Leadership Secrets from a Navy SEAL
Even in great pain, faced with the test of his life, a Navy SEAL has to have the ability to step outside his own pain, put aside his own fear and ask: How can I help the guy next to me?
Scientists constantly caution against “confirmation bias.” Confirmation bias is just a gussied up way of saying that to the man with a hammer everything looks like a nail. If, for example, we believe that people are lazy we will see laziness whereever we look. I try to be objective, but everywhere I look I still find confirmation that service and selflessness is the key to success.
Eric Greitens, a Navy SEAL, recently published an article in the Wall Street Journal called The SEAL Sensibility. Greitens grippingly describes the training that reduced his class of 220 wannabe SEALs to 21 graduates: training that culminates in Hell Week where candidates only get 2-5 hours of total sleep.
“When they really wanted to torture us,” Greitens writes, “they’d say, ‘Anybody who quits right now gets hot coffee and doughnuts. Come on, who wants a doughnut? Who wants a little coffee?’
“Out of the corner of my eye, I saw men running for the bell. First two men ran, then two more, and then another. The instructors had carried the bell out with us to the beach. To quit you rang the bell three times. I could hear it: Ding, ding, ding. Ding, ding, ding. Ding, ding, ding.”
But most revealing was Greitens’ description of the kind of men who succeed vs. those who fail. An assessment that only confirms a number of my own confirmation biases.
“What kind of a man makes it through Hell Week? That’s hard to say. But I do know-generally- who won’t make it. There are a dozen types that fail: the weight-lifting meatheads… the kids covered in tattoos announcing to the world how tough they are, the preening leaders who don’t want to get their hands dirty, and the look-at-me former athletes who have always been told they are stars but have never been pushed beyond the envelope of their talent to the core of their character.”
Greitens also says that some of the most unlikely candidates do make it: weak men who “puked on runs” and had “trouble with pull-ups;” men whose “teeth clattered just looking at the ocean;” men who were “visibly afraid, sometimes to the point of shaking.”
But according to Greitens almost all the men who make the SEALs share one common quality.
“Even in great pain, faced with the test of their lives, they had the ability to step-outside their own pain, put aside their own fear and ask: How can I help the guy next to me? They had more than the ‘fist’ of courage and physical strength. They also had a heart large enough to think about others, to dedicate themselves to a higher purpose.” [youtubevid id="zKbOL2iBm2w"]
Very few of us will audition for the Navy SEALs. But in business and in our personal lives we will all face our own Hell Weeks. Whether through a cash-crunched company, a divorce or the death of child, life inevitably will push us beyond the envelope of our talent to the core of our character. And when Hell Week arrives some will make the cut while others will ring the bell. So in this sense what do the Navy SEALs have to teach us as leaders and human beings?
The first SEAL lesson is that the character traits you need to survive Hell Week must be built BEFORE all hell breaks loose. Crisis doesn’t build character; it reveals it. History is replete with people like Ben Franklin, John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, and Leo Tolstoy who engaged in daily character building exercises long before they were needed. For example, in his biography The Snowball: Warren Buffet and the Business of Life, Buffet attributes his success to his lifelong commitment to the character building exercises of Dale Carnegie: Not to Wharton Business School or even his legendary mentor, Ben Graham.
The second lesson is never confuse the heart of character with the fist of skills. Skills are things of the head. Character is who we are, and as Greitens points out, character relies on things of the heart. You can’t learn how to step outside of your own pain and ask: How can I help the guy next to me? by reading a book or this article. You mustbecome that person by chipping away at selfishness every day no matter how damn busy you think you are.
The third SEAL lesson is aim past the target. Becoming a SEAL is the by-product not the goal itself. The common denominator that all the successful candidates shared was their concern for others: a concern that transcended their desire to merely become a SEAL. In business if we want big profits we must aim at something far bigger than big profits. Love your customers and the profits will follow.
Carl Jung, the great psychiatrist and student of Freud once said, “Whether God exists or not is a legitimate question. That man needs a God is an incontrovertible fact.” Whether you are religious or not the final SEAL lesson is that you need what Greitens calls a “higher purpose” that guides and informs your daily life.
Hell Week takes as many forms as there are people to endure them, but by definition they test us beyond our individual strength. Just as a mother will do things for her child that she could never do for herself, you need something bigger than yourself that you can fall back on when everything is crumbling around you. Tragically, as with so many wannabe SEALs, we often only realize the limitations of the fist of selfishness when the bell has already been rung.
The movie Defending Your Life cleverly borrows from several religious traditions to argue that life itself is just one long SEAL training. In the film the recently departed must review their lives on screen and prove to a judge that they successfully transcended their selfish fears.Those that survive this Hell Week “move on.” Those that fail return to earth and do it all over again. I recommend this humorous movie, but we don’t need eternity to make the point. Success on earth is directly proportional to how successfully we step outside of our own pain, put aside our own fear, and ask: How can I help the guy next to me?
Greitens’ new book is “The Heart and the Fist: the Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL. In light of his article I don’t think it is an accident the heart trumps the fist and that his title implies that he is a humanitarian first and a SEAL only second.