Business Lessons from a Navy SEAL

Look to the Navy SEALs to develop discipline and build effective teams.

By Kathy Gurchiek Apr 1, 2014
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Mark Divine April 2014 CoverTraining to become a member of the U.S. Navy’s elite sea, air and land teams (SEALs) is designed to push people to their mental and physical limits—and, considering the nature of their work, it’s easy to see why that’s necessary. Whether they are rescuing ship captains from Somali pirates or capturing Osama bin Laden, Navy SEALs are often deployed on dangerous, high-stakes missions that could hardly be described as a typical day at the office.

Yet, former SEAL Mark Divine believes that the SEALs have much to teach the rest of us. In The Way of the SEAL: Think Like an Elite Warrior to Lead and Succeed(Reader’s Digest, 2013), he talks about how anyone can cultivate tough, SEAL-like mental and emotional skills and use them to succeed. Divine is a retired naval commander who earned an MBA before joining the SEALs in 1990 and serving for 20 years. He went on to co-found the Coronado Brewing Co. and the SEALFIT and Unbeatable Mind integrated training programs.

What special traits do Navy SEALs possess?

There is a myth that SEALs are some kind of supermen who are born that way, but what sets them apart is their mental discipline, fortitude and the will to work harder than anyone else—harder than they’re expected to work. A new normal begins to set in. They start looking for the next challenge, and it sets them on an upward spiral of growth. Anyone can tap into that power using those same principles. You don’t have to be a Navy SEAL to operate at that level.

Instructors lead SEALs through grueling training. How can people in the business world achieve similar discipline?

Most organizations focus on skills training. That’s important, but team training can focus on personal mastery, as well: developing integrity, supporting the leader’s vision even if you don’t agree with it, learning how to make great decisions as a team. All are character traits and skills that have a direct impact on the corporate setting, but they need to be developed. That’s the type of training SEALs undergo. When team members get radically focused and work together toward personal mastery, the whole energy of the tribe starts to emulate that of a SEAL.

How can a business exemplify "the way of the SEAL"?

There are 2,000 SEALs, but they leverage all of the military—coordinating the efforts of U.S. Army Special Forces, aircraft carriers, submarines and other external stakeholders—to get the job done.

A lot of organizations that are accelerating their business are acting that way. They reach out for support to independent contractors when they need to and thus can move very quickly and nimbly. That’s the way of the future.

How important is intuition?

SEALs tend to rely on intuition quite a bit because they are often on the edge of danger. Your senses also get refined when you spend so much time in silence—for example, while on a mission or underwater for 8-10 hours in a minisubmarine. You cultivate an ability to listen to your gut.

I remember being on the range for a shooting class at Camp Pendleton, Calif., at 5:30 on a bitterly cold morning. Suddenly, I felt that I needed to stop what I was doing; it was like someone was tugging at me, holding me back. Half a millisecond later, a SEAL behind me accidentally discharged a 9 mm round. I could feel the wind of the bullet. One more step and it would have gone right into the back of my head.

Intuition is not voodoo. It’s an important skill, and it’s powerful to learn to spend time in silence. Try quietly breathing before critical meetings.

"More is better" is a rule you advocate breaking. How does this apply to the workplace?

Bigger and more is not always better. We learn in the SEALs that there is an optimal size for peak performance in a team. For example, each platoon is made up of 16 men—the ideal size for moving fast—and each team is 100 to 150 people. The SEALs execute only one mission at a time. We get deep into that one mission and dominate it.

Many successful new technology companies operate with a lean team that focuses on one thing they do extremely well—they laser-focus their efforts.

On an individual level, if you start stripping down the commitments and get really good at one or two things you’re passionate about, then your performance starts to accelerate. Don’t try to master it all. Master yourself first.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.
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