The following is a summary of a presentation I gave to my son's high school football team on teamwork and leadership. The portion quoting from LtGen Kelly's speech is abridged.
Good morning! First off, I’d like to thank the coaches for having me in today, but also for your hard work and dedication to these young men. I’m sure you know from experience they will never forget you and the lessons you give them.
I was invited in today to talk with you about some of the things I picked up during my 21 years of service in the Marine Corps. I understand your coaches have been talking with you about the Five Dysfunctions of a Team; what can go wrong and how to avoid it. Well, I know something about team so I’d like to talk to you about that, and a little bit about leadership as well.
So what makes a team? What do you have to have to be a team? I promise to not anchor down too much on the basics because I know all of you have team experience, probably good and bad, but just so we’re on the same page, let’s establish a starting point. One person cannot be a team, right? It’s got to be a group of people. How about a group of people milling around on the street corner, is that a team? Of course not. A team has to be a group of people with a common purpose or goal. Everyone has to know what that goal is and everyone on the team has to commit to that goal. If you have ten people all rowing in one direction and a few more rowing in other directions, that’s no bueno, right? Ok, so we have to have a group of people with a common goal, with everyone committed to that goal. That’s a team. Now look, if you google “what is a team”, you’re going to get 5,000 different opinions. That’s fine, this is just to establish square-one for our discussion. All right, we have our basic definition of team. We’re going to focus on what I think is the secret sauce of GREAT teams, and that is commitment to each other.
Just to hit one of those basics a little more, now, let me ask you; what are your team goals? (A few of the athletes threw out some suggestions like, “win our district”, etc. ) Ok, great, those are all good goals. Before we go any further, you have to understand that goals are not a wish-list. These are not things that would be nice to have happen. Goals are clearly-defined statements of things that we will MAKE happen. They are commitments in and of themselves. My favorite squad leader when I was a young Marine said to me once: “Lance Corporal Smith, start pooping in one hand and wish in the other; see which one fills up first.” His point was that hope is not a course of action, and he was right. Goals can be anything you want, but be bold! Nobody wants to hear a goal about “trying your best”. That ought to be a basic requirement for being a human being! Your coaches will help you set team goals, but you all can come up goals on your own as well. It’s your team, right? Once the team goals are established, there will probably be subordinate goals. The defense will have some goals, the offense will have some goals. From there, the receivers group and running backs and then down to the individuals will have some goals. That’s great, and there is a key to that. All of the subordinate goals must support the overall team goal. If they don’t, someone is rowing in the wrong direction. As a side note, I hope every one of you is setting goals in your own personal life. Short, medium and long-term goals. It’s the same concept; your short-term goals support your mid-term goals, which support your long-term goals. I want to get 3 A’s this semester (short-term goal), so I can get into a good college (mid-term goal), so I can have a successful career as a…whatever you chose(long-term goal).
Ok, goals and commitment to the goals are covered. Now the part that I told you I think is the most critical, commitment to each other. I know what you’re thinking; Isn’t that a little touchy-feely? Do I have to do this? Can’t I just do my job and he does his job and everyone just does their job? Yes, you can; welcome to mediocrity. There is an old Marine Corps saying that you don’t get to choose who you go to war with, and that is true. You don’t get to choose who is on this team either, do you? You’re on the team, together. You’re already committed. I want to tell you a story that I think perfectly demonstrates commitment and what I’m talking about. This story was first told by Marine LtGen John Kelly, who, in 2008, was in charge of all of the good guys in Iraq, including the Iraqi national forces. I’ll summarize his words here. “In April, 2008 two Marine infantry battalions, 1/9 “The Walking Dead,” and 2/8 were switching out in Ramadi. One battalion was at the end of their deployment going home very soon, the other was just starting its seven-month combat tour.
Two Marines, Corporal Jonathan Yale and Lance Corporal Jordan Haerter, one from each battalion, were assigned to stand guard at the entrance gate of a Marine barracks compound. A barracks is where Marines eat, sleep, train and live. The compound was in the city of Ramadi, one of the most dangerous cities in the world, filled with terrorists and violence.
Yale was a dirt poor mixed-race kid from Virginia with a wife and daughter, and a mother and sister who lived with him. He supported them all on his humble Marine Corps paycheck. He was 22 years old. Haerter was a middle class white kid from Long Island.
They were from two completely different worlds. Had they not joined the Marines they would never have met each other, or understood that multiple America’s exist simultaneously depending on one’s race, education level, economic status, and where you might have been born.
Their orders were to let no unauthorized personnel or vehicles pass. A few minutes later a large blue truck turned down the alley in front of their post and hit the gas. The truck stopped just short of the two Marines and detonated, killing them both catastrophically. Twenty-four brick masonry houses were damaged or destroyed. A mosque 100 yards away collapsed. The truck’s engine came to rest two hundred yards away knocking most of a house down before it stopped. The experts said the blast was made of 2,000 pounds of explosives.
There were no American witnesses, but the Iraqi policemen who were there all told the same story. They said everyone knew what was about to happen once the truck turned into the alley and hit the gas. Some of the Iraqis initially fired at the truck, but then all of them ran, some right past those two Marines. One Iraqi survivor said “Any sane man would have run to save his own life, but not those two Marines, they saved us all.”
They discovered that a surveillance video survived the blast and it recorded the last six seconds of those Marines’ lives. It took about a second for the two Marines to separately come to the same conclusion about what was going on once the truck came into their view at the far end of the alley. Exactly no time to talk it over, or call the sergeant to ask what they should do. Only enough time to take half an instant and think about what the sergeant told them to do only a few minutes before: “ … let no unauthorized personnel or vehicles pass.”
The two Marines had about five seconds left to live. It took maybe another two seconds for them to present their weapons, take aim, and open up. By this time the truck was half-way through the barriers and gaining speed the whole time. They had three seconds left to live.
For about two seconds more, the recording shows the Marines’ weapons firing non-stop…the truck’s windshield exploding into shards of glass as their rounds take it apart and tore in to the body of the terrorist who is trying to get past them to kill their brothers.
The recording shows the truck careening to a stop immediately in front of the two Marines. In all of the instantaneous violence Yale and Haerter never hesitated. By all reports and by the recording, they never stepped back. They never even started to step aside. They never even shifted their weight. With their feet spread shoulder width apart, they leaned into the danger, firing as fast as they could work their weapons. They had only one second left to live.
The truck explodes. The camera goes blank. Two young men go to their God. “
So what kept them there? Patriotism? Iraq is a long ways from America. Six seconds is not enough time to think about their families, their country, their flag, or about their lives or their deaths. So what was it the kept them from running away, what “any sane man would do?” They each stayed, because the other one stayed. They stayed because the Marines in the barracks behind them were depending on them. They stayed because they were committed to each other and to their fellow Marines. Commitment to each other is a requirement of great teams. It has made the difference between good, average, mediocre and greatness, throughout history, military, sports, everything. Why?
Commitment to each other enables you to do much bigger things. It may not be all that hard, it might even be tempting sometimes to quit on yourself, or maybe just save yourself. But to let someone else down is another matter. When you commit to each other, it allows you to set standards of performance, conduct and attitude and to hold each other to those standards. It doesn’t just happen, it’s a conscious decision and when you make that decision it compels you to engage each other. It is recognition that your fates are inexorably linked together. You are no longer working for your own success; you are working for all of your teammate’s success or failure, too. It lets you check your ego at the door and accept criticism because all you want to do is improve. That’s important. The most brutal criticism I’ve ever seen is in a fighter pilot debrief. During the last half of my career I was an F/A-18 pilot. The tactical portion of your flight might only be 15 or 20 minutes worth of flying, but the debrief can take hours. Every mistake you make is re-wound and the tape is played again, sometimes frame by frame, while your every error is called out. If you are more concerned about being right, you will never improve. Think of it this way: when the coach comes up to you after a play and says “You have to make sure you are using the right technique when you block that guy!”, and you are 100% certain that you did it right, do you argue with the coach and tell him he’s wrong? Even if you absolutely know you did it correctly, isn’t the coach still right? Isn’t he really just telling you it’s important to do things the right way? Again, if you are more concerned about being right than accepting the coaching that he is trying to give you, you are being selfish. How about a “yes, coach!, and then making sure he sees you do it right next time! Which do you think will be more productive?
Let’s go back to teammates holding each other to standards. How do you do that? It’s leadership, and in my opinion, it’s the hardest kind of leadership; peer leadership. How hard is it for a coach to come into this locker room, point to you and tell you to clean the area up, put away the chairs, pick up the water bottles…not hard, right? He is the coach, you are the athlete, he says, you do, right? If that’s not the way it goes, there is something wrong. Now how about if you came in here, pointed at another student athlete and said the same thing; “Hey you, clean this area up!” Excuse me, right? You’ve got no authority over him. He can tell you to pound sand if he wants. So how do you lead your peers when you have no positional authority? Leadership by example, that’s how. You come in here and instead of snapping your fingers, you start squaring the area away and say “C’mon, let’s get this place straightened up.” You also have to be positive. Believe me, the guy who can keep a sense of humor, stay positive somehow when the situation is really bad, he’s worth his weight in gold. Encourage each other; leave the criticizing to the coaches. Bottom line, like I said before, you have to leverage that commitment to each other in order to engage each other. Don’t be afraid to look a teammate who’s struggling in the eye and say “C’mon! Come with me! Let’s get some on this next one!”
The last tidbit I have for you is about hazing. Making sure someone really belongs on the team by making them do something they are uncomfortable with or making them pass some test, right? You’ve got some new guys coming up to high school next year. How are you going to treat them? Are you going to make sure they have what it takes to be on your team? Let me tell you from personal experience that hazing always always always gets out of control. Somebody gets hurt, laws get broken…it’s just way too tempting to not try to outdo the group that hazed you, right? I figured out hazing early on in my Marine Corps career. I had my blood wings pounded into my chest, I had ranks pounded into my collar bone, and I had my nco blood stripes kneed into my thighs. It didn’t make me tougher. And I realized it was b.s. when people I didn’t particularly like, people I didn’t even really know that well lined up to get their free shots in. It wasn’t about congratulating me, or making me belong or making me tougher. It was about them trying to prove how tough they could be. And it’s ridiculous. When a freshman shows up here for camp in the summer and it’s 90 degrees out and humid and he doesn’t quit, isn’t he already on the team? Hasn’t he already shown he wants to be here? Take those guys under your wing, show them how things are done around here, make them know they are a part of the team, that they are going to be held to those high standards of performance, conduct and attitude and that you are counting on them to do live up to that. Show them by example what that standard is.
Each one of you has a choice to make, today and every day. You will have to ask yourself “Am I here for myself or am I here for greatness?” I promise you will find both if you look to each other first.
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