I would say that the most informative teamwork example I have ever experienced was in boot camp.
I was the leader of the evolution exercise for a whole evening of exercises that were required to complete to graduate boot camp. This is called “Battlestations” in the Navy and while it seems really rigorous and exhausting (and it is), it was a lot of fun.
One of the exercises was to go in with a team of people and extract an incapacitated “sailor” (which was a dummy) from the “burning” (red paint) “ship” (room filled with obstacles). I was the leader of the evolution and while I enjoy and do well in leadership roles, at that time I had a lot to learn about being an actual leader. I do well in non-leadership roles, as well, because I am able to take direction and give feedback whenever it is warranted or asked but I can be very supportive; I find that kind of versatility to be more beneficial to a leader than just someone who enjoys telling everyone what to do and when to do it.
I had a bunch of different people from different walks of life and experiences and in 10 minutes, I had to formulate a plan to get all of said people through the obstacle course, grab the dummy from a smoke-filled room, and get everyone out safely. I designated a number to everyone and had them get in groups of two to keep the numbers low. If a person was not with their “buddy”, they were not to say their number when there was a number check, which I did every time we cleared an obstacle. Since it was smoky in there and there was low visibility, this was very beneficial to keeping track of everyone. Once we got to the room with the dummy, my team started to disenigrate. Why? Because they all started to look for a stretcher. Everyone in the room became obsessed with finding the stretcher and when I tried to call for a number check, no one listened. It was then that I had to reach down within myself, find my “command voice” and tell everyone to shut up. I told two teams to pick up the dummy and get him through safely behind a cover team while the rest of us brought up the rear to the “safety room”.
We put the dummy down and the recruit division commander (RTC – though I suppose most would call him a “drill Sargent”) came out. The proctor of the test also came out and asked immediately, “WHERE THE FUCK IS THE STRETCHER?” I could feel the eyes of all of my teammates boaring into my back.
I stepped forward, because every good leader needs to take accountability for their actions, and I took the blame. I explained, while shaking in my proverbial boots and imagining what it would be like to get kicked out of the Navy unceremoniously for failing Battlestations, why exactly I didn’t feel like a stretcher was a good idea. I told him that while there might have been a stretcher in that scenario, that my team and I could not find one and in a real life situation, there might not even be one so we improvised. I told him it was my responsibility/decision and to punish me, not my team, for it.
He smiled and laughed, shaking his head. “Everyone looks for that fuckin’ stretcher. There was no stretcher. There’s never been a stretcher. Everyone assumes there is one because they think there should be one there. Good job – you broke the boot camp record for completing that evolution correctly.”
There are many experiences that I have derived pride from and this one was one of them. I completed the task and got my team and our “victim” through it safely and correctly. I implemented my own logic. Even when I had a bunch of people literally yelling at me to wait to get a stretcher and calling me stupid after giving the final order, I stuck to my convictions.
Sometimes in a team atmosphere, it is important to listen to your team and take their suggestions and input, but to always remember, when the pressure to listen to everyone feels too great (or in this case, makes no dang sense), you have to have faith in yourself and have courage to stick to your convictions. It is this same principle that I use when I’m in a role where I have to follow a leader: to listen to whomever is in charge (unless they are giving an unlawful order or someone is potentially going to get hurt or killed by following said order).
Leading and following can be very different but it thrives upon a very basic principle: to listen and to know when not to do so. I do not regret listening to my team when they voiced their concerns, even though they were ultimately incorrect. My ability to listen to them made them feel like their opinion mattered – and it did and still does because they were my team and I was responsibile for them. But, exercising my leadership role when I knew the best way to tackle the problem, I used my command voice and my conviction to move them to action when the time for listening was compromising mission accomplishment. As in all things, it is all about timing and making decisions quickly and with purpose.