The world is full of extreme analogues, those things that are like us, but more extreme. If you’re smart, you can figure out how to use them. We use them all the time in the consumer software and technology world when we’re trying to solve problems or build new products. The trick is to find a more extreme version of the problem you’re trying to solve that someone else has already solved well. It helps you to learn quickly what others had to get perfect in order to solve it. By looking to the extreme outer limits of what you could be, you jumpstart your own development on what’s already known so you can focus more time and energy on solving what’s unique about your problem. There should, after all, be something unique about your problem. Otherwise, it’s already been solved and you should move on to solving something else
If you’re trying to create a talent selection and hiring process for your firm, you might take a look at how the NFL selects its players. It’s a similar problem, selecting humans that need to perform. But it’s extreme. They only get six picks a year, they pay them millions, they’re 22 years old and haven’t played a down in the pros in their life. So they have to make huge talent decisions in a world where the variation in outcomes is staggering. Think Peyton Manning verses Ryan Leaf. On draft day, that choice was a toss-up. Twenty years later, the outcomes made one franchise and sunk another.
If you follow that extreme analogue all the way through, you’ll see that those teams have adapted to solve for that variation risk by building massive scouting operations and executing an over-the-top annual physical assessment process called the “combine”. Both represent unreasonable investments to solve for acute variations in outcomes. You won’t do that. But it shines a bright light on why your much easier process of finding corporate managers by reviewing a self-written resume and having an hour long interview with canned questions so frequently yields poor outcomes. The answer is because you’re not observing any of their work or talent in person the way the NFL insists they do before they make a selection. You’re simply asking candidates to tell you about it. With a little creativity, changing that is easy. And it yields results.
Extreme analogues are everywhere. Pilots need to be lucid and aware to the extreme. So they have obtuse rules about how often they can fly, sleep or drink alcohol. If you need to be lucid and aware and you don’t have any rules like that, expect bad outcomes. Fire departments need fast response times to the extreme. So they have a work schedule where they literally live at work when they work. If you need fast response times, and there’s nothing in how you schedule your staff that reflects it, expect poor outcomes.
You get the point.
The world I spent the first part of my professional life in, Naval Special Warfare, SEALs, SWCCs and more, (I was one of the more for 11 years) is an extreme analogue for high risk missions. Which is just another name for doing something extremely dynamic and dangerous, that absolutely cannot go wrong. When you look at that group through the lens of the extreme analogue, it’s pretty easy to see what sticks out first. For their core members, they value toughness, both physical and mental. So they have an extreme vetting process that weeds out four out of five of them before they even start. It’s a massive, inefficient investment. But they do it because they have to.
For their operators, they uncompromisingly insist that their skill in their craft is better than anything they will ever face on the battlefield. So they hold their investment in training sacred. No one in the world trains better or more than Naval Special Warfare at anything. It takes a long time to make a SEAL or a Boat Guy. It’s also inefficient. But it’s non-negotiable.
The last thing, what they ask of their leaders, is a little less obvious though. It’s accountability.
If you’re looking for an extreme analogue for leadership, Naval Special Warfare is probably the best place in the world to look. And if you want to understand what they over- manage, what they insist on at an unreasonable level, it’s accountability.
When I was a 27-year old lieutenant, on my first tour in that community, I was the officer in charge of a small detachment operating independently a thousand miles away from the next U.S. military presence. I had weapons, classified material and communications gear in which individual items cost more than I made in a year. We did things with that stuff that, if done wrong, would have ended up on the front page of the New York Times. When irrationally high levels of responsibility are combined with irrationally low levels of direct senior oversight, the thing that was demanded of me, perhaps even more than tactical proficiency, was accountability. And when you take some time to look at what accountability actually meant, besides the chest thumping buzz word that we throw around, it’s not sexy. It’s painful.
For every one hour I spent doing anything interesting that might make it into a cool recruiting video or a best-selling memoir, I spent ten doing things like counting weapons and doing serialized inventory of my equipment. I had to write endless updates on operational status and activities to my chain of command. I signed off on every expense our detachment had. I approved every government credit card transaction. I reviewed the maintenance logs and filled out operational risk management matrixes nearly every time we did anything at all. Every mission that was planned went through a rigorous mission planning process with a sign off list as long as your arm. And then, when all that was done several times over, I got to put on my cool guy gear and go out and operate for a bit.
Like I said, that level of accountability isn’t sexy.
The other painful truth was that things still went terribly wrong sometimes. It’s simply a part of the experience. If you do high risk stuff, things go wrong. And nowhere is the extreme analogue of leadership more clear, then what happens when it does. What happens when accountability is the most important aspect of your job and something goes wrong?
The answer is simple. You do whatever you have to do to ensure the world knows that it’s your fault.
Not because you want to be a martyr and fall on your own sword. But because that’s the only way to ensure that it won’t happen, at least in exactly the same way, again. Because when it’s your fault, you can fix the problem.
Here’s what that looks like. Investigations are immediate, formal and thorough. You appoint people to do them and insist that they speak for you, as the leader in their mission to uncover the truth. If they find that someone blatantly disobeyed guidance, then you accept responsibility for trusting that individual and you take corrective action. If you find out that the guidance given from above was unclear, you take the responsibility for issuing your own that clarifies it. If the mission went horribly wrong despite doing everything right, then it was a bad mission and you shouldn’t have executed it the way you did.
Starting to get the point? You own it. All of it. And there’s no way out alive. That’s what obtuse levels of accountability look like.
I’m not naive. I know it doesn’t always go down like that. I know there are varying degrees to which people actually carry that out. But what I also know is that when the expectation is that high, the instances where you’ve leapt all the way down to the zero accountability we see so commonly in the world today, simply don’t happen.
Which brings us to a pretty important conclusion. The thing that the extreme leaders of the world deliver is extreme accountability. And if you’re immediately thinking about the current state of our government, the company you work for or anything else that may stick out to you as particularly ineffective right now, and you’re wondering why it’s not, getting better, think about the lesson you can learn from that particular extreme analogue. And then look at the contrast between a life lived where accountability is the point and a life lived where the point is to never, ever admit fault. You can change the names and the faces and the styles. But if you’re looking for leadership, and you’re expecting it to come without accountability, you should expect poor outcomes.
Nothing’s going to get better. Not until you hear someone say, “Good news folks. This one’s on me.”