Building Strong, Self-Led Teams: Insights from Navy SEALs and Business Leaders

What enables some teams to achieve incredible results while others flounder? That question drove my recent conversation with Chris Mefford and Kyle Bucket, authors of the book “Leadership is Overrated: How the Navy SEALs and Successful Businesses Create Self-Led Teams That Win.” 

Chris serves as Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer at TCW Global, while Kyle is a retired Navy SEAL leader and current business executive. Together, they draw on lessons from military special operations and thriving corporate cultures to illustrate the power of “self-led teams” – groups of empowered individuals who operate without micromanagement.

Over the last few decades, organizations have invested heavily in traditional leadership training. Yet year after year, research shows the majority of employees remain disengaged or dissatisfied with their direct supervisors. Clearly – the status quo isn’t delivering. As Chris put it, either the whole leadership development industry is broken, or the people we label as “leaders” simply aren’t doing their jobs well. 

The root issues, Chris and Kyle explained, stem from misplaced priorities and flawed assumptions. Too often, organizations promote individuals into positional leadership roles based on tenure or relationships rather than actual readiness. Once in management, these subpar leaders feel threatened by team members with greater expertise or experience. In response, they tighten control rather than empower people, strangling innovation and morale.

In contrast, elite teams in the military, government, and business cultivate broad leadership capacity. They leverage the strengths of each member and encourage honest dialogue. Chris and Kyle pointed to a study showing engaged workers care far more about appreciation and recognition than compensation. Yet the average manager shows little interest in fostering personal connections. No wonder people lose motivation.

Cultivating “self-led teams” requires humility and emotional intelligence from leaders. Instead of chasing glory, effective senior managers praise team members publicly and motivate them to take ownership of complex challenges. They admit mistakes readily and accept feedback. Chris and Kyle outlined six key practices of humble leader:

  1. Listen more, talk less. Understanding individuals’ talents, needs and insights is the foundation.
  2. Show appreciation. Recognize unique contributions customized to resonate with each team member. 
  3. Step out of the spotlight. Consistently redirect praise to the group rather than self.
  4. Admit mistakes. Transparently own up to errors and imperfections.  
  5. Don’t micromanage. Empower the team to determine optimal methods and tactics.
  6. Welcome criticism. Actively solicit suggestions and process them with empathy.

Instilling these attitudes and actions takes time, dedication, and intentional role modeling. However, the benefits for organizations are profound. According to research by Gallup, teams in the top quartile in engagement realize 41% less absenteeism, 24% less turnover, and 21% greater productivity than bottom quartile units. Other studies correlate self-led team practices with innovation, customer satisfaction, and overall performance.

For all those reasons, Chris and Kyle advocate integrating self-led philosophies widely, especially in nonprofit institutions like churches where turnover and burnout are high. While financial incentives may be limited, faith-based groups can still foster purpose, flexibility, development opportunities, and information flow. Ultimately, healthy cultures depend far less on structures and formal authority than on the thousands of daily decisions made by managers and staff.

Leadership is indeed overrated – or misdefined. As Chris and Kyle argue persuasively, with the right vision and environment, teams can deliver phenomenal outcomes together even without much traditional top-down supervision. That’s a message worth contemplating for any organization seeking to maximize its potential.

Discussion Questions

  1. The article opens by contrasting some highly effective teams with those that struggle. What are some real-life examples you’ve seen of teams operating at an extremely high or low level? What factors drove that performance?
  2. The authors argue that many employees feel dissatisfied with leadership training and manager relationships in their company. Do you agree or disagree? What have your own experiences been in this area?
  3. What do you think of the “self-led team” concept? Where might it work well or struggle? Would you enjoy working on such a team?
  4. Which of the “six practices” for humble leadership resonated most with you? Which seems most challenging to embody? How could they impact your workplace? 
  5. The article closes by advocating wider adoption of self-led principles in nonprofit organizations like faith groups. Do you think these ideas could help or hurt within a church setting? What potential pitfalls exist?