fbpx
Back

May 1, 2013

Business Lessons From the Navy SEALs

Confidently handling an uncertain and fast-changing world

At first glance, Navy SEAL combat training may seem quite different than any planning and preparation business leaders take on. But these days, when uncertainty has become a given in business and the economy, understanding how to anticipate problems, act quickly when the unexpected occurs and execute confidently in ambiguous situations can be invaluable. 

The SEALs train relentlessly to perform at the highest levels in rapidly changing environments. Their lives and their mission depend upon it. 

In business, the life of the enterprise and the tenure of its leadership may depend on performing confidently in high-stress—though hopefully not life-threatening—situations. 

One of the first things I learned in my Navy career was that it is essential to have a support team that is the highest quality possible. 

Navy SEALs have the ability to be at their absolute best while handling the worst possible situations. This is because they have not only the motivation, and physical and mental strength, to persevere at a high level in a team environment, but also because they have strong leaders to see them through. To see the same drive and determination in your employees, you must be prepared to successfully help them through any crisis. 

In combat, having a backup plan is key in fast-moving environments, because the original plan often does not survive the first few moments. 

An important part of that preparation is to make sure you are receiving good information. That applies as much to business and market conditions as it does to planning for combat. Good information is crucial because a well-prepared leader can act quickly, confident in the intelligence he or she is receiving. 

Early in my career, I often did not act soon enough on good information. Yet I soon learned to seize every moment. Every minute of every day served as an education for me as a SEAL. I learned that I could never be satisfied with our progress. Instead, I reflected on every challenge and used the lessons learned from that reflection to help guide me as a leader.

The SEALs carefully review each engagement after it is completed. The same standard practice—reviewing programs, projects and progress in your business—can apply as you manage your team. 

In combat, having a backup plan is key in fast-moving environments, because the original plan often does not survive the first few moments. Rehearsing emergency actions is also key to survival. But that may be no less necessary in your business environment when carefully planned programs fail, change during implementation or create unintended consequences.

I made my own list of useful steps to help leaders in almost every complex situation:

  1. Know the purpose.  
  2. Focus on the mission.  
  3. Educate your workforce about the problem. 
  4. Listen carefully.  
  5. Stay calm.  
  6. Follow your instincts.   

 

Building Trust

A demanding and carefully focused training program can be just as important in business as in the military. A rigorous training program not only reveals character, but also builds trust, the essence of a team’s success. SEAL training is unique in the military because it ensures everyone at all levels face similar challenges. Trust depends on mutual confidence that everyone will make decisions that are good for the team, and good for the mission. 

The Navy’s six-month SEAL training program weeds out 70% of candidates before graduation. That’s because it is specifically designed to eliminate individuals who lack the motivation or the physical and mental strength to perform at a high level in a team environment. 

One of the strongest similarities between the military and business is the dependence on high-quality people to make things work. Leaders can discover high-quality individuals too by intentionally injecting pressure into any training scenario. 

Once you have a strong team in place, it is essential that the members know each other well enough to anticipate and trust each other’s action in crisis. Make sure that communication channels are always open among your entire team at all levels, and especially with you, their leader. Listening to your employees and learning from their ideas promotes effective communication and builds trust. 

In combat, there is no substitute for thorough planning, understanding the environment and rehearsing until correct actions become instinctive. All teams face challenges; excellent teams transcend them. As your team’s leader, it is your responsibility to keep up with your talented team, and never be too satisfied with its progress. Response to dynamic situations is a function of character, situational awareness and training. 


Admiral Eric Olson is a retired U.S. Navy Admiral who served as commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command from 2007 to 2011. At the time of his retirement, he was the longest-serving Navy SEAL on duty.