Five Strategic Insights from the US Navy SEALs

DR. PAVAN SONI
7 min readOct 10, 2019

The US Navy SEALs are arguably some of the most well trained and equipped fighting forces anywhere in the world. They were behind the rescue of Captain Phillips in 2009, capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden in May 2011, and then several others, right from the D-Day Landing in 1944 (it wasn’t called SEAL then). Here’s a list of the more famous ones.

Over the last few months now, I have been enamored by this unit and ended by absorbing some deep stuff penned down by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin in Extreme Ownership, followed by the first hand accounts by Chris Kyle in American Sniper, Marcus Luttrell in Lone Survivor, and Mark Owen in No Easy Day, before topping it up with the spiritual discourse by Eric Blehm in Fearless.

A few of these are made into riveting motion pictures and for rest, there’s enough footage available online, including this very compelling Jocko Podcast on leadership and discipline. My two cents here, read the books before you attempt watching these movies; you would surely get a better perspective of the stakes and actions involved.

This one TEDx talk by Jocko would certainly be a good starting point.

The piece is not on the books or the movies, but instead on the insights on strategy and leadership distilled from the readings. While, but for Willink and Babin, none of the authors intended to write anything even remotely associated with strategy or planning, the pearls of wisdom are all over the text. Here’s a humble attempt to present a few enduring lessons on strategy from the inspirations gleaned through my readings, observations, and some synthesis thereof.

Own the outcome, not the plan

Imagine that ten years of intelligence gathered by the CAI leads you to a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan where the World’s Most Wanted is hiding, and you are all geared up for the capture (and kill) — over two dozen US Navy SEALs, best in class ammunition, meticulous planning, double and triple backups, complete stealth, and orders from the White House.

Even before the action begins, one of your choppers- Black Hawk- crashes into the compound wall and your team is dangling more than six feet above ground in an alien land. That’s what happens to the best laid out plans, and remember, the team had practiced countless hours in a full-sized compound built to details somewhere in the US. Most plans meet such beginning (let alone the end). What should the team do now? Follow the plan, or focus on the outcome. They had under an hour to get out of the place before the Pakistani forces or the anxious neighbors get in there, let alone the uncertainty at large. The end is known world-over, but the ordeal isn’t so much, and so you must read ‘No Easy Day’ to get to the details (including the Captain Phillip mission).

The key is to own the outcome and not the plan, for plans seldom work. The outcome, however, is non-negotiable. Most managers get so lost in the nitty-gritties of the process that the moment the proceedings are even slightly off the plan, they freeze. Needless to say, to be able to chuck-off the plan out of the window and yet aim at achieving the mission calls for courage, but more importantly, empowerment and an absolute clarity on the big picture.

Never lose sight of the big picture

There’s a very interesting narrative in the book — Extreme Ownership — where Jocko is responsible for the task of convincing his SEALs to taking along local Iraqi soldiers in every of their missions. The dictum that comes from the Pentagon was laughable at first and soon the team turned furious citing the chasm in the fitness levels, skills, arms, training, and of course, communication, between the world’s best and arguable worst fighting units. On top of it, the allegiance of these Iraqi soldiers was questionable. It was almost inviting suicide. How did Jocko (and other officers) make his team understand the intent behind the orders and manage to turn the tide in their favor?

Jocko asked them a series of questions leading to the most fundamental of them all — why are we here in Iraq? The answer was to win the war and to go back to the USA. Which would mean that Iraq would have to be managed by its local forces and that engaging them in our missions was our “ticket to home”. The moment this big picture was made clear to all, the anxiety settled, and clarity emerged, and the team was yearning to go ahead together. For greater details, pick you copy of Extreme Ownership.

It should suffice to say that strategy, above all, is about ‘Big Picture Thinking’, or the ‘Purpose’ of why we are doing what we are doing; and this can’t ever be over-communicated. This calls for keeping the communication channels well oiled at all times.

Ensure fluidity of communication

When you are in the middle of a battlefield, especially in close quarters battles, instances of fratricide is all too common, where a bunch of soldiers start attacking men from their own units, or the friendlies. Jocko and Leif narrate catastrophic accounts of near miss fratricides and so does Chris Kyle as the point-man in their Team-3. With tempers running high, the haze of war all over you, and a threat to personal life, making errors in only natural. That’s where the imperative of fluidity of communication.

As a senior manager, or the leaders of the organization, you should function much like a very effective router, ensuring that no bit of information remains stuck with you. Historians and military leaders alike understand how much intelligence is instrumental in winning a war and how a slight miscommunication could lead to an otherwise avoidable trouble (as seen in the Cuban Missile Crisis).

Most managers draw their importance from being information hoarders and are only keen to relay on need-to-know-basis. It’s not only vital to communicate downward but also upward and manage your leadership. In fact, most of the micro-management happens because the manager in question isn’t kept aware of the ground realities. Communication is the life-blood of any unit as Marcus Luttrell narrates in his ordeal on how effective communication is what saved him at the hands on Taliban. More on this gripping account in the Lone Survivor. And this brings us to the difficult task of deciding under uncertainty.

Prioritize incessantly and execute fearlessly

The opening scene of the Clint Eastwood movie American Sniper is that of Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) having trained his gun at a Iraqi lady carrying a mortar in her hand and intending to kill the incoming US Marines and Army units. The book also begins with this recollection from Kyle’s maiden mission to Iraq and his predicament of having to shoot this lady (which he eventually did). It was a test of morality, duty, and nerves, and that too for a God-fearing Chris.

Similar was the predicament of Marcus Luttrell when he had to let go a bunch of shepherds on the Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan as his team was pursuing their very dangerous mission downhill (eventually, of the four SEALs, only Marcus survives). Back at Abbottabad, Owen and his team of SEALs has to shoot down the wives of Laden and his accomplices at a point-blank range, and so did the late Adam Brown of the elite DEVGRU (Team-6) in his Afghan missions.

Each of these cases, and many more (the books are replete with such gripping encounters), call for an ability to prioritize on an ongoing basis and, when the times comes, execute without hesitation. In the face of incomplete information, or fast unfolding situations, indecisiveness is no choice. A wrong decision is often more valuable than no decision at all. Take for instance the decision to Chris Kyle of not shooting at a target which he hadn’t positively identified in spite of a mounting pressure from the Army officers (the target later emerged as a friendly). Deciding not to shoot was a decision indeed, and he held on to his decision in the face of extreme resistance. That’s Extreme Ownership.

Standardize wherever possible

Most organizations lack a standard process of building strategy. Managers almost associate strategy making with an art form, which is, in their shallow understanding, not amicable for being standardized. But as for military, there’s a standard operating procedure for almost anything. These SOPs bring about efficiency, scalability, and predictability by taking out the guesswork. All you need to do is to trust the process and things will fall in place.

Standardization of repetitive, and even complex tasks, could, surprisingly, free up a lot of cognitive load and help channelize the scant resources to where they are needed the most. At one point in time, Jocko and his team deviced a SOP for performing search and evacuation operations in Iraqi houses leading to remarkable accuracy and speed. Such an SOP was initially deem completely futile. But that’s how to inculcate discipline in your forces.

Back to the business.

Unless you chose to build method to the madness your business isn’t growing beyond your shadow. Strategic acumen comes through owning the outcome, fostering a big picture view, communicating effectively, prioritizing incessantly, executing fearlessly, and standardizing things wherever possible. Some of these recommendations might seem out of context for the corporate world. But understand this — if a bunch of soldiers can achieve the most difficult tasks under extreme threat of death and in an almost anonymous manner, what we are doing at the corporate is far mundane.

There’s much more to be learned from the way Special Forces operate their businesses, after all we are not taking of life or death situations here! The worst is a loss of job.

As a bonus, the three other insights that these texts offer are:

Discipline equals freedom (only with a clear mind can you be truly creative and courageous)

Practice your art (that’s what made Kyle the American Sniper), and

Trust (the All Mighty).

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DR. PAVAN SONI

Innovation Evangelist and author of the book, Design Your Thinking.