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GREAT LEADERS

7 Leadership Lessons From the SEALs Commander Who Got bin Laden

You're probably not leading troops on a special forces raid. But the principles espoused by elite military units can help you become a better leader.

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Three years ago, U.S. Navy SEALs staged a daring raid into Pakistan, where they caught and killed the world's most-wanted terrorist. The mission to get Osama bin Laden was highly dangerous, and it ranks among the boldest strikes in the history of U.S. special operations.

The man who planned and commanded the raid, Admiral William McRaven, is a veteran leader who served at every level of the SEALs and who literally wrote the book on special operations. (He's also the kind of leader who took the time to reply to a 6-year-old boy who sent him a letter asking if a Navy SEAL is quieter than a ninja.)

Recently, McRaven gave a speech at West Point about the top lessons of his 36-year military career. You can click here to read his entire address, but you'll find some of his key points about truly great leadership below. You're probably not sending your team on a dangerous and deadly mission, but McRaven's advice about what it takes to lead troops in battle is equally valid in business and in almost any other aspect of life.

1. It's about people

Let's face it: There are so many bad leaders in the world--for the simple reason that good leadership is really hard. It's about having clear goals and a plan to reach them, but it's also about the constant ebb and flow of human relationships. Don't underestimate the scope of that challenge.

"Nothing--nothing--is more daunting, more frustrating, more complex, than trying to lead men and women in tough times," McRaven said. "Those officers that do it well earn your respect, because doing it poorly is commonplace."

2. Challenge your team

Think of the leaders you've truly respected most in your life. Did they let you slack off and do whatever you wanted, or did they press you to achieve more than you believed possible? McRaven told the cadets in his audience that if they want to lead their troops well, they need to push them.

"Taking care of soldiers is not about coddling them," McRaven told the cadets. "It is about challenging them--establishing a standard of excellence and holding them accountable for reaching it....You had better be up to the task, because I have learned that they expect you to be good....[They] expect you to hold them to high standards."

3. Learn from failure

Everybody screws up, and everybody falls short, but the best leaders learn to fail effectively. What does that mean? It means things such as acknowledging your failures, learning from them, and moving on quickly. (Click here to see how one business leader encourages his team to share their failures publicly.)

"Nothing so steels you for battle like failure," McRaven told the cadets. "No officer I watched got it right every time. But the great ones know that when they fail, they must pick themselves up, learn from their mistakes and move on.... If you can't stomach failure, then you will never be a great leader."

4. Take smart risks

Nice people can play it safe, but great leaders can't. Your team needs to know that you're dedicated to moving forward and helping them achieve goals that are bigger than any of them. That also means taking smart risks and being willing to do so in support of the greater good.

"The greatest risk is not on the battlefield but in standing up for what's right," McRaven told the cadets, adding, "The truly great officers know that real victory is achieved when men and women of character take professional risks and challenge the weak-kneed, the faint of heart, the indecisive, or the bullies."

5. Be a good follower

Can you tell the difference between a leader and a follower? Trick question, because all great leaders are called to be followers sometimes. Just because you're the person with "boss" in your title (or in McRaven's case, admiral's insignia on your military uniform) doesn't mean you will always have the smartest plan, the best knowledge, or the optimal way to lead in every situation.

"Great officers are equally good at following as they are at leading," McRaven said. "Following is one of the most underrated aspects of leadership....I have seen many a good [military unit] underachieve, because someone...thought the commander was incompetent, and quietly worked to undermine his authority."

6. Work for the greater good

Part of pushing people to be their best is to aim for worthy goals, and to ensure that they know that their accomplishments are what matter most--not their backgrounds or their personal idiosyncrasies. People want to be respected, and that requires leading them toward goals that are worthy of respect.

"The great leaders in the Army never accept indifference or injustice, and they only judge their soldiers based on the merit of their work," McRaven said. "Nothing else is important."

7. Go toward the action

When you're up against a deadline or facing a tough challenge, do the people you work with know instinctively that they'll find you in the thick of the fight--pitching in, working long hours, and doing whatever is necessary to succeed? Or have you suggested somehow that "rank has its privileges," and that you're exempted from the least-enjoyable but essential tasks?

"Move to where the action is the hottest," McRaven said. "Spend time with the soldiers being miserable, exhausted and scared. If you're a Black Hawk [helicopter] pilot or a tank commander, spend some time on the flight line or in the motor pool with the maintainers and the wrench-turners. Whatever position or branch you are in, find the toughest, most dangerous job in your unit and go do it."

Last updated: Feb 11, 2014

BILL MURPHY JR. | Columnist

Bill Murphy Jr. is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with Jon Burgstone) and is a former reporter for The Washington Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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