How the Navy SEALs train for lead­er­ship

Finweek English Edition - - LAST WORD - BY MICHAEL SCHRAGE

Al­most ev­ery world-class or­gan­i­sa­tion takes train­ing and ed­u­ca­tion se­ri­ously. But the US Navy’s spe­cial oper­a­tions forces, the SEALs, go far be­yond. Their ded­i­ca­tion to re­lent­less train­ing and in­ten­sive prepa­ra­tion, how­ever, is alien to the ma­jor­ity of busi­nesses world­wide. That’s i mpor­tant be­cause ex­cel­lence re­quires more t han com­mit­ment to ed­u­ca­tional achieve­ment.

As an ed­u­ca­tor, I fear that busi­ness schools and busi­nesses over­in­vest in “ed­u­ca­tion” and dra­mat­i­cally un­der­in­vest in “train­ing”. Lead­ers and man­agers get knowl­edge and ed­u­ca­tion, while train­ing and skills go to those who do the work. That busi­ness bias is dan­ger­ous. The SEALs can’t af­ford it. “Un­der pres­sure,” ac­cord­ing to the SEALs, “you don’t rise to the oc­ca­sion; you sink to the level of your train­ing. That’s why we train so hard.” Many tal­ented or­gan­i­sa­tions f ind it diff icult to in­no­vate and adapt un­der pres­sure. A fac­tor may be peo­ple who are overe­d­u­cated and un­der­trained.

Bran­don Webb, an i nno­va­tive SEAL t r a i ner/ ed­u­ca­tor and now CEO of Force12 Media, served in the US Navy from 1993 to 2006 and re­designed the SEAL train­ing course cur­ricu­lum.


Pro­duce ex­cel­lence, not ‘above av­er­age’ “Train­ing pro­grammes shouldn’t be de­signed to de­liver com­pe­tence; t hey must be ded­i­cated to pro­duc­ing ex­cel­lence,” Webb said. “Se­ri­ous or­gan­i­sa­tions don’t as­pire to be com­fort­ably above av­er­age.”

Tra i n i ng d i v orc e d f r om e x c e l l e nce i s mere com­pli­ance. It is more “box-t ick i ng” t han hu­man cap­i­tal in­vest­ment. Is “above av­er­age” train­ing re­ally worth the time, energy and ex­pense? Webb’s per­spec­tive poses a chal­lenge to most or­gan­i­sa­tions’ views of hu­man re­sources. Do they re­ally want train­ing to bring out the best in their peo­ple? Or does ev­ery­one train with the ex­pec­ta­tion that ex­cel­lence mat­ters less than be­ing a bit bet­ter?

Re­ward ex­cel­lence, not com­pe­tence

ex­plic­itly ac­knowl­edge and pro­mote ex­cel­lence. And, says Webb, they also need the courage and in­tegrity to re­place those who can’t − or won’t − step up.

Should t rain­ing over whelm­ingly fo­cus on skills en­hance­ment? Or must it be man­aged to build bet­ter bonds and re­la­tion­ships through­out the en­ter­prise? Webb un­am­bigu­ously cham­pi­ons both. The train­ing trans­for­ma­tion made the SEALs cul­ture more open to in­no­va­tion and ex­change. In­cen­tives that fa­cil­i­tated ac­count­abil­ity im­proved the en­tire or­gan­i­sa­tion, not just the trainees.

In­cor­po­rate new ideas from the ground

Suc­cessf ul t r a i ning must be dy­namic, open and i nno­va­tive. On­go­ing t r a ns­for ma­tion − not j ust in­cre­men­tal im­prove­ment − is as im­por­tant for train­ers as trainees. “It’s ev­ery teacher’s job to be rig­or­ous about con­stantly be­ing open to new ideas and in­no­va­tion,” Webb says. “It’s a huge edge, some­times life-sav­ing, to adopt a good idea early and put it into prac­tice. As an in­struc­tor I learnt that you are never done learn­ing, and your stu­dents can be a wealth of in­for­ma­tion.”

Lead by ex­am­ple

Ar­guably Webb’s most pas­sion­ate t rain­ing t heme ref lects his bat­tle­field ex­pe­ri­ences. The most im­por­tant train­ing be­hav­iour a leader can demon­strate, he as­serts, is lead­ing by ex­am­ple. “Lead­ing by ex­am­ple means never ask­ing your team to do some­thing you aren’t will­ing to do your­self,” Webb writes. “This can’t be faked; do it right and your team will re­spect you and fol­low you.”

The level of mo­ti­va­tion, ded­i­ca­tion and self-sac­ri­fice the SEALs de­mand from them­selves and one another goes far be­yond what most busi­nesses and busi­ness schools should ever ask, let alone ex­pect, from their peo­ple. No one doubts the role that ed­u­ca­tion plays in cre­at­ing and sus­tain­ing eco­nomic com­pet­i­tive­ness world­wide. But it’s long past time that CEOs, boards, busi­ness schools and univer­si­ties re­visit what world-class train­ing should mean.

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