7 Tough Leadership Lessons From A Navy SEAL Commander

Taking tactics from the war room to the boardroom.

As corporate leaders explore how to elevate the effectiveness and professional excellence of their working teams, there is a lot to be learned from Special Ops.

Their collaboration with other branches of the military over the past decade makes them an area of the military that both corporate America and the government can learn a lot from. I've been a longtime fan of the Navy SEALs, and in my constant search for inspiration to implement work culture and leadership change, I felt they could be a superb group to learn from. While this highly secretive branch of the military keeps themselves, and their secrets, to themselves, books like Lone Survivor and The Hunt for Bin Laden give us a look into how they operate. But nothing beats sitting down with a Navy SEAL commander to understand how they think about leadership.

Corporate and military leadership are distinctively different for obvious reasons: The military’s leadership is focused on leading organizations responsible for our country’s security and fighting wars, while business leaders are focused on creating value and protecting the interests of their stakeholders, with profit and return on investment often being the top priorities.

Meticulous planning
From a management standpoint, one of the greatest lessons that can be learned from Navy SEALs is their skill of being highly effective and meticulous planners. They focus on the importance of time management, on-target execution, and completing the mission. They operate with a backup and contingency plan in place for almost every scenario. One of the most practical skills taught in this branch is clear and direct communication. Most people think that the military teaches direct, one-way communication—but what’s less obvious to nonmilitary folks is the importance SEALs place on listening. SEAL Commanders listen and formulate an opinion that incorporates as many ideas and experiences as possible to form a solid plan. A big difference between Navy SEAL and civilian leadership is that once a commander’s decision is reached, the discussion is over—then full support and backing is given and a unified front is presented. Ultimate accountability rests on the commander’s shoulders.

Clear expectations
Navy SEALs focus on a very clear set of objectives, where significant importance is placed on defining the goal and motivating the team to follow. Even with highly complex operations, each SEAL has a clearly defined role, and expectations can be recited by each team member. Similarly, articulating a compelling vision and aligning people with priorities are vital areas in business, but these are often overlooked by many leaders. The SEAL’s rules of engagement (how they respond when confronted) are clearly established before each mission, and modifying these rules could negatively impact the entire operation. The rules of engagement for businesses (what is acceptable employee behavior and what is not) are very often ill-defined or nonexistent. One of the biggest disconnects we see in business is the gap between a company’s strategy and the aligned expectations set for the employees.

During a recent conversation with a SEAL commander, he offered tangible advice that can be applied to almost any business:

1. Teamwork is your top priority.
A mission cannot be successfully executed unless the team is functioning as one. The SEALs continual emphasis on teamwork corresponds closely with the daily requirements of the business world.

2. Early leaders are good leaders.
This opportunity is unparalleled in the corporate world, where an employee may need 10 to 15 years to reach a position of significant leadership and high level of responsibility.

3. Excel at ethics.
In the world of business, the ethical leader is sometimes a rarity, and truly esteemed.

4. Stay calm.
The military trains its team to be more comfortable taking risks with incomplete information. This is the daily function of a CEO, but it is rarely passed down to employees.

5. Hard times help you adapt—quickly.
Young executives who go through hard times should learn to appreciate them, recognizing that those times will not only strengthen them, but truly train them to properly and successfully lead their own teams when battling the competition.

6. Ambush the competition.
In an ambush, always take out the radio operator and the unit leader (usually the guy next to the radioman). Without leadership or good communication, the enemy is forced into disarray and can be picked apart. A good lesson for all leaders and their organizations.

7. Study Darwin.
Survival is not about who’s the strongest or fastest, but who can best adapt to change. Navy SEALs are masters of adaptation, being able to operate in jungle, desert, or artic conditions. In comparison, CEOs must adapt to the ever-changing market conditions they face daily and should train their staff to do the same.

[Image: Flickr user U.S. Navy | Lance Cpl. Reece Lodder]

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  • Jose Amram

    No list can be all-encompassing or all inclusive however this is a very good one. One item I would add to follow "meticulous planning and clear expectations" would be "thorough communication" .

    My present work experience, which will probably be my last job in corporate America leading into retirement, seems to be devoid of these 3 elements. Our upper and middle management seems stuck in an ineffective mode, lacking these 3 elements and exhibiting a vacuum of leadership which subsequently follows.

    Jose Amram

  • coachglove

    I think the commander missed a few key parallels.

    1) when you act against an opponent you act decisively and with violence of action. There is no such thing as a "fair fight". That doesn't mean you bend ethics or break the law. It simply means you should use every possible resource to make your opponent flee or quit. In business this means that when you identify a competitor you use legal, hr (recruiting), marketing, etc to hurt your opponent.

    2) Use your unit size to your advantage. Small teams rely on speed and stealth. Large teams rely on diversity of tools and force of action to succeed.

    3) Discipline is paramount. You came up with your policy, procedure, etc. For a reason. Stick with it.

    4) meticulous after action debriefs are as important as meticulous preplanning.

    5) Train your people to master a specialty that fits their skill set and then cross-train them so they can help the team in other areas as needed.

    6) Your plan rarely survives 1st contact. Hire people that are mentally flexible enough to adapt.

  • www.voltraining.com


    All aspects of this article are spot-on. During my Navy career, I worked with and knew many Navy SEAL members. Each of the leadership tips above define them to a "T". I especially like the points on teamwork, collaborating with young leaders and ethics. There are superior leaders at all levels in the organization who desire to be heard and contribute to the decision-making process. CEOs need to involve them. As you state, many top business leaders tend to bend or ignore ethical rules in their decision making process. Navy SEALS do not.  Thank you.

    David McCuistion
    Chief Warrant Officer W4
    U.S. Navy (Retired)

  • Shawn

    David, thank you for note, it is much appreciated, and thank you for your service and example. Best to you.

  • Say Keng LEE


    Although the author has touched on ''meticulous planning'', and ''clear expectations'', as valuable lessons fro us to emulate, I feel that he should have taken on a deeper probe.

    The seven points of ''tangible advice'' from a Seal Commander also seem to be somewhat perfunctory.

    From what I know, NAVY Seals are known for their ''multiple skill repertoire'', ''power of observation'', ''anticipatory prowess'' and ''propensity for contingent actions or plan B, in the face of adversity''.

    I would love to read more about these important skills sets.

    Best Regards, Say Keng

  • dclaudew

    My personal opinion having been an SF radio operator and a participant with SEALs on joint Puerto Rico exercises is that the author never met a real SEAL.  In jump school, two very fit SEALs ran shoulder-to-shoulder with me on the final lap to make sure that I completed the long run.  They are teammates.  No true SEAL would ever release information to a reporter that the first step for an enemy combatant to do would be to eliminate me, my radio, and the guy with the gold or silver bars beside me.  This story reeks of being imagined while typing in a cubicle.

  • Shawn

    “Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters”  ― Albert Einstein

  • Mike

    My work is as a business leadership certified coach and I was drawn to this post of yours.  It became the basis of my own blog post this week (http://thethirdzone.com/?p=145....  One of my readers has asked the question of how do I propose we "ambush the competition and take out the leader in the corporate world?:  The point made is that without good, effective leadership and good communication an organization makes themselves susceptible to being 'taken out'.  If there is a better and more accurate interpretation of the meaning intended here, I would like to hear it.

    Regardless of the answer to this question, I found the message to be right on in identifying the several components that must be present to receive the full and successful impact.

    Thank you

  • Niraj Vishwakarma

    Much Much Much better article. It is so important and worth following because it has been created around a real life champion who has the ability to make everything correct and on time. Salute to these real life heroes. However our Superheroes on big-screen can teach us a lot. How? Just read about this interesting article @ http://agnipravosengupta.hubpa...

  • Anthony Reardon

    Good initiative Shawn. Within the context of what the military does, the results speak for themselves. In the future I'd like to see more military segments that do not rely on comparison and contrast, good to go?

    ~ Respect your boundary breakers because they are your point men.

    Best, Anthony

  • Shawn

    Thanks Anthony - we all need boundary challengers to learn from and to be testing the edge.

  • Anthony Reardon

    Responsive! Very good Shawn.

    I wanted to point this out to you because I often take compare and contrast between military and business the wrong way. For a business person wanting to draw a connection through a story, it might be very effective for a business audience with no idea, but hard to do service for a military audience that often finds their capabilities superficially underrated in the business world.

    Maybe you could relate that to the guy in a prejudice focus group that says "I'm not prejudiced- I think you people are great". It's hard for someone that does not completely relate to do the service deserved. However, in the case of military, you might say they take an exceptional pride in that kind of service; owning the intent from the broader strategic idea to the details of the task at hand, relating that through the complexity and volatility they encounter along the way, and seeing to it the outcome is accomplished as intended.

    So I'm restating my challenge to you from my first comment. A business person addressing a business audience might be missing the mark by exploring the subject from the outside. From an inside point of view, the military person might suggest their inventory of principles, applications, and experience are appropriate in any and every context- to include business.  

    Take for instance your assertion that military and corporate leadership are distinctly different for obvious reasons. You might say understanding your industry and purpose within it, being focused on creating specific values and protecting interests of stakeholders, and assuring top priorities are met given the challenges of the day- these are perfectly translatable in a business context.

    The difference I see is that military are focused on "effective" leadership. That is, they come from a school where the consequences of failure are severe, where success is of the utmost importance, and whereby they are measured by their results. These are attributes you probably don't find cultivated in a school of business.

    Leadership being ambiguous in nature to most, is actually a formal doctrine in the military. It is specifically designed for the needs of world-class organization with the highest possible standards, canvassing full spectrum dominance from global operations, information superiority, leading technology innovation, dominant maneuver, inter-agency cooperation, interoperability, human resource optimization, end-user brand perception, precision engagement, and you name it!

    Best, Anthony

  • Sean

    I enjoyed your piece, and the carryover of leadership techniques from military to business.  Although I think it is inherently more difficult to cultivate the same levels of trust in the corporate world that are fostered early on in these units.  The reliance of someone's actions and decisions to keep you safe and alive are hard to replicate in a conference room or on a team-building exercise.  I agree that the communication is probably the most important factor to enable similar success in the workplace. 

    I also wanted to clarify a term used in the article.  "Special Forces", in the opening sentence of an articles about an interview with a Navy SEAL commander is not the correct term; if this was an interview with a Green Beret, this would be correct.  Despite Wikipedia's (and many news outlets') incorrect generalization of the term, Special Forces is the shortened title of the US Army Special Forces.  Special Operations, Special Operations Forces, or Special Operators are terms that refer to the larger community of elite warriors that typically conduct unconventional operations.