Lessons from Navy SEALs

Mike Coote

Mike Coote

This is a guest post from my mentor and coach, Michael Coote from S+ – The Real Leadership Company  

The US Navy’s Sea, Air, Land Teams, commonly known as the Navy SEALs, is the United States Navy’s principal special operations force. It is usually their duty  to conduct small-unit maritime military operations which originate from, and return to a river, ocean, swamp, delta or coastline. Part of the United States Special Operations Command, SEAL teams are highly trained tactical units whose job it is to carry out missions and campaigns that other teams are not equipped to do.

Having recently read The Way of the SEAL and a Navy SEAL training manual, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between the competitive landscapes of the military and business. What (if anything) can I learn from SEALs? And what might “Black Ops inspired” business look like? So I have drawn up this list of my top 8 lessons from the SEAL handbook. They have struck a chord and inspired me.

1. Learn “Kokoro”

Kokoro is a Japanese term which means to merge our heart and mind in action. It implies that we perform at our best when we are balanced and centered, both with ourselves, with others and with our environment. This is why SEALs are encouraged to meditate every day, in order to visualise a successful outcome of whatever mission lies ahead that day. They call it sacred silence time.

Of the several mantras that SEALs focus on during these meditations, four of them resonated with me the most;

  1. Bullet-proof your mission to inoculate your efforts against failure.
  2. Do today what others won’t so you can achieve tomorrow what others can’t.
  3. Break things and remake them, improving them through innovation and adaptation.
  4. Think offense, all the time, to surprise your competition and dominate the field.

Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible”. T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935)

2. Stand For Something

It has been quoted many times that unless you stand for something, you will fall for anything, but SEAL’s take this challenge very seriously. They are taught to find their own deeply held personal values, and to hold onto them. This is so that they will always be able to answer the question, “Why am I doing this?”, because if they don’t know the answer, they will likely lose focus when they are facing great personal risk. When SEALs know their purpose, they use it as an internal navigational system that never blows them off course.

If you have heard Sinek’s TED “Why” talk, this will all feel very familiar, but SEALs split their why into two parts; the stand and the purpose. The difference between a stand and a purpose is distinct. Your stand is your core set of beliefs. Once you know what they are you can clarify your purpose. Your stand answers the question “What would I do?” and your purpose answers the question “Why am I here?”. I spent many hours working out my own values and purpose, and it is such a productive process that I am encouraging organisations to do the same. What do you stand for and why are two of the most difficult, but most rewarding questions that I encourage any business unit to spend time discussing.

3. Define the Mission

When you strive to achieve any goal (or embark on a mission), you must clarify and define expectations, both explicit and implicit. You may understand the explicit expectations well, but hidden within any mission are implicit expectations which could compromise the outcome. For example, a SEAL may define his mission as the sinking of an enemy ship. But implied in the mission may be that senior leaders expect that ship to be out of action for 6 months, complete the mission in secret that evening, and do it without any personnel losses. SEAL commanders teach that if the implied tasks of the mission are out of sync with the teams competencies, resources, risk tolerance or time frame, then it will fail. The same is clearly true in business as well.

SEALs have a list of questions they use to question any mission, but these three stood out to me the most:

  1. Is there some higher priority project that may take precedence and sidetrack me?
  2. Why am I doing this? (is it aligned with our overall mission as a company / team?)
  3. What other subtasks are required before I can fulfill what is expected of me?

4. Simplify the Battlefield

Simplifying the battlefield is SEAL speak for eliminating distractions. This requires two key elements. First, you must know your unique talent / offering so that you can identify what you must do and what needs delegating, then you must de-clutter your internal and external environments so that you can see simple solutions more easily. SEALs have a very diverse skill set, but their teams are set up according to each mission – allowing them to get in, get it done and get out in the shortest amount of time. In war or in business, success comes from knowing the things that you (and your team) do better than anyone else.

In practice, SEALs create bullet proof mission plans by going through an exercise called FITS;

FIT: Does the target fit your team? Is it the best use of time and energy? What will it cost to engage this target, and is the ROI worth the effort?
IMPORTANCE : How important is the target to the broader strategic mission? What effect will this mission have on me, my team and my enemy / competitors?
TIMING : Is this this right time to address this target? Are we ready? How will our competition respond?
SIMPLICITY : Is the target simple and clear? Can we achieve our goal without degrading our reputation, future capacities or team cohesion?

5. Set SMART Goals

Navy SEALs are taught to keep a journal and regularly assess their personal performance, vision, values and purpose. Part of this process includes selecting goals or missions that will move them towards fulfilling their purpose, breaking them down into 1 and 3 year goals that drive towards their primary objectives. They then create quarterly or micro-goals that can be tied to their 1 year goal.

6. Excel in Chaos

When chaos becomes a norm – as in when countries, industries or companies go through periods of rapid change – the human mind is thrown into confusion, immediately seeking comfort by looking for remnants of the old, stable system. SEALs are taught the discipline of avoiding any ritualised patterns, with team leaders saying that “Routine is the enemy”. They change their routines frequently to keep their perspective fresh, stating that in warfare, chaos and a lack of routine quickly confuses their opponents.

7. Shoot, Move and Communicate

Agility and velocity are crucial for leaders as our business climate increasingly takes on the attributes of a battlefield. SEAL leaders remain agile by maintaining situational awareness as a “shoot, move and communicate” process called OODA.

Observe > Orient > Decide > Act

This process has been used successfully as a process for years. It is a mental model that compels you to process and respond to information quickly. In doing so, you get very good at making important and complicated decisions quickly. The process is built on the basis that if you can speed up your decision-making cycle while slowing down your opponent’s, the outcome will always veer in your favour. In theory, whoever navigates their OODA loop the fastest will have the upper hand.

8. Know When to Break the Rules

Many of these ‘lessons’ feel like rules. Teachers are always quick to explain that you need to fully understand the rules before you break them. If you have read this far, it will come as no surprise to learn that SEALs also have a system for knowing when to break the rules! Here’s a few of them;

  • Is the rule ethical in our determination of what is ethical?
  • Is the rule legal in our system?
  • What is the upside of breaking this rule?
  • Is it better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission?
  • If someone gets hurt, is it only the bad guys?
  • What’s the worst thing that could happen?


SEAL commanders have identified five principles common to success special operations; Purpose, repetition, security, surprise and speed. These principles run through the many processes that SEAL teams have, but I am amazed at the amount of plays, systems and processes that SEALs seem to have. It’s over-whelming!But since I have been reading about SEALs, I have come to the conclusion that a SEAL mindset is often not that complicated at all.

I am a big fan of the Woody Allen quote, “80% of success is turning up”. It is often quoted to try to dispel the myths surrounding leadership and winning, since much corporate success simply involves being in the right place at the right time.

I have loved reading the discipline, drive and determination that Navy SEALs are motivated by. They are clearly an elite force, capable of things that very few people on earth have the physical skills and mental toughness to carry out. Team leaders claim that the mindset of a SEAL, and what makes them successful, is their commitment to do five things incredibly well – 5 things that I think would make any business professional:

1. Controlling your response
2. Controlling your attention
3. Developing emotional resilience
4. Setting effective goals
5. Visualising powerfully

But what I love the most is that many SEALs seem to be driven by this beautifully simple quote from William Feather.

“Success seems to be largely a matter of hanging on after others have let go”.

To contact Mike, please visit The Real Leadership Company or see Mike’s twitter feed at @mikecthecoach 


About Andrew Stewart

Andrew Stewart exists to serve by igniting potential. Husband. Dad. Leader. Cyclist. Friend.
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