Special Forces, Entrepreneurship – Team First, Always
by E.M. Burlingame
Though I played a year of football in high school, for the most part those sports I participated in growing up were solitary, distance running, skiing and later triathlons. Later in life this led me to approach all endeavours, whether business, personal or athletic, as individual sports to be accomplished through substantial personal dedication and effort almost solely. This mindset carried with me through my first two Silicon Valley startups and later as an analyst and investment advisor. In the good times it worked well. However, when things got hard, as they always do, this individual effort mindset became a great hindrance to success.
Unfortunately this same mindset went with me into Special Forces, where it caused considerable difficulties and on more than one occasion nearly ended my pursuit of becoming a Green Beret, both in the Qualification course and after. It was not that I was antisocial or unwilling to contribute to the success of the team, quite the contrary. Where the problem resided was in my believing that what I was striving for was personal progress and development leading to a greater personal contribution level rather than the progress and development of the team as a whole.
It was a very long and painful lesson to learn that nothing we do is individual, that there are no successes but through a combined effort of a team. In truth all successes are only realized through complex webs of collaborative relationships. More precisely, working as an integral part of a team. Now that I am back in the private sector analyzing startup teams and leading my own team of highly qualified individuals I owe a substantial debt to the uncomfortable lessons earned during Special Forces Selection, the Q Course and my years on an Operational Detachment Alpha after.
Following are five of the more critical teamwork lessons learned from becoming and serving as a Green Beret:
- Team First, Always – While we cannot go through life without self-improvement and while we must take care of ourselves, this is only accomplished in the context of the improvement and sustainment of the team you belong to and its needs and objectives. Regardless your position on the team, your authority or the purpose of the team. The progress and improvement of the team comes first, always;
- Your Success is Not Your Own – The most successful individuals, the most influential and contributory are those who realize their real value is not oriented inwards but is garnered solely through being a great teammate, through the contributions made to the team and its members individually and in whole. In fact, individual success is only achieved through collective effort, whether obvious, indirect or a combination of;
- The Team’s Needs are Not Your needs – It doesn’t matter how correct you are and how wrong the team collectively may be, the needs of the team are what the majority of the team believes them to be, even at times when at odds with what is needed for overall success. This holds equally true whether the team is ultimately leading to success or failure. Meaning, contribute maximally and regardless what the final outcome you will gain individually. And perhaps the hardest lesson of all;
- You are Not Who You Think You Are – Perhaps the single greatest lesson learned is our own perception of ourselves and what we are capable of and will contribute means almost nothing to the team. The team alone will assess who you are and what you can and will contribute to the team, and this will change with time and requirements. And at times, what the team needs and will allow is at direct odds with your personal development and career objectives. Which leads to the final lesson; and
- Success is Only Realized By-With-Through Others – At times the team is correct and at times not, with critical course changes only realized through the combined efforts of multiple teammates. Teams at times get caught up in group think oriented around incorrect assumptions leading to poor course of action development. Changing these assumptions requires working with each individual on the team, creating consensus with many different points of view, some of which will be antagonistic and may even not like you so much.
These lessons apply equally well in the private sector and expand far beyond your immediate team to the greater business network your company belongs to and the team these external relationships reflect. This is no more true than with your investors, who are absolutely an integral part of your team.
It is natural for startup teams to develop an adversarial relationship with their investors. I’ve done it quite unintentionally myself. Till an investor taught me a painful lesson I have never forgotten, that he and his firm were integral teammates, critical to our eventual success. A lesson I learned through withdrawn financial supports leading to business failure, supports our investors would have be willing to extend had we not developed an us-vs-them relationship, had we taken into account the needs of all of our teammates.
In its most simple form, the lesson learned from Special Forces is, life and business are a team sport, treat them accordingly. Be a solid teammate and you will ultimately know your own success. Perhaps far greater than you could have individually foreseen.