All Articles Leadership Management An elite Navy SEAL trainer defines "leader"

An elite Navy SEAL trainer defines “leader”

7 min read


For 20 years, I’ve seen it done right, and I’ve seen it done wrong. In my active SEAL duty, I’ve mostly seen it done right.

A good leader gets it done — that is, he or she gets the team moving toward the strategic objective, whatever that might be. A good leader gets the team to follow, effortlessly and painlessly. The team members follow in rhythm, to get the right things done, without constant prodding or course correction.

The prior definition applies to all forms of leadership, whether in a high-tech company, a special military operation, or a charity fund drive. We strive every day to make people want to achieve the objective, to do it willingly, and to be able — that is, to have the resources, training, and empowerment — to do it.

Here are what I consider to be the five pillars of leadership — the elements of leadership that keep it strong and move any organization forward. These pillars come directly from the pen and from the experience of Adm. James B. Stockdale, a U.S. Navy vice admiral and one of the most highly decorated officers in history.


Leader as moralist

In the SEAL world, we talk about leaders staying on the high ground and never losing ground. The idea originates in warfare, as each side’s army tries to capture the superior fighting position, which is the highest elevated land. It is exponentially more difficult to fight an enemy uphill from you to whom you are exposed.

This battle principle becomes a useful metaphor for moral substance, which we constantly enforce with leaders from the time they enter training. Upholding a strong sense of values and having respect requires leaders to fight for that moral high ground and to hold it at all cost. Those values are stated most simply in our ethos.

It’s important to make the distinction between the rule of law and morality. What is legal isn’t necessarily what is moral. Moral leadership is doing the right thing, not just “doing things right.”

Leader as jurist

A member of a jury doesn’t always get all the information available about a case. Sometimes the information is contradictory; eyewitnesses and experts often say opposing things about the same subject.

In a trial, the stakes are always high. But in the end, a jurist is compelled to act upon the information given and to render a verdict. It’s not a perfect system, but the system relies on people making the best decision they can with the information available.

The system, in fact, relies on jurists who have no personal vested interest other than fairness—and ultimately justice. Similarly, leaders of all stripes often must make decisions that aren’t black and white and that aren’t based on complete information.

In the SEAL world of VUCA (short for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity), decisions are hardly ever black and white; they are always a shade of gray. The right answer isn’t definite or clear, nor is the wrong answer. Yet leaders must act and be decisive when it’s time to do so. Their decisions affect the outcomes of their organizations and the lives of their people. Their decisions are personal. In fact, it’s far from the truth when people say that “it’s not personal” when referring to a hard decision they had to make. Of course it was personal.

Leader as teacher

In SEAL teams, every leader at all levels is expected to pass on knowledge and guide and mentor his subordinates. We train our subordinates to do our job and to be ready for the next step. In practical terms we do this to make no single person irreplaceable.

In war you must be ready for your number two man to take over in case you go down. Obviously, this metaphor is less drastic in a typical enterprise environment, but the guiding principle still holds: If you get taken out of the picture, the team will continue to carry out the mission. No organization is safe if one person in the chain of command is irreplaceable.

Leader as steward

Leadership is a great privilege and a great responsibility — not just to the organization, to your boss, or to yourself, but to your people, too. A leader is a servant to his or her team.

Servant leaders are also stewards of the mission, the people, and the position that they hold. They protect what they are responsible for, and they do it with humility and generosity.

Leaders in the SEAL teams constantly talk about stewardship in everything we do and in every aspect of our job. We know that we are stewards of America’s mission and of the taxpayers’ money.

But we are also stewards of the people in our care. We do a dangerous job, and we have chosen the responsibility for the lives of people’s sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers. Stewards love their people and care about their well-being.

Leader as philosopher

In the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a philosopher is defined as, paraphrasing, a person who studies ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, and so on. Throughout my time as a SEAL leader and follower, I have believed in the importance of studying things in detail to find the essence and meaning in them. Flexing this mental muscle helps leaders understand abstract and complicated ideas.

That same dictionary defines philosophical as, again paraphrasing, having a calm attitude toward a difficult or unpleasant situation. Such a mantra will always serve leaders well in times of VUCA when stress and fear are at their highest. Leaders need to embrace this and understand that if they cannot control themselves during times of difficulty, they cannot expect their subordinates to control themselves either. Ultimately, practicing a philosophical mindset helps leaders find the right course of action during the most difficult times. As a leader, you should be patient, think things through, and assure yourself and others that your actions — or inactions — will be meaningful.

Lessons for the business world

At the end of the day, being a leader means getting those around you to be able and willing to do something important. As a leader, your primary responsibilities are to set the direction and remove the roadblocks, so that your people can succeed, and that doesn’t happen if your people think that what they’re doing isn’t important or is meaningless — or worse, is stupid.

Leadership requires trust, insight, honesty, integrity and humility to work in almost any environment. In the SEAL environment, good leadership is critical — without it, missions fail and people are killed. The consequences may not be so dire in the enterprise environment, but if you follow the leadership definition and supporting pillars to a tee, you will achieve your objectives — surpass them, really — and leave your people wanting more.

Ed Hiner was a Navy SEAL for 20 years who was twice awarded the Bronze Star. He leads the Hiner Group as a coach and consultant specializing in leadership, team building, mental toughness, resiliency and personal conflict resolution. His book, “First, Fast, Fearless: How to Lead Like a Navy SEAL,” was published in September 2015 by McGraw-Hill Education.

If you enjoyed this article, join SmartBrief’s e-mail list for our daily newsletter on being a better, smarter leader.