January 2015: What Makes US Navy SEALs So Special?

This past weekend like millions of others, I went to watch “American Sniper” and loved it. I also finally watched “Captain Phillips” on HBO this week. Tom Hanks was phenomenal. Both films highlight the elite Navy SEALs. I have yet to see “Lone Survivor”, but that is another real life combat story turned into a major motion picture.


This is both good and bad. It is good in that Hollywood highlights the achievements and difficult lives of some of America’s toughest warriors and biggest heroes. It is bad in that it is more like a “highlight reel” and doesn’t quite capture the years of training and sacrifice it takes to become and remain an elite SEAL. Don’t get me wrong – I am happy that people respect and admire them, but I think it should be for reasons that started long before their first combat mission that made their accomplishments like killing bin Laden possible.


It starts with having to prove you are already among the top 1% – just to get to the opportunity to attend training. Then, once the grueling months of training and selection begins, somewhere around 75-80% fail or drop out. It is not out of the question for a class that starts with 200 to graduate only 30 to 35. I remember going through training at Ft. Bragg and one the 11 Principles of Special Operations Forces was “You can’t mass produce” SOF. The standard must remain high and uncompromised to have only the true elite make it through. The cadre of current SEALs ensures no one undeserving slips through. There are about 2,500 active duty Navy SEALs and only 200-250 new ones pass training each year. Stop. Think about it again. You have to be the best of the best to start and still 4 out of 5 fail.


In the end it is rarely the physical strength or tactical skills that make someone a SEAL. It is their mental toughness, refusal to quit (GRIT), and self-discipline that makes them stand out and earn the right to wear the Trident. But that is only the beginning. From there the skills are constantly reinforced and improved through realistic, difficult training, and actual combat missions. This requires being away from your family for 6-12 months at a time and years of sacrifice to the nation. It certainly harkens back to Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule in Outliers: The Story of Success. The movie shows the successful sniper shot from a mile away or edge of the USS Bainbridge, not the hours and hours of lonely practices on the range that got them there.


There are many general life and business lessons we can take from Navy SEALs. Here are a few of my favorite recent articles that share some of those lessons.


William H. McRaven: Life Lessons From Navy SEAL Training (video)

Admiral McRaven addresses the University of Texas at Austin Class of 2014 (click here to the read the transcript)

Classic lines in here included “If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed…get over being a sugar cookie…and…don’t back down from the sharks.”


7 Tough Leadership Lessons From A Navy SEAL Commander: Taking tactics from the war room to the boardroom (via Fast Company)

As corporate leaders explore how to elevate the effectiveness and professional excellence of their working teams, there is a lot to be learned from Special Ops.

Meticulous planning: From a management standpoint, one of the greatest lessons that can be learned from Navy SEALs is their skill of being highly effective and meticulous planners. They focus on the importance of time management, on-target execution, and completing the mission. They operate with a backup and contingency plan in place for almost every scenario. Ultimate accountability rests on the commander’s shoulders.

Clear expectations: Navy SEALs focus on a very clear set of objectives, where significant importance is placed on defining the goal and motivating the team to follow.

  1. Teamwork is your top priority
  2. Early leaders are good leaders
  3. Excel at ethics
  4. Stay calm
  5. Hard times help you adapt—quickly
  6. Ambush the competition
  7. Study Darwin.


10 Inspirational Quotes from Navy SEALS Training (via Entrepreneur)

My favorite: “We’re Not Going to Stop Until We Get at Least One Quitter”


The 7 Secret Habits of Navy SEALs (via Inc)

Here are rules to live by to be your most effective.  I learned my best habits–and made some of my most dangerous mistakes–as a Navy SEAL.  If you want to be part of an elite team and are going to shed old habits, make sure to keep these!

  1. Be loyal
  2. Put others before yourself
  3. Be reflective
  4. Be obsessively organized
  5. Assume you don’t know enough. Because you don’t
  6. Be detail-oriented
  7. Never get comfortable


Navy SEAL Lessons For Operating Successfully As A Team (via Fast Company)

Every person counts. And four other important rules to work by.

  1. A Navy SEAL does not discriminate
  2. Every person counts
  3. SEALS train
  4. Everyone is expendable
  5. You never know the measure of people until they are tested


7 Leadership Rules From the SEALs Commander Who Got bin Laden (via Inc)

You’re probably not leading troops on a special forces raid. But the principles espoused by elite military units can help you become a better leader.

  1. It’s about people
  2. Challenge your team
  3. Learn from failure
  4. Take smart risks
  5. Be a good follower
  6. Work for the greater good
  7. Go toward the action


- Tom Deierlein


Upcoming Learning Opportunity: MBA-Quality Leadership Excellence Course

Dates: May 5-7, 2015 NYC

Instructor: West Pointer/Combat Vet/MBA/CEO

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