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Leadership Lessons from a Navy SEAL

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Navy SEALs go into life-threatening situations regularly. Their safety and the safety of their team requires that they make split-second, do-or-die decisions consistently and accurately. SEALs have a lot of responsibility in their role and so strong leadership is essential. Jocko Willink is a former Navy SEAL commander, famous for his leadership style that emphasizes extreme ownership.

Read on as I share more on how you can step up with greater ease and confidence into positions of leadership so that you can create a legacy that is truly inspiring and meaningful to you while leaving an indelible mark on the world.

We can learn a lot from Navy SEALs and their commitment to leadership in the middle of challenging situations.

The Calling of Extreme Ownership

Taking extreme ownership for your actions means that you take 100% responsibility for your actions without blaming anyone else for where you are in your career.

Consider the following phrases:

“I don’t understand why my company hasn’t promoted me yet.”

“I wish that my team would respect my decisions and not go behind my back.”

“Why does my boss just see me as an extra set of hands? I can handle more responsibility.”

We’ve all said things like this before, but underlying each sentence is a refusal to take responsibility for the influential role we played that manifested our current situation.

For example, if your boss isn’t giving you more responsibility, consider if you have not shown them you can handle it. Then activate your creative innovation to identify what specific actions you will take to demonstrate that you can handle more responsibility.

You can’t control other people’s actions—each person is responsible for their own. Extreme ownership allows you to be in confident control of yourself, which will ultimately set you up to get to the next level in your career with autonomy.

2. Managing up

Leadership can start in any position. You don’t need a formal title or position to be a leader. Managing up is when you take the lead and use your knowledge and expertise to communicate your perspective with your team and leader.

Ask thoughtful questions to gain insight and knowledge to do your job well.

Confidently convey information and expertise so that opportunities are given to you.

Communication is the key to managing up. The moment you consistently articulate your expertise in a way that is impactful and respectful to those who hold positional authority, you will be managing up.

3. Commander’s intent

Jocko Willink was a commander of a Navy SEAL team. The commander holds an intent or vision for the next mission. Successful completion of the mission depends on the commander’s ability to clearly instruct the team on this intent.

Once the intent is clear, a team can make their own choices and decisions in each moment, as long as they are aligned with the commander’s original intent.

This is true in our workplaces as well. Your boss, executive, or manager hired you for a reason—there was intent and purpose behind their decision to bring you on the team. Attempt to understand that reason and ensure that your decisions in the field are aligned with their intent.

To increase the probability of alignment with the commander’s intent, the following actions can assist:

Ask questions that align with the leader’s intent by staying focused and on-task.

Perform a periodic self-assessment resulting in a checklist of what is working and not working over each period.

Have an alignment-inducing questionnaire answered at the end of each period for any misalignment or misinterpretation that led to unproductive application.

Have the leader identify and list the top 10 contributions that key team members have made to them individually and in the presence of others.

Identify and list your own high-value contributions to the leader and to the overall organization.
Lead by example to your team, following the goals and vision laid out for you in ways that demonstrate yourself to be a reliable team player.

4. Default to action

In every workplace there are difficult decisions to be made. And, when those arise, a lot of people will default to waiting. We are nervous to take action because there is some ambiguity, so we wait and see how it plays out.

Consider, for example, a team member who is bringing the team down and you are considering letting them go. This is a tough decision to make. But if you choose to wait and see rather than take action, you can ultimately hurt them, the team, and even yourself by keeping around an unproductive employee.

Instead of defaulting to waiting, default to action. You have a unique set of values and if you can see how your responsibilities will help you fulfill what’s important to you, you are able to live with congruence, become more engaged with your decisions, and become more poised and composed in your actions.

When you are faced with difficult decisions, your leadership approach may necessitate:

Collect the data to ground yourself in the truths of the situation at hand, so as to better inform your decision objectively.

Follow any overarching rules or procedures that have been historically outlined in the organizational processes, so as to help objectively govern your actions towards fairness and equanimity.

Create an accountability checklist that has to be transparently checked off and include items that moderate imbalanced decision making.

Allow for solution-oriented, non-oppositional feedback to be silently heard for the sake of the commander’s intent, and the organization’s overall mission, vision, and primary objectives.

Get out of your comfort zone and make the challenging decision, while inviting important questions to be asked.

Clarify your highest priority actions and be accountable to what effectively produces results that are in the mutual best interest of all parties.

Master the art of communication in accordance with the leader’s and each team members’ highest values.

Waiting can do a lot more harm than good. But careful and purposeful decision-making can ultimately improve the situation and establish you as a strong leader.

5. Leader-follower

Leadership is really more of a dance between leading and following. Yes, there will be many times where you take the initiative and lead your team. But every great leader is also an astute follower.

As a leader, you need to be able to recognize when someone else has the expertise or knowledge to lead the team. When that happens, take a step back and allow them to lead during that time. It is productive to ask important questions that rely on others’ expertise to solve to assist in achieving the chief aims of the overall organization. This humility and awareness that you don’t always need to lead is what will make people want to follow you.

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Accountability is the multiplier for success. When we set out to make improvements to ourselves and our lives, transformation is key. Information alone doesn’t transform. My coaching program, Awaken to Vocation, is an empowerment program for educated, career-driven professionals who value making a meaningful contribution as much as they value making a good living. It is designed to help you master your professional destiny, elevate your vocational confidence, and dominate your life purpose. Guard your future.

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