Does Your Team Make Their Beds?

On May 17, 2014, Admiral William H. McRaven, a Navy SEAL officer and the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, was the guest speaker at the graduation ceremony at The University of Texas at Austin. Admiral McRaven’s commencement speech was titled “10 Life Lessons from Basic SEAL Training.” During his speech, Admiral McRaven revealed a list of lessons he learned while training to become a frogman that had a profound influence on various aspects of his personal and professional life. An excerpt of his speech follows:

If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.

Every morning in basic SEAL training, my instructors, who at the time were all Vietnam veterans, would show up in my barracks room and the first thing they would inspect was your bed. If you did it right, the corners would be square, the covers pulled tight, the pillow centered just under the headboard and the extra blanket folded neatly at the foot of the rack — that’s Navy talk for bed.

It was a simple task — mundane at best. But every morning we were required to make our bed to perfection. It seemed a little ridiculous at the time, particularly in light of the fact that were aspiring to be real warriors, tough battle-hardened SEALs, but the wisdom of this simple act has been proven to me many times over.

If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.”

The Admiral’s speech was very well-received by everyone attending the commencement ceremony. It can be found in video or written format on various websites and I encourage you to watch or read it and reflect upon the simple, yet profound lessons contained in it.

Parris Island – June, 1974

A little over 30 years prior to Admiral McRaven’s now-famous speech, I was a recruit at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina. On the very first morning of training, our platoon’s senior drill instructor (SDI) directed us to report to the quarterdeck – the open area at the end of the squadbay, which was the large room where we lived. We did so, sprinting as fast as we could lest we are deemed to be “lacking motivation” and be subjected to more of the incentive physical training that we had experienced earlier in the day!

The SDI told us to form a semi-circle around a bunk-bed, which are referred to as racks in the Marine Corps, and to sit down on the deck. It soon became obvious that he was about to teach us the proper method of making one’s rack each morning. Assisted by a recruit, he proceeded to make the rack, he explained the various ways that we were to arrange and align the sheets and blanket, the exact measurements of the “hospital fold” at the head of the rack, how to create the precise corner folds of the sheets and blanket, and the precise placement of the pillow.

As he did this, I was impressed at how much attention to detail he demonstrated toward things I’d never even thought about before – proper creases in blankets, how to tuck in the corners of sheets and even the right way to put a pillowcase on a pillow. My mother had taught me how to make my bed as a young child and I was expected to do so every morning before I left for school, but apparently, in the Marine Corps, the making of one’s rack had been elevated to an art form!

When the class was over, the SDI directed us to return to our racks and make them as we’d just been taught. He also said we had five minutes to complete this task and that we’d pay a heavy price if it wasn’t done on time and to his satisfaction.

We ran back to our racks and began to make them up. I remember that the squadbay was a flurry of activity as sheets and blankets were being whipped through the air and placed on the racks. You could almost smell the sense of urgency in the air; we were “on the clock” and the allotted five minutes was rapidly fading away!

After a few minutes, the drill instructor yelled “Stop…Stop…I SAID STOP!” We all did so and stood at attention as we awaited whatever was coming next. He directed us all to look at him and then in a normal tone of voice said, “Look at you! I’m disgusted by what I’ve just seen. You’re obviously not Marines, but right now you’re not even good recruits. You’ll never make it through Parris Island if you think you can act like this.”

He let his words sink in for a very long 10 seconds or so of silence, during which we all wondered what we’d done wrong. He then said, “Look around you, what do you see?”Without waiting for answers, he said, “All of you are making your racks by yourself. You’re acting like individuals, not as teammates. This is not how Marines act when they are on a mission. The Marine Corps isn’t looking for individuals, it needs Marines who are team-players who understand that the way to win in combat is through teamwork and selflessness.”

He let his words sink in for a few seconds and said, “You’ve got three minutes to get these racks squared away…MOVE!” As you might expect, the squadbay was immediately transformed into a flurry of two-man teams attacking their stated objective!

Long story made short: We didn’t accomplish the mission within the allotted three minutes. We were taken outside to the “pit” (a 30’ x 60′ patch of dirt) where the SDI made us perform countless repetitions of various exercises – push-ups, leg-lifts, bends-and-thrusts, mountain-climbers, etc. – all the while telling us how screwed-up we were as a platoon! After what seemed like an eternity, he yelled, “STOP” and we stood at attention, sweating profusely in the blistering heat and humidity that smothers Parris Island during the summer months. I remember that this was the first time I’d ever heard a large group of winded men breathing so loudly; we must have sounded like a herd of cattle that had just sprinted to the barn for their evening meal!

The SDI told us to look at him and said, “Hopefully, you’ve all learned two important lessons this morning. First, when you are assigned a mission, you WILL accomplish it as directed and on time; failure is not an option. Second, the Marine Corps is a team and you’re all at Parris Island trying to earn the right to be part of the team. The recruit to your left and right may serve with you in combat someday. I might be there with you, too. We are all going to have to work together to defeat the enemy and survive. If I ever again see you acting as individuals instead of a platoon of team-players, there will be hell to pay!”

We were then directed to run back into the barracks and finish making up our racks. I got with my bunky (the recruit who was assigned to the top rack; I was assigned to the lower one) and together we made up both racks, one at a time. Within a week or so, we (and the rest of the platoon) could make both racks to perfection in less than three minutes, without a word being spoken.

Leadership Lessons

Learning how to make my rack each morning as an impressionable 17-year old recruit was as profound as any leadership lesson that I ever received in the Marine Corps. In fact, during my subsequent service as a Marine officer and later on in the private sector, I leveraged this technique by adapting it to fit specific environments or situations I was leading in.

While serving as a C-level executive in a large publicly-traded company, as I took leadership of any team or unit, I always found ways early on to continuously emphasize the importance of everyone in the organization being team-players. I had already personally observed that incredible things can be achieved by motivated men and women acting cohesively when focused on achieving well-defined goals. Thus, I knew that this was a critical factor in whether or not any business unit I was leading would simply be average or eventually become exceptional.

Now for some bad news.

I must say that in almost every organization that I’ve ever assumed responsibility for, there were individuals at all levels who simply would not adopt a team-player mentality. These individuals can become exceptionally “toxic” if they are left unchecked. This is especially true if they are serving in leadership roles because my experience has been that “non-team player leaders” inevitably produce “non-team playing organizations.” Experienced leaders have all seen examples of this – that one department that always seems to be the source of non-compliance, nit-picking complaints, failure to produce deliverables on time, and other types of intentional friction.

And…more bad news.

If you haven’t yet experienced this as a leader, you certainly will at some point in time. Despite your noble intentions and best efforts, there will be individuals in your organization that will never “get with the program.” It’s best to acknowledge this and plan accordingly when assuming control of an organization, or if you are already leading one and desire to initiate a “course correction” regarding how your team executes its mission.

Dealing with Reality

My experience as a senior executive has shown me that when this concept is elevated to the organizational level, any leader unable (or unwilling) to get his or her team to act as team-players and harness their energy and effort toward stated firm-wide goals and objectives will become a “brake on the wheel of progress” and eventually the entire organization will suffer.

Those who cannot or will not embrace a team-player philosophy will ALWAYS become a “toxic element” that endangers the development of the desired culture of the organization, and by default, the level of success it can achieve. Once it has been determined, through an appropriate amount of counseling over time, that these individuals will never be team-players, they must be – regardless of tenure, title, or role– carved from the team much like a surgeon removes a malignant tumor from a patient. This may sound harsh, but experienced leaders know how damaging the presence of a single non-team player can be on the development of a team’s cohesion, morale, and performance.

Finally, some good news!

The concept of teamwork and being a team-player is one of the most enduring and unassailable themes in the business world. Most people really do want to be known for being great team-players. Most have been taught since they were very young children that being a team player is the only way to be and that they should never intentionally do anything that would let down the team.

So, unlike some other concepts or techniques you might introduce to any organization, this concept typically is fully understood and well-received by almost all members of the team. In fact, I find that when addressing teams that have had a recent history of failure, friction, and divisiveness; you can sense, if not actually see, those in the audience nodding their heads in approval, knowing that the team has talented players who can produce great results if they act as team-players first and foremost.

There are many superb books and other sources of information on the team-building aspect of leadership. In addition to utilizing the knowledge and methods contained in them, I urge you to reflect upon the points listed below:

  • The most important philosophies, concepts, and lessons – ones that are critical to the creation and sustainment of an organization’s culture – are best delivered by the chief executive and continuously reinforced by senior leaders. The lessons that the SDI taught my fellow recruits that day were deemed by him to be so important to our future success as Marines and the survival of the Marine Corps that he did not delegate this task. He knew, as do all seasoned and successful leaders, that some messages are best delivered by the unit’s senior leader.
  • Organizational excellence cannot be achieved unless every member of the team strives to attain what is often referred to as “Brilliance in the Basics.”
  • Leaders must ensure their teammates know how to perform the basic tasks associated with their roles. You cannot expect them to adequately execute their tasks and duties if they are not trained appropriately.
  • Leaders should, through their words and actions, continually emphasize the importance of teamwork and demand that their teammates embrace and demonstrate it every day. When the “message from the top” is that being a team-player is non-negotiable, most people will respond accordingly and amazing things will begin to happen in the organization.
  • Even the most dysfunctional organizations can be quickly set upon the path to success if their people begin to work together as true team-players.
  • Carve out the unwilling and the unable. Often difficult to do, for a variety of reasons, a leader must ensure that everyone on his or her team has the will and skill required to perform as needed. Please understand that I am not encouraging you to do this in an indifferent, mean-spirited, or demeaning manner; like most aspects of leadership, there are appropriate ways to terminate or otherwise remove people from your team.

Admiral McRaven’s emphasis that “If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right” is a simple, yet critical lesson that all leaders should reflect upon both from a personal perspective and that of the teams they are privileged to lead. Leaders, take the time to teach your teammates “how to make their bed properly” and make sure they make it every morning to exacting standards. Over time, you’ll have a team capable of attaining excellence in all that they do!

-Mike Ettore


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