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Shawn Parr: What Can Business Leaders Learn From A Navy SEAL Commander?

CEO of Bulldog Drummond shares what the military can tell us about teamwork, and creating a good work culture.

As corporate leaders explore how to elevate the effectiveness and professional excellence of their working teams, there is a lot to be learned from the Special Ops. Their collaboration with other branches of the military over the past decade make them an area of the military that both corporate America and the government can learn a lot from. I’ve been a longtime fan of the Navy SEALs and in my constant search for inspiration to implement work culture and leadership change, I felt they could be a superb group to learn from. While this highly secretive branch of the military keeps themselves, and their secrets, to themselves, books like Lone Survivor, and The Hunt for Bin Laden give us a look into how they operate. But nothing beats sitting down with a Navy SEAL Commander to understand how they think about leadership.

The contrast between corporate and military leadership are distinctively different for obvious reasons: The military’s leadership is focused on leading organizations responsible for our country’s security and fighting wars, while business leaders are focused on creating value and protecting the interests of their stakeholders, with profit and return on investment often being the top priorities.

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 back-up and contingency plan in place for almost every scenario. One of the most practical skills taught in this branch is clear and direct communication. Most people think that the military teaches direct, one-way communication—but what’s less obvious to non-military folks is the importance SEALs place on listening. SEAL Commanders listen and formulate an opinion that incorporates as many ideas and experiences as possible to form a solid plan. A big difference between Navy SEAL and civilian leadership is that once a Commander’s decision is reached, the discussion is over—then full support and backing is given and a unified front is presented. 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. Even with highly complex operations, each SEAL has a clearly defined role, and expectations can be recited by each team member. Similarly, articulating a compelling vision and aligning people with priorities are vital areas in business, but are often overlooked by many leaders. The SEAL’s rules of engagement (how they respond when confronted) are clearly established before each mission, and modifying these rules could negatively impact the entire operation. The rules of engagement for businesses (what is acceptable employee behavior and what is not) are very often ill-defined or non-existent. One of the biggest disconnects we see in business is the gap between a company’s strategy and the aligned expectations set for the employees.

When talking to a SEAL Commander, he offers tangible advice that can be applied in business:

1. Learn how to work as a team

A mission cannot be successfully executed unless the team is functioning as one. The SEALs continual emphasis on teamwork corresponds closely with the daily requirements of the business world.

2. SEALs are put into leadership positions of significance early in their careers and become comfortable in that role

This opportunity is unparalleled in the corporate world, where an employee may need 10-15 years to reach a position of significant leadership and high level of responsibility.

3. A highly developed sense of ethics and integrity is a common mindset in the SEAL community

In the world of business, the ethical leader is sometimes a rarity, and truly esteemed.

4. The ability to remain calm under pressure is a SEAL expectation

The military trains their team to be more comfortable taking risks with incomplete information. This is the daily function of a CEO, but is rarely passed down to employees.

5. SEALs quickly learn that the punishment and pain of training prepares them to adapt quickly to tough mission environments

Young executives who go through hard times should learn to appreciate them, recognizing that those times will not only strengthen them, but truly train them to properly and successfully lead their own teams when battling the competition.

6. Force your competition onto their heels

In an ambush, always take out the radio operator and the unit leader (usually the guy next to the radioman). Without leadership or good communication the enemy is forced into disarray and can be picked apart. A good lesson for all leaders and their organizations.

7. Study Darwin

Survival is not about who’s the strongest or fastest, but who can best adapt to change. Navy SEAL’s are masters of adaptation, being able to operate in jungle, desert or artic conditions. In comparison, CEOs must adapt to the ever-changing market conditions they face daily and should train their staff to do the same.

Shawn Parr is the CEO of Bulldog Drummond, an innovation and design consultancy headquartered in San Diego. Clients and partners have included Starbucks, Diageo, Jack in the Box, Adidas, MTV, Nestle, Pinkberry, American Eagle Outfitters, Ideo, Virgin, Disney, Nike, Mattel, Heineken, Annie’s Homegrown, The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, CleanWell, The Honest Kitchen, and World Vision. Follow the conversation at @BULLDOGDRUMMOND.

[Image: Flickr user Phil Roeder]

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