Think Like a Navy SEAL
This is not your typical career: after graduation, start as a CPA with a prestigious accounting firm, then go back to school at night for an MBA at NYU Stern School of Business, and leave it all behind to become a Navy SEAL. After full-time active duty, show your entrepreneurial side by co-founding Coronado Brewing Company, NavySEALS.com, and then other businesses like SEALFIT and Unbeatable Mind.
That’s the unconventional career of Mark Divine.
I love to learn from people with varied experiences, and Mark is in a rare category. Of all the people I’ve met, no one has quite this type of resume.
His book, The Way of the SEAL, caught my attention a few years ago, and he is now re-releasing it in a second edition.
Truth be told, I’d much rather read his book than go through his brutal training program!
I recently caught up with him to talk about his work and his new book.
You were already a successful consultant when you decided to join the Navy and become the best as a SEAL. What drove you to make this decision?
Shortly after starting my job as a CPA and consultant with PriceaterhouseCoopers (I was with Coopers at the time), I began a practice of Zen meditation with a martial arts grandmaster. Though I was a competitive athlete growing up and in college, meditation was new to me, and at 21 years old it had a powerful neuroplastic effect on my mind’s development. What I experienced as a result of extended practice over several years was increasing clarity and ability to see how the choices I had made subconsciously had driven me into this career that I did not feel inspired by. So I began to challenge all of my assumptions and see them as biased. Then I pondered different questions, such as what is my true purpose or calling in life? I found that what I was called to do was serve as a warrior and leader… and the SEALs became my new focus. This experience taught me the powerful truth that we must all align with our calling, or what Buddha called “dharma,” to find true fulfillment in life.
Think Like an Elite Warrior
The subtitle of your book is “Think like an Elite Warrior to Lead and Succeed.” A powerful statement. How is our thinking directly tied to leadership?
We are all leaders and followers… leading our family, our corporate tribe or ourselves. Whether we do it well is another issue. To think like an elite warrior means to train your body-mind to be able to excel in an environment that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. All Special Operators become masters in “VUCA” environments, and the business world is becoming a lot like the battlefield of the Spec Ops warrior (albeit less risky). If the corporate and entrepreneurial leader can learn to find clarity amidst the uncertainty and take powerful action in spite of ambiguity, then they will lead and succeed at an elite level.
Lead from the Front
You recommend to “lead from the front” and, when you do, you argue that others will want to follow you. How do you train yourself to consistently lead from the front?
In the SEALs, leading from the front means not hiding behind a desk or some rules. We had to get out and master the same skills and do the same missions that we had tasked to our subordinate teammates. In order to develop the trust and respect that a leader needs to be authentic and motivating, we had to train harder, work harder and challenge ourselves more to learn and grow. So leading from the front didn’t mean we were physically out in front of our team on a mission, rather it means that we are willing to get out in front of our own development as a leader and master ourselves first, so we could serve our teammates better. This principle is key for all leaders today. Trust and respect are the master skills of the leader, and they cannot be demanded in a memo or mission tasking.
Establish Your Set Point
If you set off on a trek and don’t know your starting point, or why you are embarking on the journey, then you are unlikely to make your destination. When I started leading teams in the SEALs, I had to know where I stood with my skills and confidence. What gaps did I have in my development, my competence, my courage? Knowing the gaps allowed me to seek ways to address and close them. Further, I had to have a deep sense of knowing why I was doing what I signed up for. Many of my teammates in training did not succeed or survive because either they couldn’t connect with their “why” at the toughest moment, or their why was off-target to begin with. Knowing your why, and appreciating the gaps in your own leadership so you can enlist help, helps you to know where you stand and to stand your ground. This is what I mean by establishing your set point.
How do you develop the mindset to think offense in the face of fear?
An offensive mindset is essential for special operators to dominate their mission, just as it is essential for business leaders to win their missions in the mind first. Fear is common, but starving the energy of fear and feeding courage leads to uncommon commitment and determination to stay the course. I teach leaders to find the smallest actions that can get results and eliminate doubt, then to make them fast and powerfully, learning quickly to re-set for the next action. Additionally, I like to use rapid decision models, such as those I introduce in my book, The Way of the SEAL, to help the leader avoid bias and cover all the bases.
One of the powerful recommendations in the book is to “do today what others won’t.” I love that sentiment. Would you share your perspective on this success principle?
“Doing today what others won’t” allows us to “do tomorrow what others can’t.” This is the elite Smoke Jumper creed and is shared by elite special operators. What it means is to challenge yourself in an uncommon way every day, until the uncommon becomes common… until you find joy in what others consider hard, crazy or flat out impossible. This principle allows us to prove that we are capable of at least twenty times what we thought, the 20X factor. In my training I recommend daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and longer-term challenges that cover your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual domains. The confidence that this principle develops is extraordinary.
Would you just touch on teams? Your book is mostly about self-mastery, and then you add a powerful section on the secrets of elite teams. Talk about this. How do leaders build a world class team?
Elite teams are built from the bottom up by individuals who follow the principles outlined in The Way of the SEAL. The first element is that a great team must attract and select the right people, or it will be a constant struggle. If the right people are on the team, then the challenge is to align them under a powerful vision for their common future and a tight mission plan that they can visualize victory around. This is shared in a daily narrative, creating a culture that owns the vision and guiding principles, a common consciousness if you will, where the team is able to make decisions on the fly without having to rely on a rigid, bureaucratic chain of command. Leaders in this flexible organizational culture don’t spend time micro-managing the people or tasks, rather they focus on removing obstacles and providing time-sensitive resources to get the mission done.
For more info, see The Way of the SEAL.