Front Sight Focus in Action

My former SEAL Team 3 Commanding Officer, Admiral Bill McRaven is now head of all U.S. Special Operations forces as Commander of the Special Operations Command (SOCOM). His role in capturing Osama Bin Laden stemmed directly from his long term and relentless front sight focus on his goals— first to create a new dynamic structure for the entire SEAL community, and later to bring America’s number one enemy to justice.

In his book, Theory of Spec Ops, McRaven identified six elements common to the most effective, high profile missions: simplicity, security, repetition, surprise, speed, and purpose. These elements are related to winning first in the mind (i.e. preparation and training). Perhaps more importantly, he insisted all six elements must be in place and executed within an appropriate timeline for mission success. If they aren’t, the team will not gain relative superiority and the mission will fail.

In 1993 while leading SEAL Team 3 as Commanding Officer (I was a Lieutenant there at the time), McRaven determined the growing threat in the Middle East would require a dedicated SEAL presence, which we unfortunately didn’t have there. But McRaven couldn’t unilaterally shift SEAL Team 3. His solution was to champion the formation of a “Naval Special Warfare Unit 3” in Bahrain as a staging point for regional operations. This was a prescient move.

Once he’d accomplished that, McRaven was successful in repositioning SEAL Team 3 as the Middle East experts. We began deploying to Bahrain, staging out of the new Unit. McRaven arranged for each team member to undergo language training in either Farsi or Arabic through a civilian school, which was an innovative move for the time. This grounded SEAL Team 3 with the cultural and environmental sensitivity they would need to become the SEALs’ go-to force in Afghanistan and Iraq when those conflicts arose, leading the way for the rest of the SEAL community.

Several years later, as the Commodore of Naval Special Warfare Group One (the parent organization of the West Coast SEAL Teams and where I served as a Lieutenant Commander on a one-year recall), McRaven pitched an idea to restructure the entire SEAL numbered teams along the lines of SEAL Team 6. This was a dramatic shift, with plenty of supporters and detractors. But McRaven was passionate about the reorganization, which he deemed necessary for keeping pace with evolving warfare trends. Again, his proposal prevailed.

September 11, 2001 found now Rear Admiral McRaven as Deputy Commander of the Joint Special Operations Command. Over a period of eight years as deputy then Commanding Officer of this unit, McRaven ensured they stayed front sight focused on their primary objective: Bin Laden. Though they captured or killed many of the top Al Qaeda leaders, Bin Laden remained elusive.

Finally, after years of hunting, they were able to fix Bin Laden’s location. Operational security was solid; few people knew the mission details. The team built a mock house and compound and practiced for months until shooting, moving, and communicating in the structure was second nature to all the operators. Patience and preparation were instrumental. Thanks to the tight security and a simple plan based on good intelligence and innovative ideas, the team executed with total speed and surprise. The result was a near perfect op that has captured the world’s attention.

McRaven achieved his personal vision for the SEALs one step at a time, maintaining his front sight focus on the global threat of terrorism. His persistence resulted in better positioning the SEALs to fight the as-yet non-existent “war on terror.” And his ability to eliminate distractions and win first in the mind (following his theory of spec ops to plan and practice a successful mission) ultimately allowed him and his team to hold Bin Laden accountable for his assault on the U.S. Had he wavered, the mission would not have gone off in my opinion.

Mastering front sight focus will give you the ability to tackle every other tool and technique described in this book. Without it, you’re bound to get derailed and end up mired in common, day-to-day activities and thinking. Whether you face serious immediate risk or just need long-term strategic persistence, you can overcome any obstacle and achieve any goal you set your sights on if you practice front sight focus. And that can be accomplished through a four-pronged approach: simplify the battlefield; define the mission; envision the mission; and prepare for rapid change.

Course Discussion