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SEAL leadership style


In 2014, Naval Admiral William H. McRaven returned to his alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin, to present his commencement address to graduates about the lessons he learned from his basic SEAL training.

Ten life lessons from basic SEAL training

  1. If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed. Every morning we were required to make our beds to perfection and instructors would inspect the beds for even the slightest imperfection. It seemed a little ridiculous at the time, but the wisdom of this simple act has been proven to me many times over.

    If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter.
  2. If you want to change the world, find someone to help you paddle. During SEAL training the students are broken down into boat crews of seven students, three on each side of a small rubber boat and one coxswain to help guide the boat through the rough surf. Every paddle must be synchronized to the stroke count of the coxswain. For the boat to make it to its destination, everyone must paddle with equal effort or the boat will turn into the waves and be tossed back on the beach. You can’t change the world alone, you will need some help. It takes friends, colleagues, the goodwill of strangers, and a strong coxswain to guide them.
  3. If you want to change the world, measure a person by the size of their heart, not the size of their flippers. The best boat crew we had was made up of the little guys, whom we called munchkins, no one was over about 5-foot five. The big men in the other boat crews would always make good-natured fun of the tiny little flippers the munchkins put on their tiny little feet prior to every swim. But somehow these little guys swam faster than everyone and reached the shore long before the rest of us.
  4. If you want to change the world, get over being a sugar cookie and keep moving forward. During uniform inspections, no matter how much effort you put into your uniform, it just was never good enough. For failing the uniform inspection, a student had to run, fully clothed into the surf and then, wet from head to toe, roll around on the beach until every part of his body was covered with sand. The effect was known as a “sugar cookie.” You stayed in that uniform the rest of the day—cold, wet and sandy.

    Many students just couldn’t accept the fact that all their effort was in vain. That no matter how hard they tried to get the uniform right, it was unappreciated. They didn’t make it through training because they didn’t understand the purpose of the drill. You were never going to succeed. You were never going to have a perfect uniform. Sometimes, no matter how well you prepare or how well you perform, you still end up as a sugar cookie.
  5. If you want to change the world, don’t be afraid of the circuses. Every day during training you were challenged with multiple physical events designed to test your mettle. Every event had standards you had to meet. If you failed to meet those standards your name was posted on a list and at the end of the day those on the list were invited to a “circus.”

    A circus was two hours of additional calisthenics designed to wear you down, break your spirit, to force you to quit. No one wanted a circus; it meant that for that day you didn’t measure up. A circus meant more fatigue, which meant the following day would be more difficult and more circuses were likely. At some time during training, everyone made the circus list.

    But an interesting thing happened to those who were constantly on the list. Over time those students who did two hours of extra calisthenics got stronger and the pain built inner strength and physical resiliency. Life is filled with circuses. You will fail and likely fail often, so don’t be afraid of the circuses.
  6. If you want to change the world, sometimes you have to slide down the obstacle head first. At least twice a week, trainees were required to run the obstacle course. The most challenging obstacle was the slide for life, a 200-foot long rope between a 30-foot tower at one end and a 10-foot tower at the other. You had to climb the 30-foot tower, grab the rope, swung underneath the rope, and pull yourself hand over hand until you got to the other end.

    The record for the obstacle course had stood for years and seemed unbeatable, until one day, a student decided to go down the slide for life—head first. Instead of swinging his body underneath the rope and inching his way down, he bravely mounted the TOP of the rope and thrust himself forward. It was a dangerous move; failure could mean injury and being dropped from the training. He slid down the rope perilously fast in half the normal time and, by the end of the course, he had broken the record.
  7. If you want to change the world, don’t back down from the sharks. During the land warfare phase of training, the students are flown out to San Clemente Island off the coast of San Diego where the waters are a breeding ground for the great white sharks. There are a series of long swims that must be completed including a night swim. You are taught that, if a shark begins to circle your position, to not swim away, stand your ground, and do not act afraid. And, if the shark darts toward you, punch him in the snout and he will swim away. There are a lot of sharks in the world, so you must learn to deal with them.
  8. If you want to change the world, you must be your very best in the darkest moment. As Navy SEALs, one of our jobs is to conduct underwater attacks against enemy shipping. The ship attack mission is where a pair of SEAL divers is dropped off outside an enemy harbor and then swims well over two miles using nothing but a depth gauge and a compass to get to their target. During the swim, even well below the surface, some light comes through. But as you approach the ship, its steel structure blocks all ambient light.

    To be successful in your mission, you have to swim under the ship and find the keel, the center line and the deepest part of the ship. But the keel is also the darkest part of the ship, where you cannot see your hand in front of your face, the noise from the ship’s machinery is deafening, and where it is easy to get disoriented and fail.

    Every SEAL knows that under the keel, at the darkest moment of the mission, is the time when you must be calm and composed—when all your tactical skills, your physical power, and all your inner strength must be brought to bear.
  9. If you want to change the world, start singing when you’re up to your neck in mud. The ninth week of training is referred to as “Hell Week.” It is six days of no sleep, constant physical and mental harassment, and one special day at the Mud Flats where you spend 15 hours trying to survive the freezing cold mud, the howling wind, and the incessant pressure to quit from the instructors. The mud consumed each man till there was nothing visible but our heads. The instructors told us we could leave the mud if only five men would quit.

    It was apparent that some students were about to give up and it was still over eight more bone chilling cold hours until the sun came up. Then one voice raised in song. One voice became two and two became three and before long everyone in the class was singing. The power of one person, Washington, Lincoln, King, Mandela, and even Malala, a young girl from Pakistan, can change the world by giving people hope.
  10. If you want to change the world, don’t ever ring the bell. Finally, in SEAL training there is a brass bell that hangs in the center of the compound for all the students to see. All you have to do to quit is ring the bell and you no longer have to endure the hardships of training. Don’t ever ring the bell.

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