A retired Navy SEAL commander explains how the tactics he used to collaborate with the Army and Marines can work just as well in the office conference room

A retired Navy SEAL commander explains how the tactics he used to collaborate with the Army and Marines can work just as well in the office conference room

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Jocko Willink
  • Jocko Willink is a former Navy SEAL commander turned best-selling author, podcast host, and leadership consultant. His new book is "Leadership Strategy and Tactics."
  • In the 2006 Battle of Ramadi in Iraq, Willink worked extensively with the Army and Marines.
  • He said that effective cross-team collaboration comes from subordinating your ego, which entails a degree of give-and-take with leaders of the other teams. If their idea is satisfactory, he said, it is better to agree to it than quibble. That will also make them more open to your own ideas.
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Jocko Willink is the retired commander of the most highly decorated American special operations unit that served in the Iraq War. One of the less glamorous ways his Navy SEALs excelled was their effective collaboration with the US Army and Marines.

And as Willink explained to Business Insider, all of the same tactics he used to work across teams in war are as applicable in business. He's seen it firsthand as the cofounder of the leadership consulting firm Echelon Front, which touts working with more than 750 businesses and organizations over the past decade.

If your first impression of Willink is of his scowling face in a photo or video, you may be surprised to discover that his leadership approach is not based on aggression (which he considers the biggest myth about the military, in general) - it's founded on humility, or as he puts it, "suppressing your ego." It applies to working across teams, which can be incredibly frustrating if the teams keep getting in each other's way.

Willink shared with us the tactics he and his SEALs used with Army soldiers and Marines, where being on the same page meant life or death.


Be humble when working with other teams

Willink and his task unit won the brutal Second Battle of Ramadi, which lasted from March to November 2006. The Americans worked with Iraqi security forces, and Willink and his fellow US commanders often worked across branches to develop battle plans.

"We didn't go into those initial meetings saying, 'Here's what we want to do, here's what you need to do to support us, this is how we envision the battle unfolding,'" Willink said. "We went and said, 'Hey, here are our capabilities. This is what we bring to the table. How can we support what you're trying to execute?'"

Going in with that level of humility, Willink said, immediately set a level of trust with commanders from the Army and Marines. The message was they were not going to compete for control or glory; they were on the same side.

Of course, Willink wasn't going in ready to accept a proposal that wouldn't work for him and his men, he said. But by going in and signaling that he would not be defensive, Willink said, he inspired the soldiers and Marines to be more open to accommodating to him and his SEALs when they pushed back on particular ideas.

He said that it's important to recognize a bias that nearly always appears in the planning stage of a project: People tend to think their plan is best.


"Part of it is ego, but part of it is just because they understand their own plan better than everyone else's," Willink said.

Willink told us that when someone from the other side offered their idea and it was good enough - maybe not exactly how he would prefer to do it - he would agree to it. It's much easier and efficient than debating small details that will have a minimal impact on performance. "And by the way, once you do that and they see that you have an open mind, they're going to be open to your ideas," he said.

It applies in the office, too

Six years ago, Willink and his Echelon Front cofounder, Leif Babin, were hired by a rapidly growing startup. Willink and Babin weren't going to only pass on lessons through a presentation, they were going to work with the company's leadership team to develop a training program for new managers.

Willink and Babin started off with introductory meetings. Willink told us that the executives were excited to discuss ideas for the new program - that is, all the executives except the CEO. He was only 32 and was already running a $100 million company, and Willink interpreted his unwillingness to cooperate with arrogance. The CEO appeared to find any of Willink's and Babin's insights to be silly, Willink said, and would pass some team meetings looking at his phone. The former SEAL commanders tried giving him the benefit of the doubt, but nothing was landing.

Willink went home frustrated after a day of dealing with the CEO's behavior, and then realized what was happening: They both had huge egos and were unwilling to accommodate the other. The next day, Willink took the CEO aside to the hallway during a break.


"He's got a look on his face like we're going to fight, like that's where it's at!" Willink said, laughing. Willink told the CEO how much respect he had for the CEO's talent and drive, and he wasn't lying. The CEO immediately let his guard down, Willink said, and told Willink that the respect was mutual.

From that point on, the planning stages of developing the manager training program went smoothly, and the CEO was both receptive to the SEAL's ideas and an active participant in the process. Willink and the CEO had both gone into the collaboration with their egos taking charge, which created an environment of tension and aggression. All of the insights and resources the startup team and Echelon Front duo had to work with would not have meant anything if the two sides could not humble themselves.

The bottom line, Willink said, is that effective cross-team collaboration comes from strong working relationships built on respect and trust. "How do you build relationships? You offer up and you subordinate your ego."