Bruce Lee on Developing “Mind Like Water”

If your Nerve, deny you —

     Go above your Nerve —

-Emily Dickinson

The Obstacle is Your Mind

I have spent a great deal of time lately thinking about Action.  Understanding Action, planning Action, taking Action.  In moments of difficulty and uncertainty, we can find ourselves constrained and paralyzed not by our actual circumstances, but by the mental constructs we build around those circumstances.  We define our own limitations by our perceptions and internal definitions.

Developing the understanding that what you perceive as an obstacle is, often times, only in our minds is a challenge.  Yet once you ponder this, you will find its obviousness and reality floating on the surface of consciousness, ever present, always there and identifiable, if you only sit still long enough to notice.

Bruce Lee’s Pathway to Mind Like Water

Icon and Chinese-American martial artist, action star, and filmmaker Bruce Lee was masterful in developing a personal, mental perception of reality.  Even more, he was unique in his ability to translate his metaphysical insight into both plain explanation and superlative physical action.  Though superficially an action hero, Lee possessed and communicated a profound understanding of the nature of mind, and what was required for a human being to act to fully express himself or herself.

Lee’s worldview began with the notion that the mind was the source of worldly experience.  He told the story of an old man and his son with one horse.  When the horse ran away one day unexpectedly, the boy exclaimed, “What bad luck!”  The father responded, “Who knows?”  When the horse returned with five new mares, the boy excitedly said, “What good luck!”  The father replied, “Who knows?”  In training the mares, the boy broke his leg severely, and mourned, “What bad luck!”  Predictably, the father observed, “Who knows?”  The kingdom entered a war and drafted its young men into military service.  With a broken leg, the son was spared.  Good luck or bad luck?  Who knows?

Lee’s point was that reality begins and ends with the mind.  To successfully navigate the world, Lee believed that you need a combination of natural instinct and control, which are combined in harmony.  Lee’s goal was “unnatural naturalness,” or “natural unnaturalness.”  Keeping these two poles in their ideal balance requires “mind like water,” according to Lee.

Empty your mind.  Be formless, shapeless – like water.  Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup, you put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle, you put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.

The revelation Lee had came from a point of frustration he was dwelling on while sailing:

After spending many hours meditating and practicing, I gave up and went sailing alone in a junk. On the sea I thought of all my past training and got mad at myself and punched the water! Right then — at that moment — a thought suddenly struck me; was not this water the very essence of gung fu? Hadn’t this water just now illustrated to me the principle of gung fu? I struck it but it did not suffer hurt. Again I struck it with all of my might — yet it was not wounded! I then tried to grasp a handful of it but this proved impossible. This water, the softest substance in the world, which could be contained in the smallest jar, only seemed weak. In reality, it could penetrate the hardest substance in the world. That was it! I wanted to be like the nature of water.

Embracing Your Nature Leads to Self-Actualization

Combining Lee’s thoughts lead to self-actualization.  They let us see that we can be our most effective by observing our minds, allowing unblocked emotion, and accepting our nature.  Lao Tzu wrote in the Tao Te Ching:

In the world there is nothing more submissive and weak than water. Yet for attacking that which is hard and strong nothing can surpass it.

The beauty of Lee’s insight was that in embracing the nature of water lies the path to self-actualization and control.  Being like water is “not being without emotion or feeling, but being one in whom feeling was not sticky or blocked.”  Lee realized that “in order to control myself I must first accept myself by going with and not against my nature.”

This doesn’t come easily.

But to express one’s self, not lying to one’s self — that, my friend, is very hard to do.  You have to train, so that when you want it, it’s there!  When you want to move, you are moving.  And when you move, you are determined to move.


Understanding Information in the Modern Age

You’re awash in information every day.  But do you know what information is, the roles it plays in the world, or how to maximize its value?  As Charlie Munger reminds us, without worldly wisdom, you end up a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.

Information is Data that Reduces Uncertainty

Luciano Floridi’s Information: A Very Short Introduction provides a map of the ways that we can speak about information.

Information is made of data.  When data are well formed and meaningful, the result is also known as semantic content.


map of informational concepts

Information understood as semantic content, comes in two main varieties: instructional and factual. For example, if your car displays a red flashing light and won’t start, you might interpret the red light flashing in two ways: (a) as an instruction to recharge the battery; and (b) as factual information, that the battery is dead.

Factual semantic content is the most common way information is understood and also one of the most important, since information as true semantic content is a necessary condition for knowledge.  This is what you’re trying to build and grow.

The Growth of Information

While humans have been recording and transmitting events and information since the invention of writing, Floridi explains that “only very recently has human progress and welfare begun to depend mostly on the successful and efficient management of the life cycle of information.”  Today, every G7 nation receives at least 70% of its GDP on information-related goods, generating “more data than humanity has ever seen in its entire history.”

This rapid growth has caused us to lose our understanding of information:

The information society is like a tree that has been growing its far-reaching branches much more widely, hastily, and chaotically than its conceptual, ethical, and cultural roots. The lack of balance is obvious and a matter of daily experience in the life of millions of citizens.

Copernicus taught us that we are not the center of the universe.  Darwin taught us that we are not the center of the world.  Freud taught us that we are not even the masters of our own minds.  What we are encountering now, Floridi argues, is a Fourth Revolution:

What we are currently experiencing is therefore a Fourth Revolution, in the process of dislocation and reassessment of our fundamental nature and role in the universe. We are modifying our everyday perspective on the ultimate nature of reality, that is, our metaphysics, from a materialist one, in which physical objects and processes play a key role, to an informational one.

We are no longer independent beings, but “interconnected informational organisms,” sharing a world made of information.  This environment is made of all informational processes, services, and entities, and their properties, interactions, and relationships. This means that you are surrounded by a wealth of new opportunities, if you understand that they are there.

On the other hand, Floridi warns that those who do not (or cannot) adapt to this Fourth Revolution will suffer the consequences:

One thing seems indubitable though: the digital divide will become a chasm, generating new forms of discrimination between those who can be denizens of the infosphere and those who cannot, between insiders and outsiders, between information-rich and information-poor.

Build a Web of Information to Improve Your Knowledge


Understanding the current state of information is important because building knowledge depends upon it.

 Knowledge and information are members of the same conceptual family. What the former enjoys and the latter lacks, over and above their family resemblance, is the web of mutual relations that allow one part of it to account for another. Shatter that, and you are left with a pile of truths or a random list of bits of information that cannot help to make sense of the reality they seek to address. Build or reconstruct that network of relations, and information starts providing that overall view of the world which we associate with the best of our epistemic efforts. So once some information is available, knowledge can be built in terms of explanations or accounts that make sense of the available semantic information.

This echoes the best advice of Charlie Munger.  Understanding the best ideas from a broad array of disciplines will let you develop a comprehensive mental toolbox to attack and solve problems.  Understanding the value of connecting these mental models, Munger advises, “You must have the models, and you must see the relatedness and the effects from the relatedness.”

How do you do this?  Read a lot from a wide variety of fields.  Set aside time to think. Look for the connections between ideas, and watch your knowledge grow.

Book Recommendations from Bill Gates

If you’re not already reading it, add Bill Gates’s Gates Notes to your reading list.

The Best Books of 2015 by Bill Gates

Here’s Gates’s list for 2015.  The comments about each book are written by Gates.

The Road to Character, by David Brooks. The insightful New York Times columnist examines the contrasting values that motivate all of us. He argues that American society does a good job of cultivating the “résumé virtues” (the traits that lead to external success) but not our “eulogy virtues” (the traits that lead to internal peace of mind). Brooks profiles various historical figures who were paragons of character. I thought his portrait of World War II General George Marshall was especially enlightening. Even if the distinction between the two types of virtues is not always crystal clear, The Road to Character gave me a lot to think about. It is a thought-provoking look at what it means to live life well.

Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words, by Randall Munroe. The brain behind XKCD explains various subjects—from how smartphones work to what the U.S. Constitution says—using only the 1,000 most common words in the English language and blueprint-style diagrams. It is a brilliant concept, because if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t really understand it. Munroe, who worked on robotics at NASA, is an ideal person to take it on. The book is filled with helpful explanations and drawings of everything from a dishwasher to a nuclear power plant. And Munroe’s jokes are laugh-out-loud funny. This is a wonderful guide for curious minds.

Being Nixon: A Man Divided, by Evan Thomas. Former U.S. president Richard Nixon is often portrayed as little more than a crook and a war monger. So it was refreshing to see a more balanced account in Being Nixon, by author and journalist Evan Thomas. I wouldn’t call it a sympathetic portrait—in many ways, Nixon was a deeply unsympathetic person—but it is an empathetic one. Rather than just focusing on Nixon’s presidency, Thomas takes a cradle-to-the-grave approach and gives you sharp insights into the inner workings of a brilliant, flawed, and conflicted man.

Sustainable Materials With Both Eyes Open, by Julian M. Allwood, Jonathan M. Cullen, et al. How much can we reduce carbon emissions that come from making and using stuff? Quite a bit, according to the University of Cambridge team behind this book. They look closely at the materials that humans use most, with particular emphasis on steel and aluminum, and show how we could cut emissions by up to 50 percent without asking people to make big sacrifices. Although the topic can be dry as a desert, the authors keep it light with lots of colorful illustrations and clever analogies without sacrificing clarity or rigor. I learned a lot from this thoughtful look at a critical topic. (You can download it free on the authors’ site.)

Eradication: Ridding the World of Diseases Forever?, by Nancy Leys Stepan. Stepan’s history of eradication efforts gives you a good sense of how involved the work can get, how many different kinds of approaches have been tried without success, and how much we’ve learned from our failures. She writes in a fairly academic style that may make it hard for non-experts to get to her valuable arguments, but it’s worth the effort. You come away from it with a clearer sense of how we can use the lessons of the past to guide future efforts to save lives.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol S. Dweck. This book first came to my attention a few years ago during an invention session on education with my friend Nathan Myrhvold. It’s been an important influence on the foundation’s education work. Through clever research studies and engaging writing, Dweck illuminates how our beliefs about our capabilities exert tremendous influence on how we learn and which paths we take in life. The value of this book extends way beyond the world of education. It’s just as relevant for businesspeople who want to cultivate talent and for parents who want to raise their kids to thrive on challenge.

Honorable mention: I read one book this year that definitely deserves a spot on this list, but I haven’t had time to give it the full write-up it deserves. The Vital Question, by Nick Lane, is an amazing inquiry into the origins of life. I loved it so much that I immediately bought all of Lane’s other books. And I jumped at the chance to meet Lane and talk to him about his research last September, when both of us were in New York City. I’ll post more about his fascinating work when I get the chance.

Read to Learn

Bill Gates is a great example of the type of thinker that Country of Quinn tries to follow and emulate.  Describing himself as someone who “reads to learn,” Gates comments about the synoptical connections he drew between his reading selections for the year:

I just looked over the list of books I read this year, and I noticed a pattern. A lot of them touch on a theme that I would call “how things work.” Some explain something about the physical world, like how steel and glass are used, or what it takes to get rid of deadly diseases. Others offer deep insights into human beings: our strengths and flaws, our capacity for lifelong growth, or the things we value. I didn’t set out to explore these themes intentionally, though in retrospect it make a lot of sense since the main reason I read is to learn.

Country of Quinn’s list of the Best Books of 2015 is here.

Marcus Aurelius on Finding Peace

The Meditations is a master work on finding peace amidst the chaos of life.

I discovered it a few years ago on Ryan Holiday’s list of Books to Base Your Life On.  For me, it was one of those books I find once every few years that fundamentally shifts my view of life, and has remained one of the best manuals on living I’ve ever read.

Finding Peace in the Chaos of Life

Bookstores today are full of “quick fix” self-help books, promising happiness and wealth with an easy to use five point system. Most of these self-help books are worthless.  They contain recycled ideas processed repackaged with a shiny cover and are made for a quick buck.  This is why Nassim Taleb recommends reading no books written in the last twenty years (aside from history books), as not enough time has passed to allow them to demonstrate their value.

The advice and insights of the Meditations has survived for over 2,000 years now.  It’s here to stay, and with good reason.

Stoicism and Marcus Aurelius

Stoic philosophy grew and developed through five hundred years of Greco-Roman history. The philosophy emphasizes finding mental peace and ethical direction in the midst of life’s chaos, unpredictability, and cruelty.  Stoics found that the solution to the mental and spiritual turmoil that we so often experience in life was to focus on the things in your control and to stop wrestling with the things out of your control.  According to the Stoics, events are neither good nor bad, but our reactions to those events may be good or bad.  Our experience is, therefore, dictated by the sum of our reactions to the events of our life.

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius was influenced by the Stoic teachers in Rome during his life, including Epictetus.  Drawing on Epictetus’s teachings, Aurelius wrote the Meditations in the second century C.E. while engaged in war with the German tribes to the Empire’s North.  He originally intended the text to be merely a series of private reflections, his personal diary.

The value of the Meditations lies in its ability to calmly stare deeply into and confront the immutable difficulties of life and the human condition.  From that perspective, it teaches that virtue, not pleasure, is the key to fulfillment and peace.

Lessons from the Meditations

Remember Your Purpose Daily

Aurelius begins Book II of the Meditations with a reminder to start each day by rehearsing your response to negative moments.

Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial.  All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil.  But I, who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly…I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly….

This one really works.

Practice Mindfulness

Keeping in line with the Stoic focus on things in our control, Aurelius reminds you to watch your own mind carefully, not the thoughts of others.

Failure to observe what is in the mind of another has seldom made a man unhappy; but those who do not observe the movements of their own minds must of necessity be unhappy.

Focus on the Present Moment

Even if you were going to live three thousand years, and even ten thousand times that, still remember that no man loses any other life than this which he now lives, nor lives any other than this which he now loses.  The longest and shortest are thus brought to the same . . . For the present is the only thing of which a man can be deprived. . . .

It is always now.  Each of us has the present, nothing more, nothing less.

Take Action Now

Remember how long you have been putting off these things, and how often you have received an opportunity from the gods, and yet do not use it.  You must now at last perceive of what universe you are a part, …and that a limit of time is fixed for you, which if you do not use for clearing away the clouds from your mind, it will go and you will go, and it will never return.

You have the present moment.  Don’t waste it.

How to Read the Meditations

One of the best things about the Meditations is that you don’t have to read it cover to cover. It’s short, so you could certainly do so.  That’s how I read it the first time.  But now that I’ve read it a few times, I find that it is most valuable to me when I pick it up and read just a page or two at random.  There’s always a new insight to find and think about.  It’s in my briefcase about half the time for exactly this reason.

Pair this with Epictetus and Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life.


Overwhelmed at Work? Expert Strategies to Be Less Busy

Are you overwhelmed at work or in life? Are you too busy? It’s nearly impossible in the modern world to seize control of every external aspect of your work, home, and personal life. But by understanding “busyness,” you can reorient and reengage with your life in a meaningful way.

What is Busy?

Tony Crabbe gives us a modern definition of “busy” in Busy: How to Thrive in a World of Too Much:

“Busy” is that frenetic, always alert multitasking that propels us through overburdened lives. It involves being always “on,” glancing regularly at our phones and jumping from task to task. It is the juggling, cramming and rushing that makes up so much of our daily existence. It is urgency, distraction and exhaustion.

We’re busier than ever because we create and consume more information than ever before.  And it becomes easier every year for other people to reach you and bombard you with emails, texts, pings, and tweets.  While in 1986 the average worker produced about two newspaper pages of content each day, by 2011 this amount had risen to about six complete newspapers every day.

This kind of exponential growth is a disruptive and nonlinear problem, according to writer and statistician Nassim Taleb.  Taleb gives the example of automobile traffic.  A small increase in traffic on a quiet road makes  little difference.  Small increases have minimal impact, until a point of congestion, when small increases quickly lead to gridlock.  You are facing the same traffic jam with your email, notifications, and to-do lists.

Being Busy is Bad for You

Constant busyness is bad for your health:

It isn’t any specific intensity of stress or exertion that is bad for us; it is the persistence. The body and the brain aren’t designed to be always on. The body is designed for switching between active and passive states: to fire up into an adrenaline-fueled, alert state, and then cool down to a calmer one.

Busyness also stops you from reaching your goals. It’s hard to set aside time to focus on important work.  The interruption and temptation of a new email is always present.

We are busy because we don’t make the tough choices. We allow the world and our inbox to set our agenda, rather than think for ourselves. It’s easier to simply react; to choose to try to do everything, rather than make the difficult decisions and unchoose things—it takes more courage to do less.

Strategies to Become Less Busy

Faced with the crushing weight of an endless inbox, you might be tempted to work even harder.  If you could just fine tune your productivity system, you’d be able to stay ahead of emails and get on to important work, right?  Wrong.

The key is to know the opposite of busy:  “The opposite of busy is not relaxation…[it] is sustained, focused attention.”

How can you develop sustained, focused attention in the midst of so many demands? Crabbe urges us to focus on mastering our attention and reengaging with our lives. Mastery is “the willingness to let go of our need for control,” and requires “shifting our focus from managing time to managing attention.”

Managing attention requires you to make tough choices to protect the time you need to do your most important work.  This requires an active and conscious choice on your part.  For example, on a particularly busy day, Gandhi was heard to say, “Today will be a busy day.  I won’t be able to meditate for an hour.  I’ll have to meditate for two.”  You cannot control the incoming demands, but you can control how you direct your attention.

Crabbe urges you to try the following strategies:

1. Say “no.” This can be difficult, especially with demanding bosses and clients.  But it’s necessary and worth it.  Use Greg McKeown’s “90% rule” when evaluating an option.  If the single most important criterion isn’t at least a 9 out of 10, reject the opportunity.

2. Switch off – Choose specific and set times to check in with email and messages.  Never before bed.

3. Turn off notifications – It’s amazing how much peace you can find if your phone doesn’t ding with every email.  Try it.

4. Kill meetings – Some meetings are necessary, but most are not worth your time.  Cancel one today.

5. Double your time estimates – Double the amount of time you estimate a task will take.  You’ll find room to think and do better work in that time.

6. Watch the clock – Remember how much work you get done the last day before vacation?  Strict time awareness creates efficiencies.  Be aware of the clock, and then…

7. Finish on time – Burning the midnight oil won’t help your work quality or you.  When the day is over, put down your pen.

8. Prime your brain for difficult tasks – We often procrastinate over difficult and complex problems.  Let your subconscious work on the problem by doing an early review or mind map of the problem before you sit down to work on it.

Final Thoughts on Expert Strategies to Be Less Busy

Perpetual busyness arises from your desire to maintain control of every input and demand in your life.  True control comes from abandoning that impossible chase and refocusing on the work that you value:

We have to accept that we will never be in control again; there are too many demands on our time. Instead we should aim to gain a sense of mastery in our lives by letting go of our need for control, by making brutal choices, by managing our attention and by negotiating our life back.

German designer Dieter Rams famously said, “Weniger, aber besser,” or “Less, but better.”  Protect your time. Do more by doing less.

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