy SEALs
The modern conceptualization of a Navy SEAL is a highly-skilled lone wolf who can defeat an entire army with his individual strength and intelligence. Dramatic depictions in cinema and television only serve to further fuel this propaganda.
However, in his bestselling book Team of Teams, retired four-star general Stanley McChrystal debunks the myth that the famous SEAL training regimen is designed to facilitate individual skill.
“The purpose of BUD/S is not to produce supersoldiers. It is to build superteams,” McChrystal writes. In fact, the entire SEAL training program, which stretches over months, is specifically designed to remove the idea of individual performance from soldiers’ mindsets.
“The formation of SEAL teams is less about preparing people to follow precise orders than it is about developing trust and the ability to adapt within a small group,” McChristal adds. “[Soldiers] are constantly sending messages to, and taking cues from, their teammates, and those [soldiers] must be able to read one another’s every move and intent.”
Unlike our individual skill drills where we hope teamwork happens, the SEALs design team development drills where individuals improve as a result of the bonds between the members.
This is teamwork.
This is a newsletter about searching for the largest sources of competitive edge, and creating a superteam is the unfairest of advantages.
But superteams don’t happen by accident.
And they don’t happen by slapping a bunch of individually skilled players together and hoping.
Superteams are created consciously and carefully.
They are created with concerted effort and creative thought.
They are created by rethinking the training environment to match the real-world situations that will be faced.
To develop superteams, you have to train teamwork that develops individual skill, not the other way around.
To conclude, a final reflection from Gen. McChrystal:
“By the time they reach Third Phase, they are intimately familiar with their teammates’ combat styles and trust one another with their lives. They have learned to assess, quickly and holistically, any operating environment — determining what tactical x they have and what y the group needs — and they have developed a fluency with their teammates that allows them to reconfigure, adapt, and deliver. Through this combination of dense connectivity and their understanding of the situation and commitment to an outcome, teams like the SEALs can tackle threats more complex than any leader can foresee.”