No more Navy Seals, please.

If I read another ‘Leadership’ book that talks about the Navy Seals, I’m going to throw up.

Or any other elite combat group.

Or a leading sports team.

I get why people write about these. If you’re going to sell your book, it’s got to sound interesting and a bit sexy. These groups have a cachet, name recognition, reputation. All useful things for an author to co-opt.

But they have almost zero relevance to the work experience of most people.

However, they do have a lot in common with each other.

Firstly, they are self-defined elite groups with a high bar to entry, usually some level of individual excellence. Their members are, by definition, exceptional.

Secondly, they have clear and defined goals and an obsessional desire to achieve them at almost any cost.

Thirdly, they are engaged in a life or death struggle. It’s real for the military units, symbolic for the sports teams but psychologically similar.

Fourthly, they are engaged in a finite game. Rules of the game for sports teams, rules of engagement for the military, with clear boundaries and objectives.

Fifthly, they are detached from the everyday existence, the mundane, the parochial. They live in a rarified atmosphere, a bubble of status and privilege.

Does that sound like any work team you’ve been involved with? Or want to be involved with? (And if you answered yes to either of those, you really need to go and have a word with yourself.)

These leadership guys seldom write about the dark side either. The broken relationships, destructive behaviours, unhealthy coping mechanisms, addictions; the abuse, discrimination, and breakdowns. These are the side effects of the personal and collective obsession.

These are unusual people in an abnormal situation behaving in exceptional ways (both positively and negatively). 

How relevant are they to the marketing team of a toy manufacturer, the accounts team of a car rental company, or the customer service team of an air conditioning company?

Whilst we are all unique, most of us are not exceptional. We’re not in the top 5%, we’re not extraordinarily gifted. 

In fact, by definition, 50% of us are below average.

Work is not our obsession. We want to enjoy other aspects of life like family, hobbies, community. We want a blend.

Whilst we might like to imagine ourselves as Navy Seals or footballers for Liverpool FC, we’re really not willing to make the sacrifices, to narrow our life experience to be like them.

A more useful reference is how they do things at Timpsons or Cook!. Those are places we can aspire to match, places where ‘ordinary’ people do ordinary things, but better than many others. Tell us stories about how they lead, how they create high quality workplaces, how they enrich people’s lives, because that’s relevant.

We’re going to learn a lot more from them than we are from trained killers or overpaid sports stars.

In fact, we’d learn more from looking at Wernham Hogg*.

(*Dunder Mufflin Paper Company, for our N. American readers)

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