One surprising thing I learned as a platoon commander in the SEAL teams is that not knowing something can actually be a source of strength for a leader, rather than a weakness. Earlier in my career, as a new junior officer in the SEAL teams, I didn’t want to expose any of my weaknesses. Most likely the more experienced SEALs could tell anyway, but I tried to cover up mistakes and act as if I knew more than I really did. This came from insecurity and wanting to be respected. When I finally became a platoon commander six years into my career, I was a bit more mature, at least I like to think. I still had insecurities related to the fact that it was now 2008 and I still had no combat experience despite having deployed four times between 2004 and taking command of a SEAL platoon in 2008. Deployment rotations are often subject to arbitrary timing and tasking issues, so the lack of combat experience was not a fault of mine, but in the SEAL teams combat experience is the mark of respect within the community and the majority of experienced operators had plenty of it. When I did become a platoon commander, my intention was to leverage the experience and knowledge of the enlisted members of the platoon, thinking that most likely they would see right through any of my attempts to cover up this lack of combat experience. What I subsequently learned points to the 4th principle of leadership: delegate, trust and empower the team.
I learned that asking the opinion of the snipers when, for example, planning a sniper overwatch training mission, letting the point man plan the platoon’s infiltration route via foot patrol, and heavily relying on the platoon’s enlisted leadership throughout mission planning and during training operations was critical for a variety of reasons. First, it empowered the members of the team. Recognizing and leveraging their knowledge and experiences created a sense of buy-in for the platoon’s mission as a whole. Second, delegating tasks cultivated the leadership skills of other members of the platoon. Leaders who micro-manage demonstrate a lack of trust in their teammates. Furthermore, training the members of the platoon to contribute to the mission planning process increased their knowledge of the operation and also improved their ability to step into other roles in the platoon. If you have experts in your midst, why on earth would you as a leader not tap into this wealth of knowledge on the team? The bottom line is that ego often gets in the way.
During the platoon’s training cycle, it was important for me as a first-time platoon commander to get the training reps in as a ground force commander, to prepare accordingly for my main role. However, it was also incumbent upon me to train and develop my assistant platoon commander to be able to step into my job. It’s not always easy to step aside and let someone else do your job. In the corporate world, there are concerns about one’s own career advancement and not wanting to give someone else the chance to shine. To some extent this can be the case in a military unit as well. But it’s important to keep in mind the bigger picture. People on the team will not always be around—they retire, have medical emergencies, are promoted somewhere else, and so on. And yet the train still needs to move along the tracks. Ultimately, my assistant platoon commander did have to step into my job after I was severely injured early in the deployment to Afghanistan. Had he not had the prior experience of stepping into the platoon commander role during the training work-up phase, this would have been a much more daunting task. By all accounts, he performed in the new role marvelously. I truly believe this was the most important thing I ever did in the SEAL teams: preparing him to take my place and continue on with the mission.
Remember: no one position on any team is more valuable or important than the others. There are different roles and responsibilities for each position, and on a well-oiled team all members have an idea of the requirements for other positions in addition to focusing primarily on their own job. The team captain should empower other members of the team and foster a team culture in which people are encouraged to think freely and know that their opinions are welcome. In order to empower, the leader must trust.
Not knowing something as a leader is not weakness—it is an opportunity to empower teammates by asking their advice. And this is a source of strength.