in: Career & Wealth, Leadership, Podcast

• Last updated: September 24, 2023

Podcast #923: Leadership Is Overrated

When an organization wants to get more productive and better reach its goals, it typically looks to retool its leadership, trying to find lone figures who can apply more effective top-down control. But my guest says there’s a much more effective strategy for getting things done: creating and empowering teams of self-starters.

Kyle Buckett is a retired Navy SEAL, an executive consultant, and the co-author of
Leadership Is Overrated: How the Navy SEALs (and Successful Businesses) Create Self-Leading Teams That Win. Today on the show, Kyle first unpacks the problems with the conventional model of leadership. He then explains what the self-led team-oriented model looks like and some of the ways to create effective self-led teams, including “killing the leader” and establishing a ritual-laden culture. We also talk about the role a leader can still play in an organization. Along the way, Kyle shares stories both from history and his experience as a SEAL that illustrate why self-led teams are so effective at getting things done.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. When an organization wants to get more productive and better reach its goals, it typically looks to retool its leadership, trying to find lone figures who can apply more effective top-down control, but my guest says there’s a much more effective strategy for getting things done, creating and empowering teams of self-starters. Kyle Buckett is a retired Navy SEAL, an Executive Consultant, and the co-author of Leadership Is Overrated: How the Navy Seals and Successful Businesses Create Self-Leading Teams That Win.

Today in the show, Kyle first impacts the problems with the conventional model of leadership, he then explains what the self-led team-oriented model looks like and some of the ways to create effective self-led teams, including killing the leader and establishing a ritual-laden culture. We also talk about the role a leader can still play in an organization. Along the way, Kyle share stories both from history and his experience as a SEAL that illustrate why self-led teams are so effective at getting things done. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at Alright, Kyle Buckett, welcome to the show.

Kyle Buckett: Thanks for having me, Brett.

Brett McKay: So you and your co-author have recently published a book with a provocative title. When I saw the title, I was like, “I gotta talk to this guy.” Leadership Is Overrated. Before we talk about the book, let’s talk about your background ’cause I think it’ll help our listeners understand where you’re coming from with this idea.

Kyle Buckett: Sure. Well, back in high school, I really wanted to serve our country in a unique way, in an elite way, and I grew up right across the river from West Point, so what I had access to in high school was going to Army games, football games, basketball games, hockey games, and I didn’t have any Navy in my background other than my grandfathers who had served, but they wouldn’t talk about it that much. So the only thing I really had access to was the Army, and this is the 90s, and Chuck Norris movies were awesome. I fell in love with Chuck Norris and I wanted to be Chuck Norris. And so one day I’m like, in my senior year of high school, I’m 17, and my dad comes home and he has this book and he’s like, “Hey man, there’s this group called Navy SEALs. You love being in the water, you love being around lakes, rivers, oceans, pools, you just love the water, you’re a water man through and through, you were actually swimming before you were walking and you love the water and you should check these guys out. I know you wanna join the Army, but you should really check this out.”

Dude, I stayed up till five o’clock in the morning that night reading the entire book, I think it was Dick Marcinko’s Red Team book. And I was like, “I wanna do that. That’s what I’m gonna do.” So I’m 17 at the time, my parents would not sign on the dotted line for me to join because as a minor, you need parental consent. And so literally, Brett, the morning of my 18th birthday, I’m sitting on the steps of the Navy recruiter’s office to sign the dotted line. I’m like, “I need to be a Navy SEAL. That’s what I wanna do.” So I signed the dotted line and 20 years later and I retired from a wonderful career. And I got to do a lot of fun stuff during those 20 years, I got to do everything from doing some single-man lone operations on three separate continents all the way up to running, what I like to joke and kid about, which is the world’s most elite university, where we train Navy SEALs to be snipers, to be communicators, to be free fall tacticians, to be free fall jump masters, intelligence courses, and on and on and on.

It’s an awesome school, and I’m very proud of that. And then my largest operation was leading tactically an 800-man Marine element through Southern Afghanistan in Korangal Valley, and then a lot of things in between, being part of the team that initially implemented in the early 2000s Palantir into SOCOM, bringing new weaponry to the force, getting to consult on other technologies, both classified and unclassified, so a lot of things in between. And what a lot of people don’t know, it’s really interesting, the Navy SEALs you see on TV, you see on the movies as running and gunning and blowing stuff up, which we obviously do do that, but we also run the enterprise, which is really interesting. We don’t really talk about it that much, but I find it pretty fascinating, especially now that I’m retired and I moved on and I’ve been in corporate America for almost five years now. And it’s pretty interesting to me that we don’t really talk about that because it translates pretty well.

And what I mean by that, let me just real quickly, is we did a big military construction project where we moved the SEAL teams from one area to seven miles away in San Diego, California. That’s a $1.6 billion military construction project. There’s no green men running around doing this, it’s us, we’re overseeing the design, we’re working with the GCs, we’re working the sub-vendors, we’re working through the entire process to make sure everything goes smooth, we’re dealing with environmental impacts to the land and so on and on and on. It’s not sexy. Everyone wants to talk about the Navy SEAL stuff, and I get it. My point is, is that through that career, which I’m forever grateful for the Navy and all it did for me and for others, you get to see a whole world of execution, operations, supply chain, global logistics, you name it. So it’s pretty exciting. So anyway, needless to say, I became a student of organizational culture, what you can do to build and improve and design a culture, and then what you can do to scale it and sustain it, but yeah, that’s a little bit of my background.

Brett McKay: So what you do in this book is you help, along with your co-author, help readers understand the culture that’s in the SEALs teams of what you call self-leadership, and we’re gonna talk about what that is exactly, but let’s talk about this title of this book, Leadership Is Overrated, what’s wrong with the conventional way we think about leadership, you think?

Kyle Buckett: Well, a couple of things. I’ll give you kind of like my top five. I think a lack of adaptability, there’s rapid changes in tech, in the markets, in global dynamics, and they require, especially nowadays, quick adaptability. And in my opinion, I think there’s no one better than the Navy SEALs in reacting quickly and being able to adapt. And a top-down leadership approach can really hinder agility as decisions may take longer to flow through the hierarchy, whereas when you have self-led teams, especially in the SEAL team situation, as a ground force commander, you’re overseeing an entire operation, but a fire team, which is an element of four individuals, four to six individuals might be dealing with a situation and they just have to take matters into their own hands.

And so when you have that conventional way of thinking, it really makes it challenging to have adaptability and make rapid changes in the moment. And nowadays, it’s 2023 as we’re recording this, and the markets are moving so fast, global dynamics are shifting so fast, we all just lived through COVID, how much changed so fast. So the lack of adaptability is a big one for me, and because of that, that kind of trickles into my next point, which is innovation suppression. Hierarchal structures might really stifle innovation and creative thinking, and when you have ideas from lower level teams or individuals, they might not reach the top or be acted upon properly. My next point is employee engagement, command and control style can really lead to disengagement and reduced morale amongst your employees as they might really feel undervalued and disempowered.

Limited ownership is another one. An hourly employee, for example, might not take full ownership of their work when decisions are solely made at the top, and this can really impact accountability and performance. Slow communication is another big one, information can get distorted, it might delay or it moves through layers of management leading to misalignment and misunderstanding. And then at the end of the day, risk adversion, right? Leaders at the top might hesitate to take calculated risks fearing negative consequences for their position or their reputation. And so all of these things that I just mentioned intertwine and really become challenging for the conventional way we think of leadership. Does that make sense?

Brett McKay: Yeah, that makes sense. And another thing you talk about too that stood out to me is that when we focus on the top-down idea of leadership, it puts too much emphasis on that leader, like he is some sort of hero and that he can change, he can turn a company around. And I’ve read studies before where basically it’s not true, you hire a rock star CEO, he did well in one company, he goes to another company and they think, “Well, this guy did great at that one company, he should turn this other company around.” And then the rock star CEO just, he fumbles, he doesn’t do it, and it’s because they think it’s the leader. The leader plays a role, but when it comes down to it, and we’re gonna talk about today, it’s the culture and it’s the people in that organization.

Kyle Buckett: That’s right. Well said.

Brett McKay: So instead of helping leaders become better leaders, you and the people you work with at Culture Force help people become self-led teams. So what does it mean to be a self-led team?

Kyle Buckett: Well, it means, back to the SEAL analogy, our missions often involve decentralized decision-making, where individuals closest to the situation have the autonomy to make quick and informed choices. So what we preach and what we practice and try to empower teams and leaders to do is, “Hey, have you built in your organization a structure, a decision-making process, whatever you wanna call it, policies, procedures, your organizational structure, etcetera, etcetera, have you built it into the culture and also your structure? I understand there’s legal ramifications for every organization, but have you built it into the organization that the individual closest to the situation has the autonomy to make a quick and informed choice?” And then that goes back to where are you at with training, where are you at with education and on and on and on. But at the end of the day, can this leader at the lowest level make a decision, or is that individual just gonna get hammered because they made a decision and it, “Oh well, we had to have John make the decision. Jane’s not allowed to make the decision, John has to be the person to make the decision.”

And so where we dive into with our teams, our leaders is, “Hey, at what point does this have to go all the way to the top? Can they make a decision here, can they make a decision here?” And it’s interesting because we all take that for granted, sometimes we don’t really deep dive into that, but at what point and where can you make these decisions? Do you have decentralized decision-making, are the groups empowered? Is it a group that’s empowering trust and ownership and responsibility, is it adaptable? Back to what I was saying earlier, and then how does the communication work? Is communication enabled across all team members for a rapid exchange of information and understanding and on and on and on. So it really goes back to, though, at what level can you make a decision?

Brett McKay: And you give an example, it was the Belgian Antarctic expedition to show what a self-led team looks like. This was a ship in 1897, it was The Belgica, and the explorer Roald Amundsen was a part of this crew. What can this expedition teach us about being a self-led team?

Kyle Buckett: So in The Belgica, if you’re not familiar, this was one of the first expeditions to the South Pole, and when they get down there, basically they get stuck in the ice for months on end, and the shipmates, if you will, start developing obviously a slew of issues, depression, anxiety, all of the things start setting in. People start getting sick, including the Captain and Commander. And so the Captain and Commander is bedridden for a month and leading up to before he gets bedridden, basically one of the individuals, and it was the doctor who says, “Hey, we should start eating penguins.” And he’s like, “What? We can’t eat penguins, that’s disgusting.” And the doctor’s like, “No, they’re full of protein. Our men need penguins.” So sure enough, the commander gets sick, his orders of don’t eat penguins kinda now fall flat and the crew starts taking matters into their own hand and they start eating penguins.

And the doctor says, “Hey, start playing board games,” and they start playing board games while they’re dealing with isolation, scurvy and harsh weather, and the morale improves slowly over time, now they’re starting to get fed, they start making fires on the ice and they actually come out of it months later, they start nursing the captain back to full health, and they actually come out of it and make the trip and the journey back home, all because of the team just started taking ownership of the situation and started working together, even though the captain, the leader, was down for the count as you would. And then later on, Roald Amundsen, he becomes very famous for reaching the South Pole, and it’s pretty incredible to hear how that impacted him and what he then went on to do at his next expedition and how he prepared for the next expedition. It was pretty cool.

Brett McKay: Yeah, you did a contrast between Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott. Robert Falcon Scott took the sort of top-down, he thought he knew the best way to do things. And Amundsen, he looked at the teams like, “What do you guys know?” And so I think Falcon Scott, he was like using horses down in the Antarctic for trudging and getting the sleds, and Amundsen was like, “That’s dumb.” Was talking to these Inuit guys, “Let’s use dogs sleds, that’s probably more efficient.” It’s things like that.

Kyle Buckett: Right, right.

Brett McKay: Yeah. You have this chapter that something you guys do in the SEALs is an exercise where you kill the leader, not literally, but it is a training exercise where you kill the leader, and you recommend the groups that you work with they do the same thing with their organization, like do an exercise where you kill the leader, what can killing a leader reveal about a group?

Kyle Buckett: Yeah. So what I mean by that is, we will be doing a training scenario and maybe the SEAL platoon or SEAL troop is taking down a village in a training scenario, or they’re in the middle of the desert and all of a sudden they start taking on enemy fire. And maybe even early or mid-operation, a training cadre will walk over to the troop commander or the troop chief or the platoon commander or the tac lead, and just say, “Hey,” simulating a training situation, “Hey dude, you just took a gunshot to the chest, you have a fatal chest wound. You’re down, you’re out.” And so the platoon or the troop now has to react to the leader is now down, he’s out, okay, and then we get to watch as the next person in the train steps up into that role. The individual who’s now “killed” he gets to sit there and watch and not say anything, just sit there and take notes, and he gets to watch to see how the next guy steps up into that role and how he does.

And it does two things, right? Obviously, it really, really sheds light, a spotlight on how well he, the dead guy, has prepared his replacement. And for both of them, it’s an incredible situation where they now get to go back after the operation or the exercise is done, and they can debrief amongst themselves and kinda do a 360 peer review of each other of, “Hey, how well did I prepare you, replacement, for this position, to step up into this role, to step up into the position, or how well did I not prepare you?” Or on the flip side like, “Hey man, I really thought you were prepared. I thought you were ready for this. I thought we went over this numerous times, obviously, you weren’t prepared, let’s dive back into X, Y and Z, how can I support you? How can I ensure that you’re trained and ready to go if this should ever happen again, or the next time this happens in a training situation,” and on and on and on.

Or many times there’s the great success story too, right? The guy steps up and he crushes it, and he does a phenomenal job, and you’re like, “Oh great, okay, now I’ve already replaced myself, now we can start working on a second individual to start getting ready to be a replacement,” and on and on and on. So it’s really incredible from multiple standpoints on killing the leader, if you will. And so what we talk about is, “Hey, if you’re ready to actually try this, why not just try it on a vacation? Go take a vacation for four or five days and turn your phone off and just stare at the ocean and enjoy life in Mexico or something and see how your organization or your team or your department does without you being accessible for just a couple of days. I think it’s an incredible opportunity to just see what happens, see if you’re ready to do that and see if the next person in line is ready to rise to the occasion.”

Brett McKay: And it’s gonna show if you have a self-led organization.

Kyle Buckett: That’s right.

Brett McKay: And you could apply this as well in a lot of other places besides work, if you belong to a church group, a civic group, you can even do this in your family, like just say… Tell your kids, “You know what, kids, I’m not doing anything.” And let’s see what happens, let’s see if they’re able to keep things going. And you might be surprised, you might find out that you are infact dispensable, which is good, that’s the goal of parenting. You wanna make yourself… They don’t need you anymore at a certain point.

Kyle Buckett: That’s right. We actually have a funny kinda joke around the house right now that I’m trying to practice what I preach, which is, I’ve become the… My kids are still fairly young, they’re five, eight and 10, and my wife, who I love dearly, she’s a rock star, she’s a rock star, but she is technologically challenged, very, very challenged and she wouldn’t mind me saying that. And so I have become… Especially nowadays, where there’s all these devices, I’m the family IT guy sometimes. [laughter] And so I’m trying to remove myself from being that family IT guy.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Okay, so instead of focusing on the leader, what you guys focus on is developing a culture, the groups you are focused on developing their culture.

Kyle Buckett: That’s right.

Brett McKay: So how do you define a culture in a group?

Kyle Buckett: Yeah, so real quickly, what we really focus on is, hey, you have a culture, no matter what. It’s there, it exists. What do you want it to be? Do you want it to be energetic, do you want… Are you striving for a calm environment, are you striving for a knowledge based, whatever it is, it’s… To me, it’s irrelevant what kind of culture you’re desiring to build. What matters though is everything we’ve already talked about, are you gonna empower the self-led teams? Simultaneously, what is the culture that you want to build? And do you have buy-in from your team on set desired culture? Or if you’re one of one, okay, it’s you, right? It’s you, it’s bouncing it off your mentors, it’s doing self-assessments, etcetera, etcetera, but if you do have a team already, it’s, do you have buy-in and what is that desired culture that you’re trying to build?

Okay, once you understand what that is, now let’s define it, let’s put it to words, let’s put it to values, let’s put it to purpose. And then we go, “Okay, now let’s build it.” And we talk about… These are mainly the three sections in our book, is define what you want, then let’s build it and then let’s scale and sustain it. And by working by, through and with your teams, your self-led teams, we believe we have a great recipe to actually do that. Culture really refers to the shared values, beliefs, the norms, behaviors and practices of any group or organization or community, it’s really that collective identity that shapes how people within the group interact or make decisions, back to what we were talking about earlier, like decentralized decision-making processes and how they work together. And culture influences the way that we all perceive our roles, how we communicate the overall atmosphere within the group, and so we talk about the components of really defining it.

Brett McKay: I think an important point you made is that every organization, every group has a culture, even if they are not…

Kyle Buckett: That’s right.

Brett McKay: Proactively creating a culture, like you have a culture, you have a way of doing things that just passes through tacitly, you don’t have to think about it, it’s there.

Kyle Buckett: 100%. So well said Brett, no matter what, you’ve got one, so thinking, “We don’t really have… ” Oh, you’ve got one, trust me. I’ll walk in and feel it in two seconds. A couple of years ago, I think it was 2017-ish, I got a unique two or three days up in Silicon Valley where I went to and spent three hours-ish, two to three hours in some of the following organizations, I went to DropBox, Facebook, Instagram, Oracle, Google, Airbnb, and a couple of others. My point is, I got to feel in a matter of 48 hours all of the cultures. And if you ever have the opportunity to do that, regardless of the name of the company, my point is just go and bounce around a couple of organizations in a matter of two days, you’ll feel what I’m talking about, you’ll feel it, you’ll feel it in two seconds, you’ll feel the different types of culture at those organizations. So my point of it is to you and what you just said, Brett, is no matter what, it’s there, it exists. If you walk to five or six organizations or companies in a matter of a day or two, you’ll feel it, and then you can go back to yours and you’ll feel yours too ’cause it’s there, it’s there.

Brett McKay: All right. So you’re saying if you’re gonna have a culture, you might as well shape it so that it can get stuff done.

Kyle Buckett: That’s right.

Brett McKay: Yeah. And you’ve seen the power of culture in your SEAL career. You can go into a SEAL team and there’s a culture there that people know just what to do to get stuff done and they just fall in line and they do it ’cause that’s what you do.

Kyle Buckett: That’s right. We have an incredible ethos, it’s called the Navy SEAL Ethos, and it goes into in times of war or uncertainty, there’s a special breed of warrior ready to answer our nation’s call, and I won’t cite the entire thing, but at the end of the day, forged by adversity, they stand alongside America’s finest special operators to serve the country, the American people and protect their way of life, and everyone, all of us say the following two sentences, which is, “I am that warrior, and it is a privilege that I must earn my Trident,” which is the Navy SEAL insignia, “I must earn my Trident every day.” And so that’s ingrained from the day one that you sign up to join till even today, ’cause we also say, “I’m never out of the fight, my training is never complete,” and we believe that, we totally believe that.

Every single Navy SEAL, every single Navy SEAL will believe and agrees that their training is never complete. Till the day that we retire, we are non-stop learning and improving, and the training’s never complete and we’re never out of the fight, and we’re trying every single day to earn our SEAL insignia or the Trident, we’re trying to earn that every day by keeping up with the ethos and our creed and our brothers, and being… My late buddy Brad Cavener had an incredible, incredible saying that said, “Lord, let me not prove unworthy of my brothers.” I never wanna be unworthy of standing along shoulder to shoulder of any of my fellow men. That’s powerful, it’s really powerful.

Brett McKay: Yeah. Well, let’s talk about what we can do to develop that culture, so what’s the process look like? How do you figure out what a group’s culture should be so that it becomes the self-led team?

Kyle Buckett: Well, first, like what we’re saying is like, first and foremost, you gotta define it, what do you want it to be? What do you want your values to be, what are your core principles and beliefs, what are gonna be your norms, your unspoken rules and expectations that govern within the group? ‘Cause these norms really define what’s considered acceptable and appropriate in various situations, and what are you gonna allow? What are the behaviors, what are the observable actions and interactions, what are gonna be… And we talk about this at length. What are gonna be the traditions and rituals, like what are gonna be your ceremonies, your repetitive actions, your rituals that hold symbolic meaning within the culture?

I remember years ago, I talked with Garry Ridge, who’s the CEO Chairman of WD-40. And they have an incredible biannual ritual where they basically come together, sit around a fire and write stuff on a note pad, and then whatever that commitment is as an individual, they share it with the team and then they throw it in the fire. And they do it and people love doing that ritual and coming to that camp fire, that bonfire every year. My point is, you don’t have to do WD-40’s ritual, you just do yours, you do what’s symbolic within your culture, within your group, whatever is gonna reinforce the values and creates a sense of identity.

Brett McKay: What sorts of rituals did you have as a SEAL? What did you guys do to keep reinforcing the values you had in your team?

Kyle Buckett: I mean, that’s a good one. We had a bunch. On Fridays would be a lot of times if we are in America, Friday afternoon would be a barbecue, maybe you have some beer, maybe not, but we’d have a barbecue every Friday and sit down and just be with one another before everyone goes and spreads to the winds for the weekend. On deployments, one of my favorite rituals of all time is the AAR, the after action review. So after a long day or a long night, excuse me, the sun’s just coming up ’cause we work at night, the sun’s just coming up, everyone kinda grabs… No one grabs coffee ’cause we’re all gonna go to bed, but after a long night of operating, everyone puts all their gear away, takes care of all the gear, puts everything away, and then we sit down in a circle and we do an AAR, an after action review, where before you walk into that room, you leave all rank, all experience, to a degree, but you leave rank, especially, outside the door.

And what I mean by that is we walk in, we get in, we sit down and we go over the operation before everyone goes to sleep, or everyone goes to go eat some food or whatever, we just sit down, grab a water and we just go through it. And so this is what it would sound like, here’s me, Sam, the tactical lead, and I go, “Hey guys, so here’s what I did wrong, here’s where I jacked up. Everyone learn from my mistakes. We went to this building, we should have went to that building. I went in this room, I should have went left, instead I went right, learn from my mistakes. This is what I did, I read the door wrong, I read the opening wrong, I’ve read the hallway wrong,” whatever it might be, right? And everyone’s sitting there and we’re all just taking notes on our note pads and no one’s casting judgment. In fact, we’re doing the exact opposite, we’re trying to learn from everyone else’s mistakes so that we don’t make the same mistakes, because there’s gonna come a time where that situation is gonna present itself again, and you don’t wanna make that mistake.

So you’re listening intently, you’re not casting judgment and you’re sharing, “Hey, this is what I did, this is when I made a mistake.” No one’s giving anyone too much… Like we’ll josh with each other, we’ll joke with each other, but we’re not giving anyone serious grief, like we’re really trying to just focus on learning from each other, and we’re not reprimanding in that moment, we’re just, “Hey, let’s focus on sharing our mistakes.” And that’s a really powerful moment in time where the senior guy all the way down to the junior guy is at the same level in that moment and just sharing what we could have done better. And then at the end, we’ll talk about what we did do great and give everyone a pat on the back as well.

Brett McKay: Something you talk about too is that in order to have that self-led team, you need to have a group of people who are able to lead themselves. Can you inculcate that in another person or is it something you kind of find through a filtering process?

Kyle Buckett: So our culture in the SEAL teams, I like to call it, it’s a magnet culture, meaning it really draws in those types of individuals who are self-led. And so what I like to focus on is, “Hey, how can you make your team, your organization, a magnetized culture?” Meaning you’re gonna draw in those types of individuals who are self-led who are gonna help improve the culture, how do you make your culture a magnet to the types of individuals that are gonna be driven by the opportunities that you’re giving them? So let me explain a little further. We talk about the different types of ways that individuals are motivated, right?

And many times leaders these days just completely ignore that, and this is hard, it’s simple, but it’s hard, and I get that, but if you never pay attention to it, you’re never gonna be able to address it. So what I’m talking about is every individual is driven by something different, some individuals are driven by compensation, some individuals are driven by time off with their friends and family, some individuals are driven by challenging work that’s meaningful and challenging that allows them to utilize their skills, their knowledge and creativity, some are really motivated by workplace flexibility, “Hey, can I be remote, can I have a job sharing agreement or arrangement?” And that’d be very motivating for some people.

Some people are really, really motivated by recognition and appreciation that they’re valued for their hard work and achievements. The point of when I go through all these is like, everyone is… One of these is number one for you, and one of these is number one for me, and one of these is number one for Jane Doe and John Doe, and on and on and on. My point is, if your culture can feed into those big motivations, you can turn it into a magnet that’s gonna draw the individuals who are now gonna be self-led because they’re driven and they’re motivated by the opportunity and the motivators that you have built into your organization.

Brett McKay: Right. And the SEALs do this, they have this culture that everyone knows about, and they know about the training, BUD/S. And so it’s gonna attract a certain type of person, it’s gonna attractive a guy who’s gonna wake up on his 18th birthday and sit on the stoop of the recruiting office so he could become a SEAL.

Kyle Buckett: That’s right. And we’re not gonna attract the same type of individuals that a hedge fund in Manhattan is gonna attract. Like you’re really, really driven by competitive compensation, well, I’ll be the first one to tell you, the Navy SEALs, you’re not getting paid a lot, right? [laughter]

Brett McKay: Right.

Kyle Buckett: So we’re not gonna attract that type of individual that’s really self-led by, “Hey, I wanna really have a high comp.” But to your point, yeah, purpose and meaning, challenging work, we’re gonna attract those guys in spades.

Brett McKay: We’ve been talking about how leadership is overrated, the top-down command is overrated, but you have a section talking about how leadership is still important, you have to have a leadership position for accountability or legal reasons. In the SEALs, there’s gotta be someone who the buck stops with. So if something goes wrong, they can go to that guy and say, “Hey, what went wrong?” But also you need a leader in an organization to just get the self-led team going in the first place.

Kyle Buckett: That’s right.

Brett McKay: So what role does a single leader play in creating a self-led team?

Kyle Buckett: Being aware and a desire. Being aware of where you’re at, starting on the branch you’re on, and then really it comes back to desire. If you don’t have a desire to make an impact or improve things, it’s just not gonna happen, it just doesn’t… It goes back to, you’re gonna have a culture but is it gonna be a positive one, is it gonna be an empowering one, a trusting one, or is it just gonna become a mess? Is it not gonna be a positive environment, no team collaboration, no education or learning, and all decisions have to keep coming to you and you just get bogged down and bogged down and bogged down with decision paralysis. So it’s really that desire and an awareness to actually do it. And to your point, you can do this at any single level, you can do this at your level with the individuals that are around you. Listen, I was at a grocery store a couple of weeks ago, and the individual was just incredible, you could tell he was… You know how they have those attendees at the self-checkout area, there’s always like one attendee. You know what I mean?

Brett McKay: Right.

Kyle Buckett: And this individual, you could tell this guy was a rock star, and the self-checkout area at a grocery store, which is eight different stations, was just like… You could feel the vibe, the energy, the positivity that this individual was having on all eight people that were just checking out of a grocery store. It was incredible. And I went up to that guy afterwards and I told him, and I gave him a big old pat on the back, my point is, ’cause you can have it at any level.

Brett McKay: You don’t need authority to be a leader that gets a self-led team going.

Kyle Buckett: That’s right.

Brett McKay: I think a lot of times we confuse authority with power, you can have power, but not… And by power, I mean like influence, I’m not talking about… But you can have that influence even if you’re not in a position of authority. You can get the ball rolling.

Kyle Buckett: Yeah. So well said.

Brett McKay: Well, we gotta end this with one of my favorite stories, you talk about the Finnish Army during World War II as a great example of what happens when a group organization becomes self-led. So this is the fight against the Soviet Union, this is like the largest military force at the time, and I think they had, if I remember correctly, like…

Kyle Buckett: Like 200,000.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and the Russians had three times more soldiers than the Finnish, five times more artillery, 30 times more aircraft, 100 times more tanks, and yet the Finns were able to hold these guys off for a long time. This is kinda like these basically farmers who put on their skis and used iron-sighted rifles to hold these guys off. So what can we learn from the Finnish Army during World War II about creating a culture of being a self-led team?

Kyle Buckett: Yeah. So they had… In the face of their limited resources and very, very challenging terrain, they had to make quick decisions on the ground. They’re buttoned up in skis and dressed in all white and they’re skiing around making quick decisions, and it really enabled them to have decentralized decision making, back to the earlier point, but the commanders placed a trust and competence in the expertise of their soldiers, even though they didn’t necessarily have great training like obviously the modern day Navy SEAL, but the officers really respected the skills of their subordinates, they respected what they brought to the table, and then they fed into that using guerilla tactics, reading off of, “Hey, this farmer or that mountain man knows this about the terrain, let’s feed into that, let’s exploit the strengths of our team and enable the culture to really encourage these soldiers to think creatively and adapt to the situation.” And so obviously they were extremely clear on their mission, they had trust, decentralized decision-making, empowerment, collaboration, all of it. It was incredible to read and learn of the story of how they were just cutting through the opposition, left and right, and they wouldn’t even see ’em coming ’cause they had never faced anything like this.

Brett McKay: Yeah. So yeah, I think it’s a great example of self-leadership, there wasn’t anyone telling these guys what to do, there was some top-down command, but the top-down command basically let these Finnish guys do things according to what they thought fit the situation. It was very decentralized.

Kyle Buckett: Yeah. And the Red Army, they thought this was gonna be like a week. [laughter] They thought this was gonna be a week, and then three and a half months later after the initial invasion, they’re just still getting hammered, right? They’re just getting hammered. So the numbers vary but if I remember correctly, the Finns suffered I think 25,000 deaths, and the Russians lost around 135,000.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Kyle Buckett: And another 150,000 wounded. So it’s pretty remarkable.

Brett McKay: And they also had this culture in Finland, they had this value called Sisu, which is, the best translation is, it’s like grit, determination, and they all shared that, and I think they inculcated that value… I mean, I’m sure their culture already inculcated that value but them being the Army and trying to do things on a shoe string and being economical and efficient, those types of things really probably reinforced that Sisu value of grit and hardihood and determination.

Kyle Buckett: Yeah, incredible, incredible.

Brett McKay: Yeah. Well, Kyle, this has been a great conversation, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Kyle Buckett: Thanks so much, Please check us out, you can learn more about our services and offerings and products. I appreciate your time here, Brett, this has been wonderful learning from you as well.

Brett McKay: Well, fantastic. Well, Kyle Buckett, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Kyle Buckett: Thank you.

Brett McKay: My guest here was Kyle Buckett. He’s the co-author of the book Leadership Is Overrated. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere, you can find more information about his work at his website, Also check out our show notes at where you can find links to resources, we delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of The AoM Podcast, make sure to check on our website at, where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, it helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you, please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think could get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support and until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you all who listen to AoM Podcast, to put what you’ve heard into action.

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