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What Navy SEALs Can Teach Us About Leadership Culture
The Navy Sea, Air, Land (SEAL) teams have been around in some form since 1943, at which time they did recon and cleared beach obstacles for troops arriving for amphibious landings. They undergo what many say is the most demanding military training in the world.
The first groups of what later became Navy SEALs cleared beaches in advance of amphibious landings in World War II.
The jobs SEALs are asked to do are about the closest thing we have to “superhero” work in the real world. They tackle the missions that are exceptionally risky, sensitive, and logistically challenging, sometimes collaborating with special forces from other military branches.
Trust, collaboration, and interdependence are essential to successful SEAL missions, and it turns out that businesses can learn quite a bit from how this elite team of modern warriors operates. Mission, team, culture, and leadership are key components to SEAL success and the high esteem in which they are held.
Leadership, Structure, Strategy, Culture Intertwined
In many businesses, everyone understands the importance of leadership, structure, strategy, and culture, but too often businesses work on improving each of these as if they existed in their own silo. In reality, leadership, structure, strategy, and culture are interdependent and must align toward common goals for maximum effectiveness.
To break away from an “every person (or department) for themselves” mindset, it’s necessary to ask some tough questions, like:
- How would we define our organizational culture right now?
- What systems, structures, and attitudes need to change so goals align across our organization?
- Are we treating leadership, structure, strategy, and culture as if each exists in its own bubble?
The answers to those questions can help organizations move toward a mission-oriented, team-oriented approach to achieving goals.
Moving from “Me” to “We” Requires Excellence Across All Dimensions
Entitlement, egocentricity, and selfishness pervade the top ranks of too many businesses today. And this can be a particular risk for the small startup that suddenly grows into a large enterprise. That same self-focus that can be necessary for getting a business off the ground can become an albatross around the neck of a larger, more mature enterprise.
If you look at the Navy SEALs, their priorities are mission, people, and purpose, and making good on these priorities requires teamwork. SEALs form teams of individuals with multiple, complementary motivations and skills, and they make sure never to lose sight of the mission and higher purpose. It requires honest, regular feedback, and agility when things don’t go as expected. It cannot work without trust, honesty, respect, and loyalty – qualities that businesses need to carefully cultivate as well.
Honest communication and feedback are indispensable to teams that deliver results.
Steps to Building a Healthy Leadership Culture
Moving from the “Me” culture of the complacent or egocentric business to the “We” culture that has made the Navy SEALs the legendary entity they are, requires taking several key steps:
- Performing a diagnostic assessment, because you can’t go in the right direction if you don’t know where you are now
- Matching strategy to culture
- Defining behaviors and attitudes that drive real results
- Connecting every team member to the mission
- Assigning change agents where appropriate
- Building an overarching narrative that speaks to the main mission of the organization
- Measuring and monitoring performance, behaviors, and attitudes regularly
When you consider leadership training programs or leadership coaching, are you focusing solely on training program participants, or are you considering the potential improvement in the organization as a whole? After all, the best leadership training program available can only do so much when a business suffers from low morale, lack of purpose, backbiting, and turf wars.
While occasionally, the name of an individual Navy SEAL will make the news, for the most part, we learn about them through the actions of the organization itself and the demanding missions the organization tackles. Businesses can learn from this. It’s not the actions of a singular leader that determine long-term success, but the coordinated actions of a group of properly trained and coached team members who know how to work together to accomplish goals, and who leave their egos at the door.
Business missions are usually nowhere near the level of complexity and risk that the typical Navy SEAL mission is, but that doesn’t mean companies can’t learn from the military’s cream of the crop. I invite you to learn more about my corporate transformation services because when the team works together as something greater than the sum of its parts, that’s when the previously unattainable can happen.