How to Lead Like a Navy SEAL

How to Lead Like a Navy SEAL


When you read those two words, what comes to mind?

Words like: tough, decisive, driven, fearless, disciplined?

What can leaders learn from the SEALS?


Under incredible conditions, Navy SEALS prove their worth by getting the job done. When I meet a SEAL, I am intrigued because I know this is someone who is proven. Recently, when I had the opportunity to interview Brian “Iron Ed” Hiner, about his new book, First, Fast, Fearless: How to Lead Like a Navy SEAL, I knew I would walk away with many lessons I could apply in business and in life.


“When leadership is right, you really don’t see it any more.” -Ed Hiner



Becoming a NAVY SEAL means you have overcome all odds. What can corporate leaders learn from the selection process in terms of hiring and recruiting the very best team possible?

Navy Seal Ed HinerWe have identified four major traits that we look for in a perspective SEAL candidate: physical courage, moral courage, problem solving, and what I call “teamability.” Physical courage is obvious, but moral courage does not rank far behind because we are an organization that relies heavily on trust and for our people to do the right thing for our country.

We also want SEALs to be problem solvers who thrive in what we call VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity), an environment often referred to as the “fog of war.” In our Gallop polling, we discovered that chess players are almost four times more likely than non-chess players to successfully make it through Navy SEAL training; chess players are problem solvers, and the board is VUCA writ small.

The last trait that I call “teamability” is a person’s ability to lead and be led, who can move from team to team seamlessly.


The 4 Must-Have Traits of a SEAL

1: Physical courage.

2: Moral courage.

3: Problem solving.

4: Teamability.


The takeaway of this is that hiring and recruiting needs be very deliberate. Organizations that understand the critical traits they need in their employees, and actively recruit for these traits, will be more successful down the road. Obviously all organizations look for skills and experience, but oftentimes they overlook the fundamental traits they actually need to be the elite organization that they wish to be.


“Leadership is something you do with people, not to them.” -Ed Hiner



Could you cover teamability a little more and what that means? What methods do you employ to get people to put “mission before me.”

Teamability requires that leaders and team members put mission and team before their own personal interests. When people know that leaders are selflessly making decisions for the team to succeed, and protecting their people along the way, it sets the conditions for teamability. From the beginning of SEALs training we set conditions to reinforce this concept.

In some ways it’s like we turn the pyramid upside down and take care of the broader team mission first and work our way down to the individual. For example, after we finish a mission, we take care of the teams’ common gear first. Then we all split off to our smaller teams and take care of that gear and issues until we get to the individual. This applies to everyone on the team, rank doesn’t matter; the motto is mission before me. This applies everywhere in the SEAL Teams. During staff meetings SEAL Team issues get addressed first, then the smaller Task Unit issues and so forth. It’s a practiced ritual that develops teamability and mission focus. As for the leaders of team, the rank of importance is the Mission, the men and then me. When it’s time to shower and eat, leaders eat last.

When organizations depend on teamwork it’s critical for them to reward the teams that exhibit this trait. In the SEAL Teams your performance review is heavily skewed toward your teamability; we don’t just give it lip service. We reward the traits that we want, to be the elite organization that we need to be. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of just rewarding individual performance at the expense of critical traits that you need for overall mission success.


“Servant leadership means that the team is not about you.” -Ed Hiner



You say, “The biggest enemy of humility is our own ego, which is molded by our fears.” Talk about that interplay between fear and ego.IMG_0089

We are an organization of “Alpha males” and high performers, and it’s easy for individuals in any organization with high performers to fall in love with their own ideas and abilities. Elite teams perform at their best when their leaders are humble. It’s an outward indicator that the leader is willing not to fall in love with his or her own ideas but is instead willing to find the best direction for the mission and the team. When leaders are humble and act selflessly it builds trust, and trust is the invisible thread that holds all elite teams together. When this invisible thread is broken and leaders act in their own self-interest, and don’t engage the skills and talents of the team, results will suffer.

We all have fears, and those fears can contribute to shaping our personalities: fear of failure, not being intelligent, shame, etc. Humility is the antidote to those fears. Elite leaders are not worried about being right; they are focused on the cause-and-effect relationship to get results and accomplish the mission.

I’m not saying that people should completely get rid of their egos so that they dance naked in the halls; I’m saying divorce your ego, yet stay friends. Don’t let your ego run your life. As the saying goes, “Humble people don’t think less of themselves, they think of themselves less.”


“Be the cause, not the effect.” -Ed Hiner


What qualities do you first notice when someone is leading with humility and acting as a servant leader?

The first indicator of a servant leader is someone who can actively listen, and unless they are taking responsibility for failures, very rarely uses the words I, me, or mine. They make a conscious effort to NOT take credit for the team’s accomplishments; they allow the team members to be the winners.

As a leader of other servant leaders it’s critical that you recognize this type of behavior in them, and when they exhibit it you reward them accordingly. In private you let them know that you recognize their leadership. Otherwise they may start to feel that you think they do nothing, which will negatively impact their behavior. Servant leadership is like air: when it’s there no one notices, but when it’s not everyone knows.


“If you want people to be winners, treat them like winners.” -Ed Hiner


The Definition of a Good Team

What’s the “Iron Ed” definition of a good team?

Elite teams led by elite leaders can get behind any plan and execute it to its fullest potential. As leaders and followers in the world of Special Operations, we know that “the best plan” will not always be THE plan chosen. We know that leaders are human and humans make mistakes, but leaders have to make decisions. If each team member has teamability, they will not hesitate, they will act with 100% commitment to execute the plan. On any battlefield this is critical for success. Wishing, wanting and bitching and moaning will not get you where you need to go.

All of this is tied together by trusting leaders that are selflessly serving the mission and the people. Without this type of trust in leaders, you will not have teams with 100% engagement and teamability.

Brian "Iron Ed" Hiner

The Importance of Followership

You highlight the importance of followership. “A follower owns the decision, too,” you write. How does a leader help followers own decisions?

To many people, the military is officers issuing orders, and enlisted troops carrying out those orders. But remember we are all human beings and often don’t respond very well when told what, when, and how to do something. Ownership is a critical part of being a great follower and ultimately a great team member. Great leaders let their teams come up with solutions to problems whenever possible, which in turn cultivates ownership. When you make this a regular practice, teams trust your intentions when you come down with an order or plan without their input. They then understand there’s a good rationale behind your decision and trust that you are looking out for the mission and the team.

In some ways I guess I used giving a direct order like a trump card that I only used when absolutely necessary. But when I had to use it, my team trusted that I was doing the right thing; trust is the invisible thread.


“The biggest enemy of humility is our own ego, which is molded by our fears.” -Ed Hiner


The Importance of Speed

Talk about the importance of speed in leadership and execution.

In First, Fast, Fearless, I devote a chapter to leading at the speed of war. Just like the current marketplace, the pace of warfare changes very quickly and can have devastating results if you are not able to move quickly. We have an expression, “The enemy has a vote,” meaning if you don’t act quickly, someone else will.

First Fast FearlessIn business, the larger the organization becomes, the more likely bureaucracy slows everything down — change, decision-making etc. With the speed of information and changes in technology, I believe elite organizations must cultivate trust, accountability, push down guidance and streamline all processes leading to decisions in order to stay ahead of the “enemy.”

By pushing down guidance I mean leaders don’t just deliver orders, they give the mission’s intentions so that everyone can act in accordance with those intentions to accomplish the mission. Since 9/11, the hierarchical chain of command has mostly been switched upside down in Special Operations in order to move at the speed of war. The top of the command no longer makes all the decisions – they focus on giving the troops clear guidance to show what success looks like. The troops on the ground execute with discretion; once again trust is the invisible thread that holds it all together.


“If you don’t act quickly, someone else will.” -Ed Hiner


What do you most miss about active service?

Everything! When I reflect back on my years in the SEAL Teams I can truly say I miss it all. I’m not saying that I necessarily miss jumping out of planes five miles above the ground at 3AM at -40 degrees, being shot at, or planning 20 hours a day, 7 days a week, for months on end.  What I do miss is the brotherhood and the bonds that are built.

Great leaders and great teams can transform seemingly miserable conditions into some of life’s most precious times; the opposite is true as well. When my teammates and I talk about the things we did together, we talk about them with great reverence. Any organization that gets it right can thrive even in times of VUCA.



First, Fast, Fearless: How to Lead Like a Navy SEAL


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