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StrategyFeb 14, 2012

Navy SEALs and the Hardest Thing You’ll Ever Do at Work

Matt Levy

A trainee dives into the 50-foot water tower without an oxygen tank.  He is going deep.  Several trainees carry an extremely heavy log on their shoulders across the beach for a nice long run.  It’s not uncommon to see a compound fracture on the obstacle course or near hypothermia from the 55 degree open water pacific swims.  They’ve been up since 5am every morning for the past few weeks engaged in intensive training.  Just another day at the office.  Are you kidding me?!

Recently I had the opportunity to visit the Navy SEALs training facilities on Coronado Island outside of San Diego, CA.  As we were touring the facilities we saw one of the SEAL trainees in what is called “BUDs” (Basic Underwater Demolition School) running to get something.  The way you know a trainee is in BUDs is by the helmets they wear and that they must run everywhere.  I saw another guy walking from the BUDs training dorm to his car with all of his bags.  He didn’t look very happy.  I learned that 75% of those who enroll in the Navy program dropout, don’t make it to graduation and miss out on becoming a SEAL.  Besides the guy with the helmet on, I really couldn’t tell who was who.

My friend who gave us the tour told me that if you line up 100 civilians and 100 Navy SEALs, beyond the obvious standouts, there would be no discernible visible difference between the two groups.   However, if you take a group of SEALs and a group of civilians and put them into a combat situation one group will take ground and one group will perish.  The SEALs have disciplined and pushed themselves to win.  They have confidence in their ability to execute because they trust one another and have prepared to go to war together.  They know each other better than you and I will most likely ever experience.  The group with no training, no discipline, no unity and no preparation will fail.  My friend told me that the SEALs who graduate from BUDs are the ones who care more about their classmates than they do about themselves.

In business, the military and in everyday life, how we relate to and engage with one another speaks volumes about our character.  In the case of a SEAL, organizational hierarchy doesn’t determine respect, confidence and trust.  The most respected SEALs are those who put the lives of their team ahead of their own while still, somehow, get the job done.  How does this apply to those we are serving, working along side and leading?  Are we willing to ask others the hard questions concerning our own personal leadership?  Even more importantly, are we prepared to make the necessary changes?

At least a couple times each year circumstances dictate the need for me to ask those who I am working most closely with some difficult questions.  I try to listen very carefully to their feedback and then work hard to close any gaps moving forward.  This is really hard for me, but it is the right thing to do.

  • Where have I created a lack of trust or confidence through my words or behavior?

  • How does trusting you look differently from what I am doing today?

  • Where have I been wrong or where have I left you with a feeling that I’ve wronged you?

  • Where am I causing disunity among our leadership?

  • Am I bringing the right things up in the right way when we discuss a variety of topics?  Do you trust me to bring these up?

  • How do you think about my role as a leader? Do you trust me? Where do you trust me the least?  Where do you trust me the most?

After listening intently I usually discover the need to ask the person I am engaged with to forgive me for something I’ve done that has caused unnecessary concern or frustration.

Only after agreeing to work on my own issues and growth areas do I feel the freedom to ask others to consider working on theirs.  Creating a culture that values people who are willing to have discussions like these is critical to growing leaders and breeding trust with those we go to battle with (i.e. colleagues, clients, family members, friends).  It has been my experience over the last ten years that, even though very difficult, these conversations yield a deep and meaningful return for all of those involved.

Would love to hear your thoughts … how are you building trust with those closest to you? Is there a better way?