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How to Lead Like a U.S. Navy Seal

Leadership transcends trends, generations, movements, revolutions, and time



Image Credit: Unsplash

It was about a quarter past two in the afternoon when my phone rang and displayed an unfamiliar number from Chesapeake, Virginia.

“Hey, Devil Dog, it’s Don Shipley.”

A voice I had grown familiar with over several years watching retired Navy SEAL Senior Chief Petty Officer Don Shipley on one of the most popular streaming platforms in the country confront men all over the continent who fraudulently claimed to have served as U.S. Navy SEALs.

Today, this phone call wouldn’t be confrontational. He wasn’t calling to bust a phony servicemember or confront a pathological liar for stolen valor. I had asked for a few minutes of his time less than twenty-four hours prior, and he graciously obliged.

How often do you get the privilege of picking the brain of a leadership legend?

I anticipated a glimpse into a small and exclusive universe few will ever experience. I anticipated transformational leadership principles from a carefully cultivated pedigree of frogmen and elite warriors throughout the long and proud tradition and history of Naval Special Warfare. I anticipated my understanding of how to lead people to be turned on its axis. I anticipated everything that I thought I knew about building effective teams to be challenged by the touchstone acumen of a sharper and more experienced leader.

Needless to say, my mind was blown, but not how I had expected it to be.

As the conversation progressed, I grew closer towards an unexpected conclusion:

Leadership transcends trends, generations, movements, revolutions, and time.

The best stick to the basics.

A good general not only sees the way to victory; he also knows when victory is impossible. —Polybius

So, how does this elite fraternity of Navy SEALs build effective teams and lead their people under the most extreme and dangerous conditions?

The answer may amaze you with its simplicity, and the good news is, even if you can’t be a SEAL, you have everything it takes to lead like one.

Here’s how:

Be humble.

Do your absolute best.

Be accountable.

Be honest.

Be trustworthy.

Learn every chance you get.

Care about your people.

Go through challenging times together.

Learn from poor leadership experiences.

Don’t complain.

Support your people.

Elevate each other.

Don’t waste your mistakes. Learn from them.

Don recalled a survey that was conducted in the middle of the 1980s by a team of psychiatrists who evaluated several Navy SEALs past and present to determine what traits were shared in common with the men who had successfully completed the rigorous and demanding rites-of-passage to be indoctrinated into the proud brotherhood of the U.S. Navy SEALs. 

At the conclusion of the survey, it was determined that no common personality traits necessarily contributed to the collective success of the candidates who successfully completed the training. It was simply a desire to succeed, a dedication to the purpose, and putting forth the effort that carried them through. 

The unassuming who kept their focus when distraction was more attractive are the ones who reached their goals.

We can analyze leadership in a think-tank or laboratory and attempt to reinvent the wheel for the remainder of the existence of humanity.

Just like the wheel, though, the best stick to the basics.

Brian Parsons is a leader, teacher, author, philanthropist, and CEO of Just Keep Playing Media, LLC with over twenty years of experience in diverse leadership roles. He is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps, a former peace officer for the state of Colorado, a former non-profit manager, and the author of the Don’t Bee a Prick leadership book series.

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