I grew up among a variety of characters in Queens, New York. It was a tight neighborhood, and the more connections you had, the better off you were in getting things done. My dad was quite the staple in our community, and at any given moment he had one of his 20 closest friends teaching me different things. They would adopt me for the day and I would get a hands-on lesson in whatever skill they were refining, whatever business they were running, or whatever deal they were making. It was a fast-track education on toughness, grit, commitment, and hard work. There was a common theme in all of it, but it wasn’t obvious to me until later on: the value of team, the importance of the pack, and the benefit of shared responsibility.
The Truth? TEAMS Get Shit Done
Take a look at the most monumental accomplishments and you’ll always find a team. The Allied Forces of World War II, the crew and scientists behind Apollo 11’s race to the moon ... hell, even the Spartan 300 at Thermopylae: All were packs of racehorses and hungry wolves, talented people who worked relentlessly together to get shit done. Period. There may have been a hero or two that stood at the forefront, but that hero was always dependent on the team.
At Spartan, we have access to the highest-performing teams on the planet. I’ve met Navy SEALs, Delta Force operators, and additional members of various special ops teams, and I can’t get enough of their lessons. They all have incredible stories of resilience, and the common thread is always the power of the team. And then there is New Zealand’s iconic rugby team, the All Blacks. In their 125-year history as a team, the All Blacks have won 500 test matches and three World Cups. It’s not any single player that is unstoppable — it’s the team, the collective.
Selection and Vision Matter
It may be an unpopular opinion, but I don’t think that everyone is a fit for every team. A team needs to be curated carefully. SEALs and Delta Force personnel are the most highly-trained elite forces in the U.S. military. For Delta, 100 candidates apply each year and only six make it through. For the SEALs, only one out of four carefully selected candidates earns the "SEAL Trident" pin. The selection process is essential for piecing together the perfect puzzle of camaraderie and grit. To be successful, you must be selective. This isn’t exclusivity: It’s an essential strategy.
A successful team also needs a shared vision. The All Blacks' vision is to win every game and maintain their reputation. That’s the ethos of the team and it becomes the lens through which they do anything and everything. Similarly, one of the best teams of all time is the NFL's New England Patriots. Their ethos, simply, is "Do your job.” If everyone on the team does their individual job and trusts their teammates to do theirs, that creates a winning strategy. Both the All Blacks and the Patriots strive to win, and they do so with their vision at the forefront.
The Best Team Combo? A Blend of Teachers and Leaders
SEALs and Deltas are obsessed with training and preparation. “Teaching is crucial to leading,” says Navy SEAL Brandon Webb. Teams need those that will step up to the plate, at any given moment, to teach and mentor. If they are effective at this, their leadership quality begins to excel. If employees and team members are lacking in effectiveness, it’s a testament to the leadership.
How does the team build trust in its teachers and leaders? By watching those at the front of the pack lead by example. General Stanley A. McChrystal, U.S. Joint Special Ops Task Force Leader (Iraq), is crystal clear about the expectations linked to the Delta and SEAL patches. "I trust in the values of your organization, and the track record of your organization, and I transfer that trust to you if you’re wearing the right patch," he explains. When he took charge of the U.S. Joint Special Ops Task Force in 2003, he attended nighttime raids with his unit, which was highly uncommon for a general.
Why? Simple. "First, if you’re putting people in harm’s way, it’s helpful to regularly put yourself in harm’s way," he says. "...Accepting some level of common risk with them earns respect.”
The general's message is the biggest of all when it comes to leadership: Lead by example. The fastest way to earn respect is to practice what you preach. And there is no faster way of losing respect than being a hypocrite. So if you’re asking the team to work late, you better be the last one in the office. If you’re asking them to work weekends, you better be there to support them. Anything less causes resentment. Having a leader that everyone can respect builds unity, as opposed to division, within the ranks.
Don’t Build a Team for the Sake of Having a Team — Build a Team With Purpose
During the 4th century, there was a band of 300 soldiers called the Sacred Band of Thebes. They were an elite force of the Theban army, and they were such a connected unit that they gave their lives for each other in battle.
As much as it pains me to admit this, the Band of Themes went up against a superior Spartan force … and won.
How did they do it? They used an "oblique formation" to pressure the dominant side of the Spartan attack. This formation was later adopted by Alexander the Great. Eventually, the Sacred Band fell in 338 BC. All 300 of them sacrificed themselves for one another and perished alongside their commander.
Sounds depressing, right? Wrong. Let’s try inspiring and informative. Listen, you need to build a team that you would go to war with, a team with purpose that is so connected that its duty to serve morphs from obligation to honor. When you get to that point, you have a team.
Twenty-five hundred years later, on their anniversary, we are still talking about and celebrating these 300, the ultimate high-performing team. Quite an impressive legacy.