in: Career & Wealth, Leadership, Podcast

• Last updated: September 30, 2021

Podcast #516: How to Lead an Unstoppable Team

All of us will take on leadership roles at some point in our lives. What can you do to ensure your team performs at its highest level?

My guest today argues that it’s all about caring about the people you lead.
His name is Alden Mills. He’s a former Navy SEAL platoon commander and the founder of Perfect Fitness — the company that makes the Perfect Push-up. He’s also written a couple books, including his latest: Unstoppable Teams. Today on the show, Alden and I discuss why caring about your team is the most important thing you can do as a leader. He walks us through what he calls his CARE loop which involves connecting with your team members on an emotional level, giving them autonomy to make decisions, and helping them progress as individuals. Along the way, Alden shares stories from his experience as a SEAL leader and business owner of how to put these principles into action. 

Show Highlights

  • Why leadership starts with leading yourself 
  • How do you figure out what your strengths are as a leader?
  • The Focus-Feel-Act Formula
  • Why Alden almost failed out of BUD/S
  • The CARE Loop 
  • What it looks like for a leader to connect with their followers 
  • The importance of body language in leadership 
  • The 5 A’s to achievement 
  • The value of caring for your followers 
  • How do you show respect as a leader?
  • 3 questions to ask in the midst of a failure 
  • On empowering people 

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Unstoppable teams by Alden Mills book cover.

Connect With Alden

Alden’s website

Alden on Twitter

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. Now, all of us will take on leadership roles at some point in our lives. What can you do to ensure your team performs at its highest level? Well, my guest today argues that it’s all about caring about the people you lead. His name is Alden Mills, he’s a former navy SEAL platoon commander, a founder of Perfect Fitness, they’re the company that makes the Perfect Pushup, and the author of the book Unstoppable Teams.

Today on the show, Alden and I discuss why caring about your team is the most important thing you can do as a leader. He walks us through what he calls his care loop, which involves connecting with your team members on an emotional level, giving them autonomy to make decisions, and helping them progress as individuals. Along the way, Alden shares stories from his experience as a SEAL leader and business owner of how to put these principles into action. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at

All right, Alden Mills, welcome back to the show.

Alden Mills: It’s great to be back, Brett.

Brett McKay: So, we had you on, I think about four or five years ago, to talk about your book, Be Unstoppable. You got a new book out, it’s called Unstoppable Teams: The Four Essential Actions of High-Performance Leadership. So, your two books have the word unstoppable in it, so I imagine this book is a continuation of the first book. Would that be a correct assumption?

Alden Mills: That is. The actual Be Unstoppable ends with an introduction to the CARE acronym, it’s all about teaming up in the end of the last book, and this one goes deep into building unstoppable teams.

Brett McKay: For those who aren’t familiar with your background, you have a lot of experience working with teams. Can you talk a bit about your background and what got you to write about teamwork and things like that?

Alden Mills: Mm-hmm. My first team experiences started in the sport of rowing, in particular, eight-oared rowing, so eight people in a boat, right? I like to think of that as one of the ultimate team sports where all eight of those blades got to get in the water at the same time. I did eight years of that, where I became the captain in the Naval Academy Heavyweight Crew, and I went on to try out for the Olympic team in sculling.

And then hung my oar up and joined SEAL team, and became a navy SEAL, and led three SEAL platoons over a seven plus year period. And then I started building companies after business school. Now, I’ve just totally shortened about 25 years, there, but have been building companies for the last 20 years, now. And I’ve also done that within the community of building community action group to leading charity groups. So I’ve had experiences in sport, in the military, in the civilian world, and also in the nonprofit world.

Brett McKay: And I think people have seen some of the companies you’ve helped build. Perfect Pushup is one of the … Probably the most prominent one.

Alden Mills: Yeah, without question. It’s Perfect Pushup, right? They don’t even know Perfect Fitness, but the irony of Perfect Pushup, which was part of Perfect Fitness, is there were about 100 different products that we created over about a 13, 14 year period of time. Of course, the company’s still going today, but we sold the company, and I ended up leaving it in 2015.

Brett McKay: All right, so, let’s talk about, dig into the book. What I thought was interesting, before you started even talking about leading teams or being a leader of other people, you started out talking about how you got to focus on leading yourself, first. And you give all these great examples from when you were training to be a SEAL. How did you learn about the importance of working on yourself, taking care of yourself first, leading yourself first, before you can lead others, while you were being a SEAL?

Alden Mills: At the end of the day, building a team is about building relationships, and creating all kinds of different relationships with different personalities. And when you start to create those relationships, the very first thing that you’re going to struggle with is your own self, and in particular, how authentic you’re going to be. Because if you look at the building of a relationship, it’s completely dependent, right out of the gate, on building trust.

And if you’re not being authentic with yourself, people can read into that. And they’ll start to wonder, “Well, who am I really speaking with? Am I speaking with the veneer of Alden, or is this really coming from his heart, and I can trust him, because I know who he is?” And understanding what I call the conversation inside of you, is the first real step in your ability to build unstoppable teams.

Brett McKay: And what do you think is the biggest obstacle people have with that conversation that’s going on in themselves? What prevents them from being authentic, like you’re talking about?

Alden Mills: I think we, especially men, we grow up with this idea that we’ve all got to have this super tough shell on the outside of us, and it’s all about being Mr. Macho, when in fact … I had this wonderful commanding officer of my first SEAL team, and he would often tell me, “Alden, only ever be as tough as the situation dictates.” And I love that thought process. Because that’s a lot about leading, and leading yourself, in particular.

We can be extraordinarily tough on ourselves, and think we’re some kind of tough guy, when actually, people don’t need to be that tough most of the time. Right? They need to let the situation dictate themselves. And so, for many of us, we grow up thinking we’re somebody that we really aren’t, or we’re trying to be somebody that’s not really the fabric of who we were built to be.

And it takes a while for people to kind of peel back the layers of their onion and go, “You know what? Actually, yeah. I like music,” or, “I like to dance,” or, “I like to do …” Whatever your thing is. And it also takes a while to understand who you truly are, as far as your unique superpower. And I spend an entire chapter talking about understanding, what’s your gift? What’s the gift that you can do that you can bring to the table?

Because when you think about building a team, it’s about unlocking everybody’s superpower, everybody’s unique skill set, to harness all of their capabilities and bring it all online at the same time. It’s almost as if you’ve got eight rowers in a boat and every blade represents a different gift that is hitting that water, and we’re all going in the same direction.

Brett McKay: So, how do you go about figuring out what your strengths are as a leader? Because that can be hard, sometime, to get an objective view of yourself. Because you’re inside your head, and you might think something’s a strength, but it might not be, or you think your strength is actually a weakness. So how do you figure that out?

Alden Mills: I do this drill in the book, and I based the drill off of land navigation that we would do in SEAL training. And it’s not unique to SEALs, but that’s where I learned it, and it’s called triangulation. And in triangulation, you need three points to get yourself into some semblance of a position when you’re out in land navigation. And you pick three stationary objects that are usually on a map, and then you shoot these lines, and then you end up creating this little triangle box on a map.

And the reason I offer that up is that it’s pretty similar to what you want to do for a simple way to find your strengths, instead of going through an exhaustive testing process. And the three immovable objects that I recommend people doing are finding three people from three different communities that they trust.

An example, one could be in a family member that is close to you, one could be a professional member that, perhaps, doesn’t work on your team, or maybe works as a colleague in your organization, and then the third one is a friend, somebody who sees you in a more social setting, but has a good feeling, has a good understanding of you.

And ask them the question, “If I were going to save your life with the only one strength that I have, what would it be? How would I do it?” Would somebody say, “Oh, you’re such a motivator. You’d inspire me to get out, and that’s how you’d save my life,” or, “You’re a great writer. You could write my way out of this,” or, “You’re really great at building consensus.” Whatever those things are, but that gives you … You’re after a verb. You’re after a verb of what your strength is.

Is it inspiring? Is it communicating? Is it listening? And figure out what that strength is. Because we all have a strength. We’re not built to do it all. We’re actually built to work with others. We need each other to figure out ways to go and do something greater than any single one of us could do by ourselves.

So it’s a pretty natural process, and you should feel very comfortable knowing, hey, newsflash, we’re not perfect, and what is that one thing that I can really bring to the table? We all have that one thing. So that triangulation process is a simple way to get yourself started to figuring out what you’re really good at.

Brett McKay: I imagine you’d do the same thing for your weaknesses, too. I’ve had that experience where I thought something was a strength, but it was actually a weakness. I had so much ego invested. Like, “No, I got to do this thing, because that’s what I’m supposed to do as leader.” But it would’ve been better if I would’ve just recognized, “No, that’s not my strength. I have a strength somewhere else. I should focus on that.”

Alden Mills: Couldn’t agree with you more, and the greatest teammates are the ones that can hold up the proverbial mirror to you, and say, “This is actually what you’re good at, and what you’re not good at.” And if you can be humble enough, which is a key component to being a leader, then you’ll be able to adapt and recognize where your true strength is, and bring it to the forefront, and help build out an unstoppable team.

Brett McKay: So besides figuring out what your strengths are, and what your weaknesses are, one of the other aspects of leading yourself is taking control over the things that you can control. Particularly your thoughts, your emotions, and your actions. And you created this little formula to help yourself and other people to get a better grasp of these things. It’s the focus, feel, act formula. Can you walk us through that a little bit?

Alden Mills: Yeah. And I will tell you, there is a story that I associate it with, and it’s with our first phase SEAL instructor. And he was a character. Just deep southern accent, and he had … His left butt cheek was blown off by a rocket-propelled grenade in Vietnam. And he brought us all together before we were to take this final test, and he told us, and this final test would allow us to class up and start SEAL training.

And I won’t go through the whole story, but he was like, “Do you know what my job is? My job is to create a conversation. A conversation between here,” he’s pointing at his head, “And here.” He’s pointing at his heart. “A conversation that’s going to lead you to determine how much you’re willing to pay.” And what he’s talking about is how much are we willing to sacrifice to make it through SEAL training.

He goes on, and he talks about the fact that 80% of us only are thinking about being a SEAL on a sunny day. And sure enough, that little conversation that he gives us, that went for about 10, 15 minutes, results in half the class not passing the test. So we start with 122 guys, that, on average, took two years to get there, and 64 of them, seven weeks later, after pre-phase training, fail a test that they had already passed three or four times before.

And the whole thing about SEAL training is getting yourself to focus on what’s most important, on the things that you can control. And I call that conversation the conversation between the whiner and the whisperer, and the whiner is the thing in your head that’s going back and forth, telling you what you can’t do, because it’s so much pain, or getting you out of the comfort zone, and the whiner is that feeling that’s deep down in your heart, saying, “Get up. Try again.” Right? The whisperer keeps going to you, “Come on. Do it again. Do it again.”

Where the whiner is just looking for reasons for you to stay in the comfort zone, to stay protected, to stay safe. But the whisperer’s like, “No, you got to push. You got to go beyond what you think you can, because you’re so much more capable than you realize.” And the large majority of all SEAL training is getting you to focus and starting to appreciate what you can and can’t control.

And so, the focus, feel, act, is really that. Focusing your mind, feeling your emotion of why you’re doing that in the first place, and then taking an action. You see, at the end of the day, focus funnels your energy into taking an action, and that’s what the focus, feel, act formula is really all about.

Brett McKay: And you give this other great story from your time at Bud’s where you almost got medically cut, because you had some issues with your lungs.

Alden Mills: Yeah, that’s true. Yes. Yeah, about … Are you asking me to tell that story?

Brett McKay: Yeah. Tell that story. And this is an example of you using that sort of formula to help you overcome that.

Alden Mills: So, I’m not particularly proud of this, but I was diagnosed as an asthmatic at the ripe old age of 12, and by the time I showed up at Bud’s, it was 10 years later, I was 22, and I had been taking asthma medication for 10 years. I had been kind of squirreling it away in the naval academy, and by the time I had gotten to Bud’s, I was pretty good at hiding taking this pill.

And the pill was this Theo-Dur medication that I had created this crutch in my head, realized like, “Okay, I need that, that will keep my lungs clear while I go through this.” What ends up happening in second phase, [inaudible] three mile swim, my lungs fill [inaudible] blood, and I end up getting pulled out of the swim, and they bring me into medical. They take a bunch of blood tests. I’m now removed from the class. And they look at me, and they’re like, “You are taking some kind of medication. What are you taking? You’re an asthmatic.”

And I told them what I’d been taking, they’re like, “Yep. You’re out. You’re getting a medical drop.” And I said, “You know what? I’m really not an asthmatic. I’ve just been taking it because I thought it would help me get through the training, and keep my lungs clear.” We all look for a crutch of some sort when you’re going through that.

And they said, “We’re giving you an out. Don’t you understand? You made it through hell week. You’re halfway through training. You shouldn’t have even made it this far. Be proud of that. You can go home with your head wrung high that you got medically dropped, you didn’t quit.” And they were giving me all these reasons, these outs.

And there was this moment of like, “Wow. That’s true, I could do that. Okay, that’s a way to get around that.” Because I was really, I’d built up this wild outcome of having to go back to my hometown and tell these people that I quit, and they would go, “I told you so. I knew you couldn’t have made it.”

And what I ended up doing was telling them, “You know what? No. I’m going to take my chances. I don’t need this medication,” and they’re like, “Oh, really? Okay. We’re going to pull you out of the class, we’re going to put you through the methacholine challenge. We’re going to ship you over to San Diego Balboa Hospital, put you in a box, and we’re going to pump mist in there, and we’re going to watch your lungs freeze up.”

Not a joyous moment. And I end up passing the test, but I also made the decision that I had to stop taking that medication. And I really ended up saying to myself, “Okay, if I can’t make it through SEAL training without this medication, then maybe this just wasn’t meant to be. But what I’m not going to do is focus on the fact that, oh, gee, I think my lungs are feeling weaker today because I don’t have the medication.”

I flipped the focus to focus just on taking the next steps, taking on, taking the bigger breath, on not focusing on the fact that oh, I don’t have that medication anymore. And that would be an example. And the other thing I built up was the whole element of what I call an outcome account, and an outcome account helps you put in new perspective your emotions, and that’s understanding three important things.

What’s the outcome, who does it impact, and how does that make you feel? And I draw this T, and it’s in the book, and there’s a positive on one side, and there’s a negative on the other side. And when you look at both sides of that equation, the positive, let’s say, making it through SEAL training, versus the negative of making it through SEAL training, which one motivates you more? Which one makes you feel more motivated to make it through?

I’ll be honest with you. It wasn’t the positive. I was more motivated in that particular case by the negative. And I drew up all kinds of what I call outcome movies of what it would be like 40 years from now, bouncing my grandkid on my knee, and telling them, “Don’t do what grandpa did. Don’t quit. Keep going.” I did not want to be the star in that movie.

Brett McKay: All right, so, by getting control, by leading yourself first, you’re now in a position to lead others, right? No one wants to follow someone … If you tell someone on your team, “Hey, this isn’t a big deal, quit running around like your head’s cut off.” If you’re doing that, they’re not going to pay attention to you, and just ignore you. So you got to lead yourself first.

Let’s say, okay, that’s under lockdown, you’re getting that. It’s in control. You got that going. Now, you’re in charge of a team. Let’s go into talking about this care loop you’ve created. So, the first part of the care loop is connect, right. So, what does that look like?

Alden Mills: So, I want to bring out the premise of the care loop first, Brett.

Brett McKay: Sure.

Alden Mills: And a really beautiful way to summarize the whole care loop, I’m going to give two quotations. One is from President Teddy Roosevelt, who said, “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” That is a fantastic mantra. Anybody taking over any kind of group of individuals, which, most things are groups of individuals, not teams.

And the second one, it gets pretty touchy-feely here, is understanding that you have to reach people emotionally, not just mentally, and that’s where that focus, feel, act formula is a key piece of this. You got to have both your mental and emotional focus going on. And the second quotation is from Abraham Lincoln, who would say, “If you want to win a man to your cause, you must first reach his heart, the great high road to his reason.”

So here it is. You got two wonderful leaders a hundred years ago, and they’re both saying, essentially, the same thing. How do you connect with people? And they’re saying you got to connect by showing how much you care. And so the care loop, and I specifically call out a loop, because these four actions that we talk about, connect, achieve, respect, empower, it’s a never-ending cycle of showing people, “I’ve got your back.”

Because the more you can show people that you care for them, and we’re going to get into this, but it’s not about just being touchy-feely, warm and cuddly, and it’s all unicorns and pink bunnies. It’s about getting people to care so they will dare. The more you care, the more they’ll dare. And the dare is pushing them beyond their horizon of what they thought their capabilities are.

So in the case of connect, which is the first portion of the loop, that’s the first thing that happens when you start interacting with others and think about, “Okay, I’m going to take this blob of humans, called a group of individuals, and let’s see if we can’t form this into a team to go get something accomplished.” What’s the point of connecting with somebody? What’s the true goal?

Brett McKay: I think it’s just to collaborate. Do something with them together.

Alden Mills: It is. But the real goal of connecting with others, in every process that we do, even if it were just a handshake, looking somebody in the eye for the first time, is to build a level of trust. Now, you’re not going to build a lot of trust in 10 seconds, but over 10 days, or over 10 weeks, you could really build some trust.

And the way your tools at your disposal to build that trust, which becomes the foundation for people saying, “You know what? I think I’m going to give a little bit more to this group, I like where we’re going, I trust this person, I believe in what that person is saying, because they’re being authentic, and they’re being consistent.” You have three tools. You have your ability for communication, your commitment, and your credibility.

And those three C’s there are the ones that give the integrity, your accountability, your consistency, and showing how much you care about them. And once you start to learn to build that trust rapidly and successfully, you can then move to the next segment of the loop.

Brett McKay: Well, let’s dig into one of these three C’s of the connection, particularly the communication. In your experience leading groups of people, what’s the hardest thing about communication to that group?

Alden Mills: People blow off the importance of body language and tone. If you were to look at communication, it’s broken down into three components at its bare bones basic. There have been studies out there, and they would say communication is broken into body language, which represents roughly 55% of communication.

When somebody comes up and looks at you, are you leaning in? They’re looking at your eyes. Are you looking at them? Are you using your hands, or are your arms crossed, you’re not getting up from your desk, you’re not even looking at them, and your head’s down, saying, “Yeah, what can I help you with? What do you want?”

Right? That immediately sets the tone for somebody coming into your office, if you don’t even greet them and get out from behind the obstacle that’s between them called the desk, or your computer. Tone, they say, represents 38% of somebody’s communication. And tone can show the inflection from, “Do I really care?” Or like, “Yeah, whatever.” And you’re monotone through the whole thing.

You can imagine, just somebody giving two different speeches, but one using vocal variety, and one just being monotone, and they’re just reading from a script. What speaker would you be more interested in listening to?

Brett McKay: Yeah, the one that’s dynamic.

Alden Mills: Exactly. And that’s exactly the same thing with people on a team. And then the third piece are obviously the words, right? And that comes down to about 7%. Now, the rub on that is, okay, great. I’m a great communicator, let’s say, but communication’s only going to get you so far. The next two pieces of it are your commitment and your credibility.

Under credibility, where’s that fall? Your competency. Do you know what you’re talking about, or are you willing to learn? Are you willing to listen to others? Your humility that comes in there. Your commitment. Are you going out, first and foremost, are you asking people to do something that they know you’d be doing as well? Are you rolling up your sleeves and getting in there first? Are you setting that example?

Because remember, as a leader, you’re going to have to take that first step over the care bridge before somebody else starts saying, “Yeah, you know what? Maybe I’ll do a little care back.” And on that note, we are all built to reciprocate with care. If you were to walk through a door of a store, and somebody is right behind you, you hold that door for that somebody. 99 out of 100 times, that somebody will then look behind over their shoulder and see if they should hold the door for somebody else.

But if you didn’t hold that door, they’d probably just walk through and not think anything of it. Some people would just blow it off. They’re living in New York City, they’re just kind of used to doing that. But on average, that’s the kind of … And it’s a super simple example, but we reciprocate with care. We’re wired to do that, unless, of course, we’re psychopaths, and our amygdala and our brain isn’t firing, and we don’t register emotion.

But for everybody else, we reciprocate with care. And the reciprocity of care goes through these actions of connect, achieve, respect, and empower.

Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about that second part, achieve. And you say there are five A’s to achievement. So, why is achieve part of this care aspect, and then walk us through those five A’s of achieve, or some of them, and how that looks when you’re trying to develop that with your team.

Alden Mills: So, remember, and I dedicate another chapter at the end of the book to talk about the phases of going from a group of uninformed individuals up to an unstoppable team. The whole idea of building a team is to accomplish something. That’s the whole thing of why we’re building a team in the first place. Are we trying to put a man on the moon? Are we trying to build an electric car? Are we trying to save the whales, cure cancer?

You call it out. Whatever it is. Something where you need a lot of horsepower, a lot of manpower, a lot of female power to get this across the finish line, to do something above and beyond what no individual could do by themselves. So, achieving is the natural piece of it, but okay, so we’re saying now, “Okay, great. We’ve built this trust. Where are we going?”

And of course, it doesn’t happen so sequentially. A lot of times, you’re like, “Hey. I’m Alden Mills, and I’m building this team, and I’m trying to create a next generation healthcare company.” “Oh, really? What’s that all about?” So what am I doing? I’ve introduced myself, we’re starting to get to know each other, but I’ve also told them, very consistently, I want to grow this next generation healthcare company.

Achieving is setting direction. That’s the goal. And the next generation healthcare company was basically the calling card for building out Perfect Fitness. We didn’t even think of ourselves as a fitness company. We thought of ourselves as a place where people could help take control of their bodies so they could take control of their lives. And we thought of that as a next generation healthcare company.

And I maintained consistency for 15 years talking about, that’s what we’re achieving. Now, that’s a long term goal. How are we going to do it? There are five different … And I want to be careful to not let people think of, like, “Okay, first I do this step, and then I do this step.” A lot of these things build upon each other, and they happen sometimes naturally, and sometimes, you’ve got to remind yourself, “Oh, I got to set this direction.”

But as you go through this, one of the key elements of the five A’s, and if you haven’t figured it out, I like using the English language as memory aids, I like the military acronyms because they’re super simple to remember, because I want people to remember these things, I don’t want to make it complicated for them, is understanding that you have to assume that people can do the job. If they’ve gotten through your hiring process, take a step back for a minute and let them attempt to do the job.

Now, you’re going to have another A in there called assessing, and assessing is this ability to check in weekly, monthly, on what’s going great, what’s not going great. And the first A that I kind of skipped over, but I was building on, was you’re aspiring. You’re constantly inspiring people to say, “This is where we’re going.” And then you assume, and then you assess, and then you have to appreciate what’s going on, not just inside the team, but outside the team.

And I don’t just mean appreciate them like, “Hey, you did a great job today.” Appreciate the efforts in their struggles, internally and externally, on how that’s going.

Brett McKay: What does that look like? What’s the difference between internally and externally? What would be an example of internal appreciation as opposed to external appreciation?

Alden Mills: One of the key things that people kind of forget about is that, let’s say you’re coming into work. People have lives outside of work. And actually, a large majority of their life is outside of work. And so, if you’re not taking the time to understand, what are these people, what’s going on at work, or at home for them?

Are they a single parent? Are they dealing with something that is keeping them up at night? Or maybe they’re really distracted at 3:00 o’clock in the afternoon when you’re trying to have a meeting, and they’re on a phone, and you’re like, “Hey, what’s going on here?” And that single parent looks at you and said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I just need to know if my kids are getting picked up or not.”

And at that point, you’re like, “You know what? We don’t have to do meetings at 3:00 o’clock. Let’s do them at 1:00 o’clock, and you take care of dealing with that.” If you were to do something just as simple as that, you know how much of a change that is for somebody who’s like, “Oh my God, that person really cared about me and what’s going on at home.” They’re going to spend more time trying to help you out. Right?

Brett McKay: Yeah. No, for sure.

Alden Mills: And the other piece of this, and I did this with every SEAL platoon, I did it with everybody that was a direct report in any of the businesses that I’ve built or worked with, is understanding their one, three, and five year goals. I want to know what they’re thinking about. I want to know what they were striving for. I would ask them, even, in the interview process, “Hey, so, where do you want to be in five years?”

I wouldn’t go through all one, three, and five, in a five year process, but I want to be a part of showing them, “I’m here to help you. I’m actually here to serve you.” You’ll see many times in the book, I will talk about, “To lead is to serve, and to serve is to care.”

And another key piece of the achievement process is there are going to be times when people fail. They’re going to fail miserably, and that other A is assuring them that we’re making this progress, showing them we made this progress, picking them back up to [inaudible] keep going. Because we’re all human. We will all make mistakes, and building out a team where everybody has your back is the quintessential component to creating a high-performance team.

Brett McKay: I love that. I’ve noticed the appreciate part is something, whenever I’ve been in groups, and there’s been a leader that goes out of their way to show their appreciation in the ways that you talked about, as well, sort of the subtle ways that you overlook, yeah, it does motivate you more to work for them.

I think you talk about this in the book, too, there’s studies showing that most people at work today, they feel disengaged with their work, and they’d rather … They’ve done studies where they’d say, people say they would rather have just someone say, “You’re doing a great job,” as opposed to more money. People want to feel like what they’re doing matters.

Alden Mills: Without question. And understanding, I use an example that’s probably been used quite a bit over the years, but President Kennedy walking through the halls of NASA, inspecting it back in 1962, and he goes up to this young man who’s a janitor, who’s mopping the floor, and he looks at the janitor, and he goes, “Hey, tell me, what are you doing?”

And the janitor looks up and he goes, “Oh, hello, Mr. President. I’m helping put a man on the moon.” Leaders will connect a purpose all the way up and down the chain, where everybody feels like they’re a part of the team.

Brett McKay: And again, it’s that emotional connection. You’re not trying to get people intellectually. You’re trying to get to them emotionally.

Alden Mills: Correct.

Brett McKay: Okay, well, let’s move onto that next part of the care loop, which is respect. How can we show respect as leaders of teams?

Alden Mills: Most groups get to the high functioning group, which is connect and achieve. That’s where it ends, right there. The third piece starts to transition you from a group to a team, and that’s respect. And it’s not respect in the kind of gangster form of, “Oh, man, you’ve got to respect me,” or the CEO that walks in and goes, “Well, I’m the CEO, now, so you must, you do what I say. You work for me.”

No, respect, and the goal of respect, is actual mutual respect, and its goal is for contribution. The whole idea of creating a mutually respectful environment is everyone has the courage and interest to raise their hand and say, “I have a better idea.” That’s the real goal of respect, is to get contributors contributing.

But they’re not going to do it if they don’t feel that their point of view, their idea, will even be heard, let alone respected enough to say, “Let’s check that out. That might be the solution to our problems.” And a lot of leaders forget that you can get respect one of two ways, but there’s only one that matters.

The first way is through authority, a position of authority. You’ve just been promoted to VP, congratulations. Or you’ve made the C-level. Oh, now you got lots of respect, right? No, maybe for 10 seconds, 10 minutes. Maybe for some underling, who doesn’t know you from Adam, but sees the word C in front of your name as the title, like, “Oh, I need to respect that person.”

But the moment you start opening your mouth, moving your body, making these decisions, they’re going to make a decision if they really respect you on your actions. Authority or actions, you want actions for respect. And then the next piece is recognizing that.

Brett McKay: Well, I was going to say, you talk about sort of this dichotomy between authority and actions by talking about leading volunteers. I know, in my experience, firsthand, when I’m leading a team of volunteers for a nonprofit, or as a church, or a civic group, the way you lead is a lot different, because you realize these people are just volunteers. They don’t have to be here.

They’re taking away time from their family, from their personal time to be here, so I got to be very respectful, and show that I’m in on this together, that I don’t think I’m better than them, that I’m going to roll up my sleeves and do the work. But you make the point that when, at a job, people don’t have to be at the job, either. They can just quit. They don’t need the job.

So why not lead the same way as you would lead a group of adults or kids at a boy scout troop the same way you would lead at your workplace?

Alden Mills: I couldn’t agree with you more. And that’s what we talk about in the book, is leading as if they were all volunteers. And it’s certainly, in this high employment rate that we have, everybody’s a volunteer. Right? It’s the same thing in SEAL team. We’re all volunteers. I’ve watched SEALs go, “You know what? I’m done. I don’t want to do this mission.” Take their trident off and leave. All of special forces, everybody in the military, is a volunteer.

Now, they may have some obligations to continue to serve, but they don’t have to continue to serve on the front line. Of course, you want them to make that decision before you’re out on the battlefield, but the same thing goes when you’re talking about working in a community action group, or with your church, or your school. They’re all volunteers, too. They’re doing it because they’re emotionally driven to be apart of something that they think is important to them.

It’s the same thing at work, and if somebody’s just skipping around from one place to the next, it’s because they’re not emotionally connected. They’re only mentally connected, and they think, “Well, it’s just my bank account. I’ll just work with that.” But the moment you create a team, and make them feel part of a tribe, make them feel like they’re [inaudible] family, it doesn’t really matter how much you pay them or what kind of benefits you offer. The greatest benefits they have are being emotionally part of a family, a team, a tribe.

Brett McKay: And another part of this respect part of the care loop that you talk about is when people on your team mess up. That can be an uncomfortable situation for both the leader and the legs, it’s just an uncomfortable thing. But you said that should actually … It shouldn’t be that way.

And as a leader, you have the responsibility to show respect and create that culture of respect, so that when someone messes up, instead of it being a moment of just making them feel terrible, you use it as a moment where everyone learns together. And then you walk through these three questions that you can sort of use on the fly as you’re dealing with that situation. Can you talk about that a bit?

Alden Mills: Yeah. So, let me just say, I use a couple of really great examples. I was fired up about Boston Children’s Hospital that I’ve spent some time with, and they spent a massive amount of their time. By the way, this is a hospital that has won top hospital, pediatric hospital, for like 30 years in a row. Eight out of 10 of their divisions have ranked in the top two out of the top 10. It’s a remarkable place.

And what they do is they create such an area of respect that anybody and everybody is encouraged to raise their hand and say, “I’ve made a mistake.” And that’s the whole key of respect, is getting people to willingly raise their hand and say, “I’ve made a mistake. Here’s what happened. This is what I was trying to achieve, and here’s what I’m going to do about it.”

Those are the questions. And the more you can get people to self-appoint them, to self-describe, like, “Hey, I made this mistake,” or self-report, “I’ve made this mistake, and this is what I was trying to do. This is what happened, and here’s what I’m going to do about it.” Then it’s not a mistake anymore, right? We’ve learned from it, [inaudible] great.

In SEAL team, we would say, “If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough.” And we also used this other term all the time, this saying of, “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.” Same thing with launching a product. Same thing with building a world-beating new idea and bringing it to reality. You got to work your ass off. And you’re going to make a whole bunch of mistakes. Right?

You’ve heard that term before, “Let’s fail fast.” But let’s fail fast and know why we failed, and let’s try it a different way. And no one should be ashamed. If they’re feeling ashamed of making the mistake, then you don’t have enough respect built into the equation. And the first person that should be raising their hand and saying, “Oh, look at this dumb mistake I just made,” is who?

Brett McKay: The leader.

Alden Mills: Amen.

Brett McKay: What I love about these three questions, we’ve been talking about how, as a leader, you’re supposed to connect with the emotions. But these three questions, they’re interesting, because they actually diffuse those negative emotions. It gets you out of those negative emotions which can start making you think irrationally and cause you to make more mistakes, and by just asking these three questions, like what happened? What were you trying to achieve? What were you going to do about it?

It just takes out the emotion completely, so you make better decisions. And the interesting thing is, by intellectualizing the mistake process, you actually can connect more with the people you lead on an emotional level.

Alden Mills: Exactly. And let’s not forget, that’s great that you had that conversation with that one person, but people should feel really comfortable to spread that word. “Hey, this is what I was trying to do, this is what happened, and here’s what I’m going to do about it.” And let people know, because the whole idea is to try and reduce the number of mistakes that are made, or at least repeat mistakes. That’s what we don’t want to have happen. Keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about that last part of the care loop, the E, which is empower. What do you mean by empowering those you lead?

Alden Mills: So, at the end of the day, that completes the loop. When you get to empowering, that means we’re building and getting people to think like owners. The whole goal of empowering somebody is getting them to saying, “I own this. This is all about me, I’m taking responsibility.” And of course, empowering also means you’re giving them the authority and the responsibility together. You don’t want to give them the responsibility and not the authority.

And here’s the irony of empowering. Here it is, you’ve just gotten your promotion to that level that you’ve been working at for five years, whatever that new milestone is. And then you’re going to spend the rest of your time at that new senior level of power giving it away. Thoughtfully, but that’s what you’re really doing. Yes, I’m now the CEO. Well, that’s terrific. Now, give it all away.

And give it all away, and what I mean by that is, raise everybody else up. Because when you start to do that, and really empower people through what I call, surprise, three E’s, through educating, enabling, and engaging with them, and helping them succeed, then they are going to give you the best power back. And that power is gratitude. They’re going to be so grateful that you helped them succeed that they are only going to help you succeed more.

But you’ll just keep giving. You’ll keep empowering. You’ll keep empowering by enclosing the experience gap, by saying, “Hey, here’s what I’ve learned. I want you to stand on my shoulders and go beyond what I was able to do,” and what will happen during this team process is that people will spin out of the team, right?

Every year, you look at a sports team, it’s not the same team, most of the time, as it was the year before. Some people will spin out, others will come on. But a lot of people will spin out into different teams within your organization, but they’ll take that care loop and it will start all over again.

They’ll spin out after they’ve been empowered, they’ve succeeded, they’re like, “We did this, this is great.” Now, they’re going to go out, and they’re going to start connecting with new people, they’ll start achieving, building respect, empowering them, and the loop just keeps going.

Brett McKay: I love this. And I want to reiterate the point that you’ve made throughout the books. This isn’t just a linear step by step thing that you’re going, first you do connect, and then achieve. This is going on all at the same time in a perpetual cycle, so don’t think of it as a line, think of it as a circle.

Alden Mills: And important to note, this isn’t a clean process. This is human emotion. This is building relationships. Relationships where there’s such a high level of trust that they will be willing to dare greatly. And that is like sausage making, right? It’s messy. It’s not perfect. This is very imperfect.

But what I’m doing is offering up this framework, these guidelines, these actions, to say, “Hey, here are the fundamentals. You’ll adapt them to make them your way, to do it your authentic way, but don’t ever forget, it will still always be based, the team is nothing more than a reflection of its leader. So be true to yourself, because faking it can get really exhausting over time, and they’ll see through it, anyhow.”

Brett McKay: Well, Alden, where do people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Alden Mills: They can find me on my website at Alden, A-L-D-E-N, hyphen, Mills, M-I-L-L-S, dot community. That’s And they can find Unstoppable Teams at pretty much all your local bookstores and

Brett McKay: Well, Alden Mills, thanks for this time. It’s been a pleasure.

Alden Mills: It’s been an honor. Keep inspiring. I love it, Brett.

Brett McKay: Will do, thank you. My guest today was Alden Mills. He’s the author of the book Unstoppable Teams. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website, Also check out our show notes at You can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

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