Developing Leadership Principles from U.S. Navy SEALs

You can learn and develop leadership skills from basic tested principles.

The only meaningful measure for a leader is whether the team succeeds or fails.  For all the definitions, descriptions, and characterizations of leaders, there are only two that matter:  effective and ineffective. […]

Leaders must own everything in their world.  There is no one else to blame. 

If you work with others, you will be called upon to lead.  This is true whether you are at top of the leadership chain, the bottom, or anywhere in between those two extremes.  Former U.S. Navy SEAL Jocko Willink describes leadership as the art of getting people to do what you want towards a common and beneficial purpose.

Developing a Foundation of Leadership Skills

There is no step-by-step manual for good leadership.   Instead, you must be attuned to and develop a variety of skills to be effective with your team: developing vision, listening, communicating, influencing, coaching, prioritization, and organization. On top of it, you must find a way to channel these skills in a personal way.  You can only be effective as a leader if your team believes in your vision, your voice.

While there may not be a manual, there are foundational principles that successful leaders share.  You can learn these principles and test them in your own life. As with most subjects, the best way to learn leadership is from those who have gone before you, and who developed their leadership skills through the toughest of circumstances.

In Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Winauthors and former SEALs Jocko Willink and Leif Babin present leadership principles drawn from their military experiences from which you can learn and improve.  Willink and Babin served as members of the SEAL Teams through the Second Battle of Ramadi, during which they operated alongside units composed of U.S Marines, U.S. Army, and Iraqi security forces.  In 2004, Ramadi and its 500,000 inhabitants were largely under the control of insurgents. The city was unsafe, the home of frequent violence and street battles.  Relying on a new strategy of clearing the city building by building, and then setting up command posts within the retaken blocks, coalition forces were able to earn control of the majority of the city and drastically reduce violence for the city’s inhabitants by the end of 2006.

This book admirably does not seek glory.  Willink and Babin share war stories, but in the humblest of ways.  They share no purposeless praise for themselves or their accomplishments.  They do not use the book as a rallying cry to any military mission or political cause.  To the contrary, most of the anecdotes relate to failures or near-failures. Willink and Babin focus on these negative experiences because they find them to be the very best lens through which to learn lessons of leadership.  From this cauldron of experience, they extract simple and digestable principles of leadership to share.

A Leader Owns Everything

On any team, in any organization, all responsibility for success and failure rests with the leader. The leader must own everything in his or her world. There is no one else to blame. The leader must acknowledge mistakes and admit failures, take ownership of them, and develop a plan to win.

Babin and Willink tell a story of a mission in Ramadi that was a failure and a near-disaster. With Willink in command of two teams moving through the dangerous city streets, the teams became separated. Team A came under fire and retreated to the safety of a building, calling Team B for support. Team B arrived and found the insurgents in a well-protected building.  A firefight broke out, with Team B unleashing the weight of their firepower on the building.  When the insurgents still did not yield, Team B called in armored support, and aimed a tank barrel at the building, prepared to level it.

But something was wrong. Team A reported taking heavy fire, despite Team B’s efforts. And in the momentary ceasefire, the teams could not locate one another.  Willink realized at that moment what had happened. He walked into the courtyard of the insurgents’ hideout, only to find Team A sheltering from the barrage of friendly fire from Team B.

Willink thought long and hard about who was to blame for the mistake.  Who was responsible?  Team A for breaking contact?  Team B for not checking their target?  Then he realized, quite plainly, that he was to blame.  He was in charge.

Leaders Set Standards

You will succeed only as a leader if you hold your team to the standards that you set.

When leaders who epitomize Extreme Ownership drive their teams to achieve a higher standard of performance, they must recognize that when it comes to standards, as a leader, it’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate. When setting expectations, no matter what has been said or written, if substandard performance is accepted and no one is held accountable—if there are no consequences—that poor performance becomes the new standard.    Therefore, leaders must enforce standards.

In other words, it’s not whether you tell your people to do well, it’s what you do when they do not do well that matters.  Sometimes a leader needs to make a decision about a team member who is failing:

If an individual on the team is not performing at the level required for the team to succeed, the leader must train and mentor that underperformer. But if the underperformer continually fails to meet standards, then a leader who exercises Extreme Ownership must be loyal to the team and the mission above any individual. If underperformers cannot improve, the leader must make the tough call to terminate them and hire others who can get the job done. It is all on the leader.

Leaders Inspire Their Team to Believe in the Mission

A leader will not succeed unless his or her team believes in the mission.  Team members, in turn, will not believe in a mission unless the leader believes.

In order to convince and inspire others to follow and accomplish a mission, a leader must be a true believer in the mission. Even when others doubt and question the amount of risk, asking, “Is it worth it?” the leader must believe in the greater cause. If a leader does not believe, he or she will not take the risks required to overcome the inevitable challenges necessary to win.

There’s an important lesson here.  If you do not believe in your mission, you need to either (a) change the mission; or (b) do the work required to understand and believe in the mission.

What’s the mission? Planning begins with mission analysis. Leaders must identify clear directives for the team. Once they themselves understand the mission, they can impart this knowledge to their key leaders and frontline troops tasked with executing the mission. A broad and ambiguous mission results in lack of focus, ineffective execution, and mission creep. To prevent this, the mission must be carefully refined and simplified so that it is explicitly clear and specifically focused to achieve the greater strategic vision for which that mission is a part.

Leaders Communicate Clear Goals to Their Team

Your understanding and belief in your mission goal is meaningless if it is not shared by your team:

[Subordinate] leaders must understand the overall mission, and the ultimate goal of that mission—the Commander’s Intent. Junior leaders must be empowered to make decisions on key tasks necessary to accomplish that mission in the most effective and efficient manner possible. Teams within teams are organized for maximum effectiveness for a particular mission, with leaders who have clearly delineated responsibilities. Every tactical-level team leader must understand not just what to do but why they are doing it. If frontline leaders do not understand why, they must ask their boss to clarify the why.

This point emphasizes the necessity of clear communication.  A superior must communicate clear intent and goals to his or her team.  A subordinate leader must speak up if the superior has failed to do so.

Leaders Prioritize and Execute

Things never go according to plan, because unaccounted for complexities and problems always arise.  Simplification, prioritization, and execution are the key to success.

Simplifying as much as possible is crucial to success. […] Plans and orders must be communicated in a manner that is simple, clear, and concise. Everyone that is part of the mission must know and understand his or her role in the mission and what to do in the event of likely contingencies. As a leader, it doesn’t matter how well you feel you have presented the information or communicated an order, plan, tactic, or strategy. If your team doesn’t get it, you have not kept things simple and you have failed. You must brief to ensure the lowest common denominator on the team understands.

If your team understands his or her mission and role, they will be prepared when complex challenges arise:

On the battlefield, countless problems compound in a snowball effect, every challenge complex in its own right, each demanding attention. But a leader must remain calm and make the best decisions possible. To do this, SEAL combat leaders utilize Prioritize and Execute. We verbalize this principle with this direction: “Relax, look around, make a call.”

Leaders Are Comfortable Acting During Uncertainty

Regardless, leaders cannot be paralyzed by fear. That results in inaction. It is critical for leaders to act decisively amid uncertainty; to make the best decisions they can based on only the immediate information available.

If you wait for 100% comfort in the correctness of your decision, you will be perpetually paralyzed.  Leaders make decisions in chaotic and shifting environment.  Prioritization will allow you to focus on the most important mission goals and move forward.

There is no 100 percent right solution. The picture is never complete. Leaders must be comfortable with this and be able to make decisions promptly, then be ready to adjust those decisions quickly based on evolving situations and new information. Intelligence gathering and research are important, but they must be employed with realistic expectations and must not impede swift decision making that is often the difference between victory and defeat.

Last Thoughts on Developing Leadership Skills

Good leaders most often exhibit a predictable set of values: confident, not cocky; courageous, not foolish; detail-oriented, not detail-obsessed; humble, not passive; aggressive, not overbearing; quiet, not silent, calm, not robotic, logical, not emotionless.

Echoing their message that “a leader owns everything in their world,” Willink and Babin astutely point out that a good leader is both a leader and a follower.  No leader can succeed if he or she announces a vision, mission, and plan, but fails to follow it himself or herself.

photo: U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/U.S. Fifth Fleet, via Wikimedia Commons

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