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Leadership lessons from the Navy SEALs

navy SEAL leadership

Under pressure you don’t rise to the occasion – you sink to the level of your training. That’s just one of the lessons business coaches can learn from the US Navy SEALs’ training ethic, says Michael Schrage, writing for Harvard Business Review.

Traditional leadership training focuses too heavily on academic knowledge at the expense of practical skills, according to Schrage – so he turns to Brandon Webb, the Navy SEAL who transformed sniper training after 9/11, for inspiration on redressing the balance.


After 9/11, the US military needed snipers ready to meet the challenges of fighting in hostile environments like Iraq and Afghanistan. Military leaders soon realised that just training cadets to shoot better wasn’t enough.

Webb designed a new course that was more rigorous and better taught, drawing on expertise from the teaching profession, professional sport and Olympic champions. Not only did the new curriculum raise standards, but the training methods also saw the pass rate rise from 70% to 98%.


Webb describes four practical ways businesses can emulate the Navy SEAL training programme:

1) Aspire to excellence. “Serious organisations don’t aspire to be comfortably above average.” Training that is just good enough and only helps staff do their jobs “a bit better” is mere box ticking. Training should transform skill levels. Aspire to excellence and start actively encouraging your staff to shine.

2) Incentivise. The Navy SEAL sniper programme incentivises excellence. Mentors are held accountable for their students’ performance. Those who can’t, or don’t, achieve the results expected are removed from their post. Leadership training should incentivise achievement through financial reward or promotion.

Positive teaching methods added to reward systems and accountability motivates educators to ensure their students make the grade.

3) Adapt. Navy SEAL trainers listen to new information and ideas from personnel and react to it – making changes to the programme in a matter of weeks. Enhancing skills is only half the job of training; it’s also about building relationships, so trainers should be willing and able to learn from their students. They should be open to adapting their training courses and methods to match the changing demands of the business.

4) Set an example. Navy SEAL commanders who don’t lead by example are doomed. Nothing motivates like a leader who exemplifies the very qualities and capabilities to which his or her employees aspire. Never ask other people to do anything you’re not willing to do yourself.

Source Article: How The Navy SEALs Train For Leadership Excellence
Author(s): Michael Schrage