Only Bad Leaders


In “Extreme Ownership” by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, the authors state that there are no bad teams, only bad leaders.

Now, that might be tough to swallow, but there is truth to their philosophy. Babin recalled the time he spent as a SEAL instructor, overseeing the BUD/S Hell Week. He remembered one specific year when the students were divided into boat crews that carried and paddled large rafts through various obstacles in and out of the water. Each boat crew had a leader who would receive orders from the instructors, then lead his crew through the challenge.

That week, Boat Crew VI came last in every race. The leader was accusing everyone on his team for its failures. And the rest of the crew had started to embody those same traits, yelling and  blaming each other.

On the other hand, Boat Crew II won nearly every race. Its leader motivated the rest of the crew. “They compensated for each other’s weaknesses, helped each other, and took pride in winning, which had its rewards,” wrote Babin.

Then, the Senior Chief got an idea: swap the leaders of the worst and best crews. While Boat Crew VI’s leader was excited – he believed he had been delivered a horrible team in his current crew – Boat Crew II’s leader was less so. However, Babin noted he “accepted the challenging assignment with a look of determination.”

Interestingly, in the next race Boat Crew VI, with its new leader, won for the first time. While Boat Crew II continued to perform well, Boat Crew VI won most of the races for the next hour. “It was a shocking turn of events … But it was a glaring, undeniable example of one of the most fundamental and important truths at the heart of Extreme Ownership: there are no bad teams, only bad leaders,” concluded Babin.

The authors explained the leader sets the motivation level and standard of performance for his or her team. If no one is held accountable for his or her actions, that will become a prominent trait of the team. It becomes the new standard. Just like Boat Crew VI, when your leader is blaming everyone else, the rest of the team will follow suit.

As a leader, Affiliate, you have a team to lead. Ask yourself how you are leading today and remember, there are no bad teams. Only bad leaders.

“Teams need a forcing function to get the different members working together to accomplish the mission and that is what leadership is all about,” wrote Babin and Willink. “The recognition that there are no bad teams, only bad leaders facilitates Extreme Ownership and enables leaders to build high-performance teams that dominate on any battlefield, literal or figurative.”

Heather is the editor for Box Pro Magazine. Contact her at