Why you can't learn business skills from the Navy SEALs

It's a little too easy to cherry-pick generalised leadership tips from exotic role models.

by Paul Simpson
Last Updated: 22 May 2019

Can your staff run four miles in 31 minutes? Swim 1,000 yards in 20 minutes? Or carry a log the size of a telephone pole over their heads for two hours while doing squats, bench-presses and running up and down hills? Is there even the remotest chance that you would use any of these tests to assess job candidates? Probably not. Which is just as well because, unlike the US Navy SEALs, your business probably can’t afford to lose three out of four potential recruits in training.

None of this has stopped a conveyor belt of articles with such titles as ‘7 Navy SEAL Sayings That Will Keep Your Team Motivated’ (Forbes), ‘12 Leadership Lessons To Learn From The Navy SEALs’ (Inc) and ‘A Navy SEAL’s 15 Pillars of Resilient Teams’ (Inc again). Their team-building prowess is also extolled in Daniel Coyle’s new book The Culture Code in which companies that get this difficult skill right will discover, the author suggests, that "two plus two equals 10".

SEALs (surely their acronym should be SALTs, given it stands for Sea, Air and Land Teams?), of course, make great teams and their modus operandi offers useful lessons for more conventional organisations. In the ‘After Action Review’, which follows every mission, teams ask three questions: what went well? What didn’t? What will we do differently next time? What makes this exercise particularly valuable is that the rank and file direct the discussion, not the leaders. Sadly, too few leaders in organisations have the moral courage to follow suit.

The insight that a truly effective team is founded upon shared vulnerability should also resonate with companies. Yet herein lies the rub. If you’re fighting al-Qaeda in a cave complex in Afghanistan, your shared vulnerability is immediately obvious. If you are a middle manager in a medium-sized business fighting for a budget for a critical project, it’s much harder to visualise shared vulnerability. All you can see is your vulnerability: the heightened risk that your project will fail and that you will be blamed.   

Shared vulnerability is also likely to be much clearer in a Navy SEAL platoon in which one commander, two officers and 13 marines are solely committed to one immediate, tangible and often short-term goal. In many businesses, teams can be larger, less clearly defined, work remotely and have to juggle different projects. Such amorphousness makes it much harder for these teams to gel.

Other leading lights...

The Navy SEALs are not the only organisation we are exhorted to learn from. The list of usual suspects is headed by Google and Pixar. Pixar has an enviable track record – four of the 10 highest grossing animated movies of all time – but its reputation as a paragon of innovation has been marred by the enforced resignation of its co-founder John Lasseter after he apologised for "inappropriate hugging" and "other missteps".

Google is so often held up as a role model; how many times have we been told that they let employees spend 20 per cent of the time on their own stuff? But only last November, 20,000 staff walked out in protest against its handling of sexual misconduct claims.

Weeks later, contract staff wrote to CEO Sundar Pichai saying the company had created a segregated workforce by paying them less than full-time staff for the same jobs, thereby reinforcing "a system of institutional racism, sexism and discrimination". (Google’s temporary workers are more likely to belong to ethnic minorities than full-time staff.)

And then there are those who hold up successful sports teams as exemplars. A recent example, written by Ben Lyttleton, was published in the thought leadership journal Strategy+Business. Lyttleton offered a variety of lessons – the importance of social purpose, investing in the individual, nurturing your own talent (which is kind of the same thing) and connecting emotionally to build trust. Lyttleton underlines that last lesson by chronicling the trust being built at Swiss football club Grasshoppers.

Within weeks of publication, bottom-of-the-table Grasshoppers fired their sporting director and coach.

You do you

This doesn’t mean we can’t learn from Pixar, Google, the Navy SEALS or Grasshoppers but we should not let ourselves be reduced to a state of goggle-eyed gee-whizzery by those who indulge in meretricious "cherry picking", as one critic said of Malcolm Gladwell, to sell us their wares.

The risk is that companies end up swayed by fashion. One anecdote from an HR consultant illustrates the point: "I was asked to present to an African mining company and I wasn’t quite sure what they wanted. They said: ‘We want you to tell us how to be like Google.’ Whereupon I tried to explain how hard it would be for a mining company in Africa to become like a tech giant in California. I’m not sure they were convinced."

I’ve interviewed more than a hundred CEOs and often ask them for the book, writer or management theory that influenced them most. Most of them couldn’t answer. The most revealing reply came from the late John Buchanan, a former finance director at BP and non-executive chairman of Smith & Nephew. "I have learned from different sources," he replied, "but a lot of management is so situation-specific it’s very hard to generalise."

So let’s be open-minded about learning but recognise that, much of the time, we’re doing it our way – and that’s exactly how it ought to be.

 Image credit: Pixabay


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