A former Navy SEAL commander explains the surprising way he trained his troops to respond to failure

During his deployment in Iraq in 2006, Jocko Willink oversaw about 100 people as the commander of US Navy SEAL Team 3 Task Unit Bruiser.

In an episode of his podcast, Willink explained that he developed a habit that could annoy his troops but also serve as a real motivator.

From the podcast:

One of my direct subordinates, one of my guys that worked for me, he would call me up or pull me aside with some major problem, some issue that was going on. And he’d say, ‘Boss, we’ve got this, and that, and the other thing.’ And I’d look at him and I’d say, ‘Good.’

And finally one day he was telling me about some issue that he was having, some problem, and he said, ‘I already know what you’re going to say.’

And I said, ‘Well, what am I going to say?’

He said, ‘You’re gonna say, Good. He said, ‘That’s what you always say. When something is wrong and going bad, you always just look at me and say, Good.’

Willink wasn’t being snide or dismissive. Rather, he was forcing his troops to find a way to grow from a failure or challenge they were having difficulty overcoming.

If they didn’t get the supplies they needed, for example, he’d force them into a mindset where they could excel in spartan conditions.

It’s an approach he’s applied to his entire life, and one he teaches with his former second-in-command, Leif Babin, through their management consulting firm Echelon Front.

Former Navy SEAL Task Unit Bruiser commander Jocko Willink, left, and Charlie Platoon leader Leif Babin. | Courtesy of Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

“Didn’t get promoted? Good. More time to get better,” Willink said, giving another example.

In another episode, Willink explained how one of his friends told him he was able to see this philosophy in action even when his father died. It wasn’t literally “good” that his father died, but when he was done grieving he was able to see that he was presented with an opportunity to take responsibilities in areas that he could normally rely on his father for, and to make the most of them.

The “good” approach is a way to move forward without giving into overwhelming emotions, whether on the battlefield, in the office, or in your personal life.

“That’s it,” Willink said on his podcast. “When things are going bad, don’t get all bummed out. Don’t get startled, don’t get frustrated. If you can say the word good, guess what? It means you’re still alive. It means you’re still breathing. And if you’re still breathing, well then hell, you’ve still got some fight left in you. So get up, dust off, reload, recalibrate, reengage, and go out on the attack.”

We first saw Willink’s monologue in a video produced by his collaborator Echo Charles, when Willink and Babin played it at their “Muster” leadership conference in May. You can watch it below.

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