Lead like a SEAL – Canadian Government Executive

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Bookshelf with Harvey Schachter
January 30, 2014

Lead like a SEAL

Leadership Lessons of the Navy SEALs
Jeff Cannon and Lt. Cmdr. Jon Cannon
McGraw-Hill, 226 pages, $23.95
The dramatic clandestine rescues by Navy SEALs and their daring raid on Osama Bin Laden’s lair may make their work seem a world apart from that of government executives. But in their 2003 book Leadership Lessons of the Navy SEALs, advertising executive Jeff Cannon and his brother, Lt. Cmdr. Jon Cannon, a SEAL and business executive, begin by calling the SEALs “the quiet professionals,” a term that could also be applied to government executives.

“Professionalism has been a SEAL theme since the first two SEAL teams were formed in 1962,” they write.

The SEALs train continuously and hard. They are usually well educated, with more than half possessing university degrees. They thrive through teamwork, with a SEAL platoon like a family. They are inveterate planners.

The SEALs go over every aspect of a plan, again and again, figuring out what could go wrong and how they would respond. “Do you think you’re spending too much time on planning? Spend some more. Do you think you’re worrying too much about things that may not happen? Worry more,” the authors suggest.

They urge you to get specific about any problem you face, and let that define your mission – the activity you intend to take. When planning that mission, prepare for a new situation that has not yet been identified. The SEALs, for example, expect continued geopolitical chaos and ongoing technological development. They assume something totally unforeseen will occur as they are underway with a project. “Get ready. Something is going to be significantly different next year,” the authors warn.

They argue the key to accountability is structure. Even though they can be working in different places and at different times, each member of a SEAL group recognizes and continues to be part of an existing chain of command. Each knows their leader expects them to adhere to the organization’s high standards and work toward mission success. And they know the entire SEAL organization expects them to do what’s right – they would face severe professional, personal, and cultural consequences if they don’t perform professionally.

“This may seem like a minor or even superfluous point. After all, isn’t every member of an organization aware of the system in which he or she is working? Don’t all members of the organization know what the system expects of them, and what measures the system will impose if the goals of the organization aren’t met? Too often, the answer to these questions is no,” they stress.

Since no single structure is ideal for all missions, the SEALs don’t get caught up in the notion that a particular way of organizing them applies universally. Similarly, you should be flexible, creating team structures that fit the situation at hand.

At the same time, they warn: “Don’t confuse the structure of individual teams you organize to accomplish specific missions with the overall system that governs your organization. A structure is the way you organize the components of your team in order to give the team the best chance of achieving the mission. It leverages and complements the hierarchy and chain of command that already exists within your organizational unit. This hierarchy should remain consistent even when the structure of the unit changes. Different teams and different circumstances require different levels of reporting and flexibility, but they all require structures in which there are well defined areas of responsibility, chains of command, and channels of communication,” they advise.

Today, leaders operate on an open door policy. But Lt. Cmdr. Cannon is far less obliging, limiting access. He figures that opening his office door to his people when there is sufficient time for them to have gone through the chain of command would mean that the chain of command didn’t matter. The result: A mess.

“The reason for adhering to the chain of command is not to keep some people in a substandard position and limit their chance for growth. It’s to maximize the effectiveness of the team and allocate its resources properly. It’s to ensure that all team members know what they are doing, what their responsibilities are, and what the realistic expectations for success are,” the brothers write.

To create an effective chain of command, they recommend:

• Respect that chain of command: Your job is not about being popular, although if you are, that’s fine. But don’t pass along the idea that you will be giving some people preferential treatment. Communicate down through the ranks in the same way you expect people to communicate up the ranks.
• Reward and punish: Your managers need to know what information to pass on to you and what not to. Reward those who work properly with information and punish those who don’t.
• Trust the people below you: You don’t need to have your finger in everything, or become bogged down in details. Trust the people below you to ensure your directives are being followed and communication is effective.
• Train where necessary: If the people below you don’t know what messages to pass on and what messages to hold onto, you need to train them.

Hillary Clinton popularized the notion that it takes a village to accomplish something great. But the Cannon brothers argue you should forget that village concept – one person has to be in charge. Someone has to make the most difficult decisions for the organization, and take the blame for mess-ups.

“Organizations have been so busy touting their employees’ leadership qualities, handing out leadership titles, and doling out leadership badges, that leadership has become an entitlement. It’s also become a curse to every manager who’s actually supposed to lead. After all, if everyone’s in charge at the same time, then no one’s leading,” they state.

Leadership requires being in the limelight even when things go badly. Lt. Cmdr. Cannon tells about the “goon squad,” stragglers in SEALs basic training, the people who can’t hang on during a rope slide or are poor in the running competition. Their punishment, as a group, in the case he describes, was to do endless push-ups, screaming out the count as they suffered. As the senior leader, Lt. Cmdr. Cannon was expected to be in front, joining them. But he figured his chance of survival was better if he didn’t draw attention to himself, and so he stayed in the background, letting a second-class petty officer step forward instead.

After one gruelling round of the exercise, during the break, he sensed an instructor standing behind him. “Sir, shouldn’t you be up there?” that man asked. As everyone turned around, he could see crestfallen expressions, as they realized the guy in charge was hiding in the back. The others were dismissed, and the instructor told him to begin doing push-ups again. “The men are looking for someone to lead them. If you’re not willing to lead them, don’t waste their time,” he said simply.

The Cannons declare: “You’re a leader. Your people are watching you every time they see you. They’re looking at every action, every moment. When they don’t see you, they assume you’re working on their behalf. When they do see you, what you do confirms or destroys their impression.”

So don’t shirk. Take the hit when required.

The book is enjoyable reading, with a series of lessons all framed around incidents SEALs have faced. Those battlefield episodes are usually fascinating, but the takeaways that follow vary in value to us, depending on the specifics of our workplace situation. Still, more than enough will be of interest to the quiet professionals of government.

About this author

Harvey Schachter

Harvey Schachter

Harvey Schachter is a writer, specializing in management and business issues. He writes three weekly columns for the Globe and Mail and The Leader’s Bookshelf column for Canadian Government Executive, and a regular column and features for Kingston Life magazine. Harvey was editor of the 2004 book Memos to the Prime Minister: What Canada Can Be in the 21st Century. He was the ghostwriter on The Three Pillars of Public Management by Ole Ingstrup and Paul Crookall, and editor of Getting Clients, Keeping Clients by Dan Richards. A McGill commerce graduate, Harvey spent more than 15 years in a variety of positions at The Kingston Whig-Standard, including editor and planning and promotions manager. He won two National Newspaper Awards for his writing and a national Owl Award for a marketing program he created at the newspaper.

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