Leadership Lessons From SEAL Team Six

Jun 22, 2015
9 Min Read

A former Navy SEAL shares lessons from his time with the elite group that he says will enable any team to improve performance and outcomes – even on limited information and in stressful situations.

When a Navy SEAL comes up against an obstacle at work, he doesn’t head for the nearest pub where he complains about his problems or blames his inaction on a lack of resources. You won’t find him dragging his feet when times get difficult, and you won’t find him abandoning teammates because he thinks they have lousy ideas.

Well, sure, you might think -- that’s because he’s a SEAL. These elite fighters are trained to never give up, and it’s unlikely that they’d sit around flummoxed by a shipping error in Toledo or a software glitch in Anaheim.

But what if you could train your team to respond to difficulties and challenges just like a Navy SEAL? Retired Chief Petty Officer Rob Roy of SEAL Team Six says it can be done.

In a new book, “The Navy SEAL Art of War,” Roy outlines how he trains business leaders to use SEAL skills to overhaul departments so that they are staffed by resilient, tough, competitive and smart teams ready to take on any challenge.

It all begins with letting go of limitations we place on ourselves, he says.

For example, if you ask a Navy SEAL how many pushups he can do, he won’t say he can do 20 or 45. “I can do at least 100,” he will respond. Roy explains that this isn’t bragging, but rather an indication that the SEAL has been trained to see possibilities, not barriers.

Such a mindset can be part of any team, whether it’s in a factory or high-tech office, he says. The key is understanding that “everyone wants to be part of something,” and leadership must communicate the mission and why it matters.

“We tend to limit ourselves and what we think we can do. We play it safe,” he says. “What I’m saying is that you can get people to push themselves and have a real sense of satisfaction. I’m not talking about overworking your employees – but getting everyone on the same page so they know what the goals are and what they need to do.”

An organization that keeps team members apprised of what’s going on – and encourages them to take the ball and run with it – will have a team that is smarter, more strategic and more focused, he says.

Here are some ways Roy says any team can be just as strong, well-trained, resilient and successful as a SEAL team:

Be ready

SEALS often spend days, weeks, or months training for one assignment. They are given enough information and training so that if their plan needs to change, they’re ready. For example, close quarters defense (CQB) is one of the most difficult things a SEAL does because it can require intense hand-to-hand fighting and actions “aren’t debated or deliberated over, but are performed without hesitation,” Roy says.

“When you are well-trained, everything becomes instinctual,” he says. “That’s the game changer.”

For a business, it’s the same story. An organization that has a culture of endless training will deliver better results and better value. Employees will challenge themselves and customers and truly understand how their product or service will benefit the customer, he explains.

But, Roy cautions, training must be gradual and continuous in order to work.

He explains that SEALs use the “crawl, walk, run approach,” which means they are taught to shoot, then to shoot and run and then to shoot accurately while running. Finally, they are taught to do it in total darkness. Training never stops, even as SEALs gain real-world experience – they are always being challenged in different environments and situations, he says.

Emphasize team strengths

SEALs understand that while they may get all the glory, they could not get to a location without the Air Force pilots or survive without the Navy Special Boat Teams who get them out of harm’s way. As Roy explains, for every SEAL there are eight to 10 people supporting him.

That’s an important lesson for organizations that may have a know-it-all who tries to hog all the glory or won’t listen to anyone with a better plan. SEALs are willing to listen to the expertise of someone else on the team, and are always willing to embrace another plan if it’s better. For work teams, listening to each team member and embracing better ideas – no matter who they come from -- creates a more collaborative, resilient and competitive team that doesn’t panic when Plan A doesn’t work.

“People want to be heard. Otherwise, they will do the minimum,” he says.

Learn to adapt

SEALs are always trying to adapt and innovate existing capabilities to tackle new and unseen challenges. For example, SEALs can be inserted by submarines when undertaking covert operations. But the Navy continues to develop next-generation  underwater delivery systems that can improve the combat capability of SEAL forces.

“As any leader will tell you, having options instead of ultimatums is a powerful position to be in,” he says, noting that SEAL teams often have multiple courses of action (COAs). When under intense pressure to make a decision, companies that have COAs are better able to make decisions instead of scrapping a project or letting the competition get the upper hand.

Roy says that men and women have been put through his SEAL leadership training. But he says he finds that while women have a different way of getting things done, they also have strengths that more men need.

“Women are nurturing in a way that you don’t see in men. They’re always supporting one another, and encourage one another. For them, it’s about the team,” he says. “With men, they have to have a pecking order. They often think of themselves before the team.”

SEALs are always encouraging one another, and that’s a team trait that's critical in any situation – business or combat, he says.

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