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April 15, 2015 | by Steve Lawrence

“Leaders Are Never Off Duty”

Four Star Admiral and Navy SEAL Eric Olson on leadership

Retired four star Admiral and Navy SEAL Eric Olson talked about leadership challenges that are similar in the military and in business in a continually disrupted world. 

“We live in a world that is constantly being reconstructed and deconstructed,” he cautioned. Which requires a new kind of aggressive, forward-thinking leader who can manage change in the face of an avalanche of shifting conditions. He used a slide of the world at night to illustrate. Lights glittered across the globe’s developed nations. The rest was mostly dark. “We used to think that the places that were most important to us, were where the lights are on at night,” he said. “Now we know we must pay increasing attention to those places where the lights are not on.” 

“This is equally true for business. With economic forces shifting constantly in the world … leaders frequently find themselves in competitive environments they barely understand.”

“We are now fighting people in places that we barely understand,” he said. This is equally true for business. With economic forces shifting constantly in the world, with globalization, new technologies, and changing customer and workforce demographics, business leaders frequently find themselves in competitive environments they barely understand. Which requires constant vigilance, he stressed: “Leaders are never off duty.” 

Those who survive will possess talents that may be surprising. There is an 80% attrition rate in SEAL training, he said, but the 20% who succeed are not simply the biggest and strongest. “Sure the wrestlers and the water polo players do well,” he said, “but for chess players, the chance of success in training tripled. The strategic thinkers were the ones who did best.” 

The most successful leaders in a quickly shifting environment, he said, are those who make the effort to “learn fearlessly.” 

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