8 Leadership Lessons from the Navy SEALs

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It’s hard to imagine another scenario where such black-and-white outcomes are determined by the strength of a person’s leadership than that of the military forces. 

The Navy SEALs are regarded as one of the most prestigious and elite military squads today. At the core of their success is a belief that leadership is the most important thing on the battlefield where life-and-death decisions can happen at any given moment. 

In their New York Times best-selling book, Extreme Ownership: How US. Navy SEALs Lead and Win, two highly decorated turned successful businessmen, Jacko Willink and Leif Bibin, share hard-hitting combat stories that translate into lessons for business and life. 

Here are 10 leadership lessons adapted from the book: 

Extreme Ownership 

This is the book's central concept that is woven throughout the subsequent lessons and speaks to one’s ability to take accountability for a situation regardless of the outcome. In the book, an example of friendly fire is given (where one team member harms another on the same team) and how Jacko took full responsibility for this event. He could have blamed a lack of information or miscommunication between the squads but instead, he takes the wrap.

This point is emphasised in relation to business where we can’t afford to become complacent and seek to blame someone else if ultimately, we fail to carry out our duties. If instructions are unclear, we should ask for more clarity. If a co-worker is tasked with helping on a project but doesn’t contribute fairly, we should confront it rather than struggle alone and produce subpar work. If a product isn’t performing as expected, it’s the leader’s job to find out why and figure out a solution. 

Leaders must be accountable for the actions of their teams and that of themselves. 

There are no bad teams, only bad leaders 

During one of the infamous Hell Week tests, SEAL team crews set out on boats to complete a series of challenges. One crew was the clear leader, besting their competition every step of the way until a Chief Petty Officer then decides to swap the leaders from the leading and the last-place boats. Much to Bibin’s amazement, this change transformed the entire team. The trailing boat now took the lead and consistently beat out the other crew for the remainder of the races. 

Bibin expands in the book, saying that: 

“leadership is the single greatest factor in any team's performance. The leader’s attitude sets the tone for the entire team. The leader drives performance - or doesn’t.”

This is true of business too. Mutual accountability demands the best from each member and leaders set the precedent for how teams collaborate and work to win.  

Keep it simple 

Complex situations require complex solutions. The issue for the people tasked with navigating these strategies is that if it’s not easy to understand, they lose motivation or the confidence to execute them. 

Simplifying problems into comprehensible chunks means that teams can tackle them more easily. Clarity is king among teams as is the ability to relay concise, unambiguous instructions. 

Remove the ego 

If you think you’re right all of the time and aren’t receptive to the opinions of those around you, this spells disaster! Whilst some ego is healthy to encourage competition and motivation, it’s important not to let personal agendas cloud your judgement, leading to poor decisions that adversely affect your team and your business. 

Showing humility means that regardless of a team member’s position, whether it’s above or below, you are willing to accept advice and input from the collective. This fosters a more communicative and psychologically safe culture which benefits everybody. 

Cover and Move 

In military terms, this is the act of ensuring your team is safe to move on the battlefield by providing cover to them. It’s about teamwork and trust. In business, all too often we see departments or teams becoming fragmented, creating silos in the workplace. Ultimately, the success of a project or task involves many moving parts and contributions from individuals, so by checking in with each other and making sure the group is ready to move on to the next stage, we can reach the common goal more effectively. 

Leading upwards and downwards 

This refers to how leaders question and clarify information to senior members above them and then how that information is fed downwards to people below them. If a plan doesn’t make sense or you’re privy to information that could help or improve it, a strong leader communicates this to their superiors. Rather than biting their tongues and complaining (which is what normally happens), leaders will respectfully advise how a plan might fail when it’s put into practice in real life, and how this can be avoided. When it comes to relaying this information to co-workers, the art of leading downwards takes opinions and criticisms into account. 

Discipline equals freedom 

When we think of military discipline, we envisage a regiment of rigid procedures and stiff, assertive movements, although the opposite is true. As Jacko and Bibin explain: 

“Instead of making us more rigid and unable to improvise, this discipline actually made us more flexible, more adaptable and more efficient. It allowed us to be creative.”

The sentiment they’re referring to here is that when someone repeats a procedure or process many many times, it becomes second nature, thus removing our thought process and allowing us the freedom to improvise within the framework. If your team knows the workings of a plan down to the fine points, they’ll feel more confident to adapt to changes on the fly without sacrificing the overall goal. 

Prioritise and execute 

Leaders are no strangers to feeling overwhelmed by seemingly insurmountable tasks or odds. A calm approach is best when a situation has multiple outcomes and variations. Take a moment to step back and assess the highest priority tasks then systematically work through them one by one. Uncertainty is the enemy of decision. It’s in these moments of confusion and chaos that a leader shows composure and executes with confidence and intent. 

Seal the deal 

The book Extreme Ownership: How US. Navy SEALs Lead and Win is a great read for leadership insights that can be applied to real-world business. Of the lessons we’ve extracted, which will you tackle first? If you’re confused remember to prioritise and execute!