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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]