What can the US Navy SEALs teach us about leadership?

20 September 2018

  • The extreme world of US Navy SEALs reveals how to lead in complexity
  • Research identifies new model of leadership that can be applied to business
  • SEALs embrace confusion by using all three decision-making styles
  • Command, leadership and management used simultaneously by SEALs

In an increasingly complex and fast-changing world new research argues business leaders should learn from the US Navy SEALs and embrace the chaos.

US Navy SEALS operate in extreme military conditions and their gruelling training, which includes “Hell Week” where five days of continuous exercises are combined with intense sleep deprivation, sees all ranks ready to lead and so they combine centralised strategies for guidance with decentralised execution of tactics.

It means the SEALs, who caught and killed Osama Bin Laden, can deal with the complexity of a battlefield as they learn all “plans are a basis for change”.

Keith Grint, of Warwick Business School, and Amy Fraher, of Birmingham University, interviewed 12 Navy SEALs and undertook an ethnographic study of their training to understand how their principles could be applied to any organisation for the paper Agonistic Governance: The antinomies of decision-making in U.S. Navy SEALs, published in Leadership.

“If we want to learn about leading in complex situations, we should examine those professions that lead in the most extreme forms of complexity,” said Professor Grint.

Organisation theory espouses there are three types of problems – wicked, tame and critical. Wicked problems are intractable because of incomplete or forever-changing information, like eradicating poverty, and needs ‘leadership’ to ask the questions and galvanise a community to face the challenge.

Tame problems are complicated, but have set procedures to follow and can be solved by managers, while critical problems are emergencies where time is short and requires commanders to make quick decisions.

Rather than finding the right decision-making approach to fit the right problem, US Navy SEALs employ all three – leadership, manager and commander – all the time to tackle wicked problems.

Professor Grint said: “From studying the US Navy SEALs we found that the search for a logical, elegant, linear answer is the problem not the solution.

“Being comfortable within a confused situation, not relying upon tried and tested procedures, and being reliant on one’s own resilience and learning requires an acceptance that, ironically, the contradictions and complexity is your friend not your enemy, because the very same confusions will probably inhibit the ability of your competitor to respond appropriately.

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“This model is not restricted to the military, or even those employed in emergency services, but might serve all kinds of leaders well, who struggle to address wicked problems in their own organisations because they are looking for a rational and logical solution that may not exist.

“It is a recognition that decision-making is as much an art as a science. We call this concept Agonistic Governance.’’

In training Navy SEALs are made to fail, not only so they learn from it, but to build resilience. They are taught to embrace chaos and be comfortable in it, not to try to control it, using their emotions to guide their decisions. And they are empowered to violate an order if warranted to achieve their mission.

One SEAL interviewed gave an example of Agnostic Governance. He said: “Our goal was clear as crystal... It was crazy because it was so simple; uncluttered... I said, ‘Hey we’ve been doing this for a long time now. You trust us. You know what we do. We trained for this’.

"You don’t need to be a tactician and tell me how I’m going to do this job. You assigned this mission to me: ‘Hey see what you can do to free Captain Philips’. That’s what the mission was. It wasn’t about killing pirates it wasn’t about anything - it was ‘Hey, free him’. OK, that’s enough for me.”

Here, we see the SEAL engaging in command (accepting a hierarchical order to free Captain Philips), management (engaging in the trained processes that will execute the command), and leadership (doing whatever was necessary in the circumstances, including challenging upwards).

Professor Grint added: “Rather than looking for prescripted responses to an emerging challenge, SEALs emphasise the artistic side of leadership and are not afraid of relying on emotions to guide them.

“As one we interviewed said ‘whatever just happened to you is probably a surprise. It’s probably something that you didn’t predict because it’s just the way - you know, plans are a basis for change. It just rarely happens that the problem you are faced with is the problem you were expecting. So you quickly have to come up with some alternative, some options’.”

SEALs are taught to work for the team and not themselves, so decision-making is a collective, where ideas and solutions from all ranks in the team are synergised into one plan.

One SEAL said: “The real secret to our success is we build teams. We call ourselves 'The Teams'... It’s not 'I’m a SEAL.’ It’s 'I’m in The Teams'... We put the team and mission above self.

"You are responsible for your buddy. In fact, you better be more responsible for your buddy than you are for yourself. If you let him go adrift, you are out of training. So from the very start of the programme there is this sense of - you are responsible for someone else, you must contribute to the team.”

Professor Grint added: “Agonistic Governance offers a way to move from binary thinking rooted in decision-making models that aim to be internally coherent and without contradiction, and instead offers a way to accept the irrational and paradoxical prevalent in today’s complex organisational environments.

“In effect, wicked problems can only be addressed by accepting that complexity generates paradoxes and contradictions and, to be successful organisational leaders must positively embrace these, rather than try to eliminate them, recognising that some failure is the price of overall success.”

 

Keith Grint is Professor of Public Leadership & Management and is author of Leadership, management and command : rethinking D-Day.

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