Business Lessons from Navy SEALs

Business Lessons from Navy SEALs 

Some authors write dismissively of military leadership and its applicability to modern business. I wonder how familiar they are with how modern elite military units actually operate? They might be surprised to know that military leaders have overcome many of the challenges of managing people in the modern era, challenges that business leaders are only just beginning to understand.

This is a brief summary of the book Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, two former Navy Seal officers who served in Iraq and now run a successful leadership consulting practice (a surprisingly common phenomonenon!). They share stories of leadership lessons they learned in combat (sometimes learned the hard way), followed by business case studies of how those lessons can be applied in a business context.

Note: I am wary of the hero worship and fetishization of all things “special forces” in the US media landscape, and understandably, people have strong views on the Iraq war. I am also wary of overfitting military practices to a business context. That said, I thought there were many great takeaways in this book. Here is my summary of the key business lessons from Navy SEALs:

Extreme Ownership.

The leader is responsible for articulating the strategy, choosing the most important priorities to focus on, and providing the resources, training, and support to enable the team to successfully execute.

When it comes to performance standards, it’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate. Whether a team succeeds or fails is up to the leader. The leader’s attitude sets the tone for the entire team. The leader either drives performance or doesn’t.

If a team member is underperforming, the leader must “own it” and train, motivate, and mentor that person to reach the agreed standards. But if the underperformer continually fails to meet standards, the leader owes it to the team to make the tough call to terminate them. The leader must enforce standards. Anything else is bad leadership.

No Bad Teams, Only Bad Leaders.

SEAL units that didn’t perform well, had leaders who blamed everyone and everything else. The best-performing SEAL units had leaders who accepted responsibility for everything. They took ownership of the team’s failures, sought guidance on how to improve, and figured out how to overcome challenges.

The authors shared a story of a boat crew that was performing poorly. The team leader’s blaming behavior set the tone for the team, who also blamed outside factors for their poor performance. Team morale deteriorated. The commander swapped the team leader out for another team leader who took full ownership. The team’s performance lifted dramatically and they quickly became a top-performing crew.

Once people stop making excuses, stop blaming others, and take ownership of everything in their lives, they are compelled to take action to solve their problems.

Believe.

In order to convince and inspire troops to follow you, a leader must be a true believer in the strategy. The leader must explain not just “what” to do, but “why”, so the frontline troops understand “why”, and can move forward, fully believing in what they are doing.

Senior leaders need to make it safe for subordinates to ask questions without fear. If you don’t understand an assignment, ask questions until you understand why, so you can execute with belief and confidence, and pass on that belief to your team.

Check the Ego.

It’s natural to want to blame subordinates when something goes wrong. Our egos don’t like to take the blame. But it’s on us as leaders to see where we failed to communicate effectively and failed to help the troops clearly understand what their roles and responsibilities are and how their actions impact the bigger strategic picture.

Extreme Ownership requires checking your ego and operating with a high degree of humility. Admitting mistakes, taking ownership, and developing a plan to overcome challenges.

Cover and Move.

Teams can get so focused on their own tasks, that they forget about what other teams are doing or how they depend on other teams.

The term “cover and move” means that one team provides covering fire while the other team moves on the battlefield, and vice versa. As you can imagine, this requires a high level of trust and communication between teams.

In a business context, this means breaking down functional silos to overcome the “us versus them” mentality and making sure all teams work together effectively, mutually supporting one another.

Simple.

When plans are too complicated, troops may not understand them. No mission ever goes according to plan. When something goes wrong, complex plans add to the confusion, which can compound into a disaster.

Plans must be kept simple, clear, and concise so the lowest common denominator understands. Everyone must know their role and what to do in the event of likely contingencies. If your team doesn’t “get it”, the leader is to blame. You have not kept things simple and you have failed as a leader.

Prioritize and Execute.

Leaders can be overwhelmed if they try to tackle multiple problems or a number of tasks simultaneously. Instead, leaders must determine the highest priority and execute. On the battlefield, in highly stressful, chaotic situations, SEAL leaders are trained to practice this principle: “Relax. Look around. Make a call.”

In essence, it means to determine The One Thing, the most important thing to focus on right now, and then engage the full resources of your team to work on that problem. Then move on to the next highest priority problem. Multitasking does not work. Take care of one thing at a time.

Decentralized Command.

Sometimes you have to micromanage. For instance, if someone is new at their role, or they are not performing to the agreed standard. But once they are up to speed, micromanagement should never be the norm, it should morph into decentralized command.

Senior leaders must not get stuck down in the weeds. They should focus on the bigger picture and make sure everyone’s actions are coordinated and aligned with the strategy.

Push tactical decision-making down to junior leaders and troops and allow them to figure out the best way to execute. They are the ones on the scene best qualified to choose how to accomplish the assignment and adapt to unfolding circumstances.

Let your staff know the bounds of their decision-making authority, and let them operate within that framework. Junior leaders must know that the boss will back them up even if they make a decision that may not result in the best outcome, as long as the decision was made in an effort to achieve the strategic objective.

Junior leaders are expected to make decisions. Don’t let them ask, “What do I do?” Instead, they must be encouraged to step up and state, “This is what I am planning to do.”

(here’s my GROW framework to help your people learn how to do this)

Leaders must realize that their job is not to shoot anymore. Your job is to be looking around while your team is doing the shooting. In the heat of the battle, you must detach and stand back. “Relax. Look around. Make a call.” The leader’s job is to provide clear direction to guide and align the actions of the team. If you’re not doing it, chaos can result.

Plan.

Establishing a disciplined and repeatable planning process is critical to organizational success. The true test of a good plan is whether the troops who are going to execute it actually understand it. Simplify everything to the lowest common denominator so even the most junior staff clearly understand the plan. Test their knowledge and encourage them to ask questions to ensure they fully understand their role.

Let them plan the finer details and action steps so that they “own” their piece of the plan. SEAL units that weren’t asked to contribute to the plan were typically less committed and negative.

Senior leaders should not get bogged down in the weeds planning the details. Stand back and look at the whole. Taking this broader view enables you to see more. Monitor and check the team’s progress in the most critical tasks, but don’t get sucked into the details.

At the end of each mission, an After Action Review must be conducted to capture the lessons learned, to improve future plans and procedures.

Leading Up and Down the Chain of Command.

Once the debate is over and the boss has made a decision, even if that decision is one you argued against, you must execute the plan as if it were your own. Leaders must always present a united front to the troops.

Leaders must get out of the office and engage in face-to-face conversations with direct reports and observe frontline troops in action to understand their challenges. The leader must “lead down the chain” by constantly communicating their strategic intent so troops can connect the dots between what they do every day and how it impacts the big strategic picture.

Everyone must be encouraged to also “lead up the chain”. That means keeping your boss fully informed about what is happening and what your recommended actions are (“This is what I am planning to do”). Pushing this “situational awareness” up the chain helps to improve the quality and speed of organizational decision-making.

Always realize that your boss must allocate limited assets and make decisions with the bigger picture in mind. You and your team may not represent the priority effort at that particular time.

Decisiveness and Uncertainty.

You will never have all the information you need, but you must be decisive. There is no 100 percent right solution. The picture is never complete. Leaders must be comfortable with this and make decisions promptly, then be ready to adjust those decisions quickly based on evolving situations and new information.

Your default setting should be aggressive and decisive. Proactive rather than reactive. You must be willing to make tough choices.

Discipline Equals Freedom.

The best SEAL operators were invariably the most disciplined. That means getting up early and working out. Following disciplined procedures. Studying to upgrade your skills. Practicing and perfecting your craft.

It sounds paradoxical, but SEAL units have learned that strict discipline, instead of making you more rigid and unable to improvise, it actually frees you up to be more flexible, adaptable, and efficient. The more you can master the basics and do them perfectly without having to think, the more it frees your mind to be creative.

They rehearse and role play, so that in the dark of night when it’s crazy and chaotic, everyone knows where they need to be and what they need to do.

Even if it’s just a tough conversation you need to have with an underperforming team member, the principles are the same. Rehearse and role-play, so that when the time comes you’ll be able to perform with confidence.

The Dichotomy of Leadership.

A good leader must be:

  • confident but not cocky;
  • courageous but not foolhardy;
  • competitive but a gracious loser;
  • attentive to details but not obsessed by them;
  • a leader and follower;
  • humble not passive;
  • aggressive not overbearing;
  • quiet but not silent;
  • calm but not robotic,
  • logical but not devoid of emotions;
  • close with the troops but not so close that one person becomes more important than another or more important than the good of the team;
  • not so close that the troops forget who is in charge.

In summary, a good leader practices Extreme Ownership while exercising Decentralized Command. In the final analysis, the only meaningful measure for a leader is whether the team succeeds or fails.

For more on the topic of military leadership, here is my summary of business lessons from the book, Team of Teams.

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Until next time…
Stephen

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