This is probably not what you would expect to read about U.S. Navy SEALs in a combat zone. There aren’t rubber boats coming ashore in the dead of night. No doors are blown open by burly men wearing night vision goggles. Helicopters are not involved.
And yet there is a lesson here, well away from the action, that gives us some insight into the hidden power of humility, and what it takes to build and lead strong teams. I’ll warn you now: It’s not very exciting. But that’s kind of the point. And there is definitely power in it. See what you think.
Between the Extremes
This story comes from the book, The Dichotomy of Leadership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. The book itself was an interesting, well-structured read. Each chapter was divided into three parts: one third SEAL team war stories, one third tales of similar battles in the business world, and a final section that extracted leadership lessons from both.
Through it all the authors use their stories to illustrate how leading well often means striking a delicate balance between two extremes. Example chapter titles include “Own it all, but Empower Others,” “Aggressive, Not Reckless,” and the necessity of being both “A Leader and a Follower.”
It was a story in the chapter entitled “Humble, Not Passive” that most grabbed my attention. Perhaps it caught my eye because it is both so unspectacular, and yet exceedingly powerful at the same time. It demonstrates that to lead well, we don’t need to wait for moments of high drama.
In fact, it’s best if we don’t – those are the best times to harness the hidden power of humility.
You Want Us to do What???
As he tells it, Babin and his SEAL team were just returning to their combat outpost from a two-day mission in Ramadi, Iraq. Tired, dirty, and hungry, he and his men entered the compound looking forward to a much-needed break.
Just inside the outpost entrance was a semi-truck trailer containing thousands of sand bags. A team of Soldiers were carrying those heavy bags, one at a time, up three flights of stairs, to reinforce a position on the roof top. It was hot difficult work in the mid-day Iraqi sun.
The SEALS had finished their job; the Soldiers were doing theirs. As an elite special operations force, the SEALs didn’t have to do anything but continue to walk. But Babin relates that the idea of just walking by didn’t feel right.
He recognized that these were the same Soldiers who supported the SEALs on their missions – they provided security, gave them a safe place to rest and refit, and were ready at a moments’ notice to send quick reaction teams to rescue the SEALs if they ever got into something they couldn’t handle. He saw them as his brothers in arms; ignoring their toil just wouldn’t do.
The Soldier’s commander was there, so Babin offered to help. The commander waved them off, thankful for the offer, “Ya’ll get some rest. We’ll take care of the sandbags.” Babin exchanged glances with his platoon chief, there was unspoken agreement, and then he responded, “Negative, we’ll help with the sandbags.”
He had his men drop their combat gear, and for the next 45 minutes they all pitched in to help carry the sandbags up three flights of stairs to the roof. When they were done, they picked up their gear and headed off.
That’s the story.
Maybe you think, “big deal, so they schlepped some sandbags around.” But I think it IS a big deal. Here’s why.
The Power of Humility
It signals respect. Hauling sandbags is tough grunt work nobody looks forward to, but it is essential. In stopping to help the Soldiers, the SEALs were showing that they were not above the work the Soldiers were doing, and that they were just as willing to break a sweat and get dirty if necessary.
It strengthens mutual bonds. As a spontaneous, voluntary act, stepping in to help someone in need creates an unspoken sense of reciprocity. That was clearly not the SEALs intent – they just felt the call to help. But the effect was to cause the Soldiers to be thankful for that assistance, and want to reciprocate in some way in the future. The action drew both groups closer together.
It creates trust. Out of these two ideas comes the true gain, and that is in the matter of trust. Getting shoulder to shoulder with someone is a powerful way to demonstrate that “we’re all in this together,” and that “I’ve got your back.”
In one simple though not physically easy act, the team from the Navy forged a very strong link of trust with the Army team. That bond served both very well in the difficult days that lay ahead of them.
The Power of Humility – The Takeaway
As Babin writes, “Humility is essential to building strong relationships with others, both up and down the chain of command, as well as with supporting teams outside the immediate chain of command.”
When we want to build trust with others, there is another advantage to focusing on the humble.
Popular media has conditioned us to think that good leadership happens at the extremes and in the dramatic moments. Perhaps, but those crisis points can be comparatively rare. And when they come, we may find ourselves needing the trust and good will of others to lead effectively. It’s too late to build it in the moment.
The key takeaway is to recognize that the space between those times of high drama is filled with many more opportunities to build trust and strengthen bonds, in mostly very mundane but important ways.
The smart leader watches for them, and sees them as very ordinary-looking opportunities to unlock the power of humility, and make their team into something extraordinary.