Leadership: 12 lessons from the Navy SEALs


Forever on the lookout for the keys to leadership, the ability that some people have to guide others to reach their goals and be successful together, I was eager to share with you the 12 keys to leadership from the book « Extreme Ownership, how US Navy SEALs lead and win » by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin.

(Buy the book now)

Jocko and Leif were SEALs (Sea, Air and Land), the US Navy military elite and led American and allied soldiers during the battle of Ramadi in Irak.

The crucial interest in leadership of an elite unit stems from the fact that once on the ground, these professionals have to lead men in an environment where the slightest mistake can have life-threatening consequences. Despite enormous stress and stakes that few would withstand, these men and women work as formidably efficient teams. I bring to you here the 12 keys to the “Extreme Ownership” programme that Jocko and Leif extracted from their highly skilled military experience and adapted to the business world where they now work as leadership consultants.


1. Extreme Ownership

For Jocko and Leif, there is no two ways about it… take full responsibility for what is happening or has happened. If a member of a team has not understood one of his instructions, the team leader cannot blame him. It is his role as a leader to make sure that his team members understand his instructions. Likewise, if he himself doesn’t understand the data he has received, he will take responsibility and ask his superiors for explanations rather than say it wasn’t properly explained from the beginning. In a business, if a client has decided to change his supplier and has turned to the competition… There is no point in saying it isn’t one’s fault but what are the lessons to be learned. An employee hasn’t understood instructions? He is not to be blamed, as a supervisor, it is my job to check he has understood what is expected of him! My boss doesn’t give me enough time to develop my career? It is my responsibility to go up to him and draw his attention to the matter.

The advantage of « Extreme Ownership » is that it generates dynamism. It pushes you to act and it is thus no longer possible to wallow in complaints and criticism.

How to apply « Extreme Ownership »? Count the number of times you put the blame on somebody else or an external circumstance, and instead of complaining, actively look for how you could solve the problem.


2.   There is no such thing as a bad team, just bad leaders

One of the main characteristics of SEALs is their ability to work as a team. Indeed, there is nothing worse for a SEAL than to be individualistic or perceived as such. Lone individuals cannot survive in the extreme conditions of Special Forces operations. This is why when selecting candidates, an enormous amount of energy is used to stimulate teamwork. But as much as it is important to work as a team, it is equally important to have a good leader heading these teams. You have certainly noticed how a good leader can help a team evolve towards success whereas a bad one can make it lose.

Jocko and Leif tell of teams systematically failing the SEALs’ rigorous tests of BUDS (Basic Underwater Demolition Seal Training) when led by an incompetent leader. But when a better leader took over, these teams suddenly started winning endurance or speed races. 

When a team is malfunctioning, there is no point in blaming the people in it. One must always look to the leader’s abilities.

Read now: Entrepreneurship: what you can learn from a former Navy SEAL, successful entrepreneur and father of 4 boys…


3.   Believing is the first step

When they first realised that their SEALs team would have to take barely out of school Iraki soldiers onto the field, Jocko and Leif were appalled. Not only did it seem ridiculous to pair up elite soldiers with beginner soldiers, it also risked being extremely dangerous. Some of these Iraki soldiers were known to desert at the first shot fired or even to shoot themselves by accident. 

It was thus of course difficult to stand in front of their team and present the plan.

Indeed it is difficult to ‘sell’ a plan to one’s team, if one doesn’t first believe in it oneself. The worst thing to say would be ‘it isn’t me, the order comes from above’. Jocko and Leif took the time to meet with their superior to better understand the context of the decision. The reasoning behind it was simple, the Iraki army would have to take over in the near future if the SEALs were ever to go home. This explanation gave Jocko and Leif the ability to better convince their team to accept this decision and the extra risks, because their leaders ‘believed’ in the interest of their mission.

If you want to maintain leadership of your team, never give the impression that you don’t understand or don’t approve of a decision ‘from above’. If you don’t understand the reasoning behind a strategy, go find the information so that you too can ‘believe’ and trust the decision taken by your hierarchy.


4.   Beware of your ego

Can you imagine a worse place than a battlefield to be faced with a colleague who is a show off, knows everything and won’t take any advice? This unfortunately also exists in the army, the difference being that a soldier or officer who believes they can learn nothing from a man who’s been on the field for longer, never mind his grade, risks his own death or that of one of his team. Jocko and Leif have been confronted to a series of individuals who, due to their rank, their experience in the army or their age, believed they had nothing to learn. This put them in dangerous situations that could have been avoided with a bit of wisdom.   

Ego can be a dangerous thing. Even in business. Whatever your experience, age or position, if you have the impression you know everything, or feel you don’t have to listen to advice, it may be high time for a slice of humble pie. If not, life and circumstances will show you. Contrary to popular belief, you will not lose credit in the eyes of your team if you admit you don’t know everything. Indeed, this will only reinforce your position as leader. 


5.   Cover and move

In SEALs lingo, ‘Cover and Move’ means that before you move on the field, whether bullets are raining or not, you always have to ensure that part of the team or another team ensures cover for the team that is moving. Just as, when walking, you wouldn’t lift a leg before putting down the other. This, as you can imagine entails being able to work as a team and with other teams with flawless communication and trust. Each team is engaged in the mission either when moving or when covering the moving team. United in the one perspective, accomplishing the mission, the objective being to ensure the security of every member of the operation.

Once again, it is essential here to understand the notion of teamwork and to develop trust in each of its members. And this trust must extend out from the team to the other departments of a business that interact to accomplish its designed mission.


6.   Keep things simple

A while ago, I read « complexity is the enemy of execution ». An exceptionally interesting sentence I thought and very true. Indeed, the simpler a plan, an instruction or a strategy is to understand, the more we are inclined to act. Inversely, the more it is complex and obscure, the more suspicion will take over and less one will be inclined to act. It is obvious that in commando operations, everybody has an interest in understanding properly how things are supposed to happen.

In business, faced with over-complicated processes, cryptic marketing strategies or over-elaborate price charts, it is often best to simplify, even if some precision is lost in the process. At least, the people confronted with the strategy, the process or the chart will be able to make a decision and act.

In the lobby of the Apple designer, John Ive, it is said that there hangs the following slogan: « simplicity simplicity simplicity ».


7.   Setting up priorities and acting on them

Be it in business or in Special Forces military operations, there are times when human beings may feel submerged by demands, challenges and uncertainties. The most important thing is to remain focused, calm and to be able to stop to consider the options at hand. Everything cannot always be done or resolved immediately. But rather than remain in uncertainty and indecision or be submerged by challenges, one should be able to take a short break, take a step back and determine the most important priority to be taken into account at this moment, set up a plan to resolve the problem and act until this problem is resolved. Then move on to the next challenge.

This simple technique musn’t of course replace the ability to keep an overview of the situation but when stress is sky high and that confusion has taken over, it is very efficient to be able to identify and resolve each problem individually and by order of importance.


8.   Decentralising command

One of the main characteristics of the SEALs units is to often operate in hostile territory in total secrecy and perfect autonomy. Unlike conventional force units, which move in large numbers and in broad daylight, a mission can be carried out by four to six men moving soundlessly by night

It is then difficult in the case of enemy contact or complications, to communicate swiftly and efficiently with the chain of command to adapt the mission to the new circumstances. Infiltrated men will thus have to make their own decisions. Decentralising command means that the mission and its limits have been formally defined by senior officers who have an overview of the mission, but the details of execution are left to the people on the field who are in contact with its reality. These highly trained men are aware of their responsibilities and have a clear idea of what is expected of them. They are authorised and able to make their own decisions.

This metaphor of decentralised command perfectly illustrates the need to develop an organisation that works Top-down but also Bottom-up. As Frédéric Laloux states in his book “Reinventing Organizations”. Even if many organisations are able to set up a structure with leaders who send their instructions downwards, it is rarer to find examples of businesses that are able to let their employees on the field make important decisions for the execution of the global mission. Yet it is often the most efficient way to get concrete results and especially a genuine commitment from collaborators. Indeed, how can one expect an employee on the field to feel motivated and committed if he has no leeway and only gets orders from above.


9.   Plan

It is obvious that everything cannot be organised and planned in advance and that the saying « no plan resists the first contact with the enemy », regularly makes total sense for men in the SEALs units. However, the more precautions are taken to anticipate problems and mishaps, the higher the chances of success. It is thus the leader’s responsibility to plan for a maximum numbers of scenarios and alternative plans so as to adapt to a situation that can change at any moment. “If this happens, then we do that, if that plan doesn’t work, then we move to this other plan”. These plans must be clearly explained to all members of the team and the leader must ensure that everyone understands all aspects of the various options.


10. Leading downwards AND upwards

Here is a notion which, I think, has a lot of potential in our organisations and businesses. Close to the concept of “Bottom-up Top-down” and “Extreme Ownership”, “Leading downwards AND upwards” implies that if a plan, a decision or a strategy decided by the senior management doesn’t make sense or cannot work on the field, the people on the field pluck up the courage to contact their leaders or officers requesting to consider the reality they face. All too often, an unpopular decision will be criticised or even mocked by people on the field but little will be done to for the matter to be brought to management for a reality check. Once again, the advice is not to complain but to act, to discuss with the hierarchy and to do everything to establish communication and mutual understanding. As much as the leader must ensure that his employee has understood the aim of the mission and its objectives, the person who carries out the task must just as much make sure that his superior is aware of the various difficulties that can crop up and all this with the greatest mutual respect.


11. Indecision and uncertainty

For a SEAL, there is nothing worse than indecision. When the situation is beyond tense and people risk their lives, it is not possible to remain paralysed and not take any decisions. It is sometimes possible in everyday life to tell oneself that faced with a lack of information, concrete facts or simply uncertainty, we will wait to see how things pan out. In the Special Forces however, this is rarely possible. There is real danger in letting a situation degenerate due to a lack of firmness and decisiveness.  

Jocko and Leif, both well versed in decision making and maximum risk, recommend to make a decision rather that ‘wait and see’. Often a situation in everyday life will follow the same pattern and degenerate due to a lack of decision. Sometimes these decisions are difficult to make, such as firing a person who has become toxic for the company and his team. However, the more one waits, the more the situation degenerates and more everybody suffers from it.

I wish to add that indecisiveness is a great friend of lack of confidence. Somebody who can make decisions is not necessarily somebody who knows more than the others. Often he just knows that if he has made the wrong decision, he will find the way to rectify the situation. Singularly, for those who lack self-confidence, the simple fact of getting used to making decisions as often as possible (starting with small things), will enable them to progressively assert themselves. Indeed, most of the time, the decision taken will end up being the right one and if such is not the case, the person will find the way to rectify things while realising that he has more abilities than he or she thought she had.

Read now: Difficult decisions: 8 keys to overcome your fear of making choices

12. Discipline brings freedom

Here is a notion that seems counter-intuitive to say the least. And yet Jocko and Leif use their elite military experience to put across that the more a plan is studied with discipline and detail, the easier it will be to react faced with an unexpected situation. The more a SEAL trains carrying all his gear, the more easily he will move in a real situation. The more the rules of engagement or the instructions for a mission are known and clear, the more the men on the field will be able to make their own decisions. In another category, musicians would also say that the more they rehearse, the more they know their instrument and the freer they feel to improvise, whatever the context.

Discipline and commitment require personal investment and effort from the onset, but this investment will liberate the person ready to put the hours in.

No need to say that in the kind of job and conditions that Jocko and Leif have experienced, indiscipline is not tolerated considering the consequences it can lead to.

Indiscipline generally sets in progressively and if it is not stopped, it often degenerates and creates situations that can be costly for people and teams as much in the military as in private life.

I have here tried to put through my understanding of the 12 keys to leadership of the exceptional men that are Jocko Wilinck and Leif Babin. I hope you will also find food for thought and tools that will help you in developing your company or organisation.

(Buy the book now)

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I look forward to welcoming you here for another article on leadership, innovation or organisational development…

Pierre-Yves Hittelet

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