Path to Mastery


When teams come together they go through multiple stages before they are able to operate at elite, high performance levels. The first stage for a team is forming. The formation is the recruitment, selection and initial indoctrination of the founding teammates. In this stage the organizing force is either the leader or chooses the leader. The ultimate leader may be selected or may bubble up from within the new team. At the forming stage the organizing leader is also typically the role leader.

Top performing organizations that sprout elite teams have a precise process for team formation. The selection process to join a SEAL Team is arduous, to say the least. Those few who finally make it have been through nearly two years of recruitment and selection training. This selection training serves as the “force level” team formation and indoctrination of the recruits into the culture and systems of the SEALs and Navy in general. Those who survive the rigorous selection process are assigned to a SEAL Team. At the SEAL Team they are placed or recruited into a SEAL platoon, where the next phase of operational training begins. It is in this phase that the “unit level” team is formed and indoctrinated. Not many organizations have the budget or time for this elaborate of a formation process. However some of the better corporations have mirrored the SOF model in a manner that works for them.

Google is a good example. At Google, selection for the team is a mental crucible that most are not suited for. A few years ago a road sign in San Francisco was blank but for an elaborate mathematical equation and a phone number. Most people who drove by were vaguely curious, as was I when I saw it. However, for those who love mathematics and solving problems, the equation was a lightning bolt and the first step to an interview at Google. Imagine their delight at seeing the equation, pulling over to write it down, solving it later, then calling that number to hear: “This is Google, did you solve the equation?”

Hiring well is very difficult, speaking from my own experience. It takes a lot of time, careful thought and a dedicated effort. Hire slow and fire fast is the mantra. For those of us who rushed it because we felt the right person “fell in our laps” or we were not patient, then within a couple months we often find the new team member is not working out. Studies show that it is often many more months after a new hire is shown to be an obvious bad choice before they are let go. The team struggles along in limbo as it forms and reforms constantly around new members.

The second phase of the team is storming. Every individual in the team is exposed to their teammates very quickly and must rapidly learn to be a good teammate and leader. There is simply no hiding or slacking. They are all suffering in their own personal ways, each separate from another. This stage often leads to stormy relationships as each member is vetted, exposed and must demonstrate and build trust. In teams where there is no initial indoctrination process, like Google or the SEALs, this can be a rocky start to a team – one that many do not survive.

However, when brought together as a team in an intense crucible like the SEALFIT Academy, individuals must quickly find common ground and note their interconnectedness and interdependence. The must put out, not just for themselves, but for their teammates. They must make decisions not based on self-interest, but for the team’s interests. In essence these teams quickly become a powerful collective personality with a team spirit as unique as each individual in the team.

The storming phase is short and pointed in these scenarios as the team moves quickly to normalizing relations (norming) and then performing their mission. If they get stuck in storming, then the team loses momentum or fails its mission. It is not common for a team to move rapidly through the early stages of forming, storming and norming. Certain conditions must exist to allow a team to form and accelerate to high performance rapidly. These include, but are not necessarily limited to:

High Stakes: The stakes, or bar, must be set high. Individuals and teams are inspired by challenge. The bigger the challenge, the greater the rewards, the more inspired and focused the team becomes. There is nothing worse to do to a high performing team than task them with a mundane mission.

Shared Risk: We have addressed this before. The risk the team faces in its training and operating must be shared equally. When that risk is elevated, as in a Special Ops, SWAT, or First Responder job, this is even more poignant. I had a Senior Chief in my second SEAL platoon who would not get on a helicopter to perform any air training – such as fast rope, rappel and the like. He soon lost credibility and trust amongst the team because he was not sharing the risk with his teammates.

Shared Experience: The experience must be “different” enough to create a feeling of uniqueness such that the former experiences of the individuals fade away under the new, collective experience. This creates a new reality and feeling of togetherness…a team bond. I recommend any team coming together to tackle a complex project or mission do some sort of training together up front that allows them to share risk and experience before they embark on the mission.

Selecting the Right Teammates: This seems obvious but is often taken for granted. Teams will align their performance around the lowest common denominator. If we have someone who is not pulling their weight, and the leader doesn’t do anything about it, or the team is not empowered to handle it on their own, the team will lower its standards to that of the weak link. The saying “a team is only as strong as their weakest link” is very true. One bad apple spoils the bunch. The right people must be selected to participate in the forming of the team, then vetted through the indoctrination process. More on the qualities of the right teammates in the next section.

Alignment of Systems and Structures: The systems and structures must be in alignment with the individuals and teams of the organization in order to facilitate healthy team development and growth.

If these conditions are in place a team can form and move straight to performing with amazing speed and grace.


In the last lesson we talked a lot about authentic leadership. Is there such a thing as authentic followership? I think so – they are two sides of the same coin. Leadership and followership share many of the same qualities. A leader must learn to be a good teammate as a prerequisite to leading. Further a leader will always be stepping aside to let others lead as their expertise or sturdiness in a situation dictates. I believe leadership and followership are fluid and always changing, regardless of who is filling the roles in the team and organization. What are the traits we need to look for in selecting authentic teammates?

  • An authentic teammate is a good listener and spends time learning to ask good questions. Be wary of the one that needs to always have “the answer.”
  • An authentic teammate is not divisive. His contribution is provided in a constructive and balanced manner, with ego set aside at the door. Disagreement with a plan or action is acceptable and valuable when done in a spirit of harmony versus discord. Anytime I had a teammate state “this plan sucks,” I cringed. It is not very helpful to negatively comment even if you think you may know of a better way. It slams the door in the face of the leader. Better to question and offer ideas than criticize and shut down the conversation.
  • An authentic teammate receives feedback well and is not afraid to provide supportive feedback to his teammates. In essence he is both coachable and a good coach.
  • An authentic teammate supports the mission of the team. He seeks opportunities to make the positional leader’s job easier. Once the mission is agreed upon he does what he can to backup the mission leader and his teammates to ensure success.
  • An authentic teammate cultivates attention to detail in the areas of his expertise, and seeks to attain a useful working knowledge of other teammate’s jobs so that he can pitch in. Further he does not shy from the “common area” duties that no specific individual is assigned to – such as emptying the garbage or cleaning the dishes in the sink. Only large and bloated bureaucracies and unionized companies have someone to fill every common area task. Elite teams don’t need to spend the money or wait for someone else to does these things; it is just done when it needs to be done.
  • An authentic teammate has a service mentality and actively takes care of his teammates. The power of the team comes from all teammates looking after each other and serving each other. The links in the chain are reinforced and greased daily when all teammates act in service of the others and the team.
  • An authentic teammate trusts his competence. He doesn’t second guess or dilly dally in decisions. This trust in self projects trustworthiness to other teammates and cultivate the team’s collective mental toughness
  • An authentic teammate doesn’t shy from the challenge. He shares risk with his teammates and thereby strengthens the trust relationship. This shared trust becomes the team’s superglue.
  • An authentic teammate has developed their mind with strong situational awareness, mental focus and the ability to remain calm under pressure. In essence he is mentally tough and will not take any action that will diminish the team’s collective toughness. Watching a video of the Mars Spirit and Opportunity NASA – JPL team in action was a great example of this. The entire ready room was poised, focused and calm as they performed a near impossible task of landing a vehicle safely on a planet far from home.
  • An authentic teammate is decisive and those decisions are grounded in thoughtful, experience based reality. They are not reactionary. In essence the teammate must be on a path to self-mastery as discussed in part one of this lesson.
  • An authentic teammate must be ready to assume leadership at any time and is excited when the opportunity arises.

No doubt there are other qualities of great teammates, but this is a good start. Assuming we have the incredible luxury of recruiting, selecting and forming a team with individuals who share these qualities, we must still ensure that the organization is aligned to support those individuals and the team as a whole. How can an organization align to facilitate team mastery?


Course Discussion