“A man needs to look, not down, but up to standards set so much above his ordinary self as to make him feel that he is himself spiritually the underdog.” –Irving Babbitt
I have been fortunate, like many of you, to observe leadership “up close and personal” from multiple perspectives, good, bad and ugly. In this lesson, we will look at traditional models of leadership upon which most academic learning and organizational training are based upon. Next, we will build a map that you can use to develop yourself and your team in an authentic manner so you can operate more effectively as an individual and within a team.
Most of what is written in the field of leadership is either academic, such as from the field of psychology, or observational, such as the many profiles of effective leaders or styles of leading. This approach looks mainly at traits and behaviors of successful leaders and asks us to emulate these. Leadership training provides tips, tactics and techniques to be employed by those in charge in an effort to mobilize, motivate and reward followers. One book from a leadership course in my Ph.D. program had literally hundreds of definitions of leadership, each equally acceptable depending on one’s point of view. Leadership is a fickle and chameleon theory! As with all social science, it is simply an attempt to find and make meaning by dissecting a subject into its most microscopic elements, then studying those in isolation. This is reductionist and often leaves the patient (the leader) still sick because the theory lacks a practice grounded in reality. Studying leadership is not the same as developing leadership character.
Leadership must first be addressed at the personal level. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” we can say: “Be the leader you want to see in the world.” It is apparent to me that many leaders at the top today missed this point, and went after position, prestige, power and wealth instead. Leading authentically, from the Fifth Plateau with Kokoro Heart-Mind integration is hard work. It takes a serious passion for self-awareness and self-mastery, combined with a world-centric drive to serve others, and humanity. Anything less falls short of our definition of an Unbeatable Leader. Some of my own experiences and observations will reinforce this statement.
Bureaucratic Manager Masquerading as Leader
This is one of the most common forms of bad leadership. At SDV Team ONE (SDV is “SEAL Delivery Team” a horrible acronym for our mini-submarine operators). The team’s Commanding Officer (CO) was a classic bureaucratic manager. He’d go to great pains to “do things right” rather than seek to “do the right thing.” This means he would put his career, legalism and paperwork ahead of his troops. An example of his poor connection with his team appeared each Friday. To check his “motivate the troops” box, he enforced a group fitness run and would attempt to lead the entire command in a jog around our Island in Pearl Harbor. He ran painfully slow and would drop us down to do a few push-ups every half mile or so. Apparently, he was unaware that our workout standards were about 50X more than what he delivered. It was completely uninspiring and ineffective, and downright embarrassing. Most of the SEAL operators tried like hell to miss these events.
A year into my tour of duty under his command, he insisted on being present at a training mission. Things went south and he took command, bungling things badly, sending a million dollar mini-sub to the bottom of the Pacific. He aspired to a serious leadership role not because he cared about leading, but because he wanted rank and opportunity in the Navy. His ambition wasn’t uncommon, and the Navy is structured to promote bureaucratic types to positions of authority and responsibility. But this process has dire consequences if the individual is not an authentic leader, working on himself while he or she works in the organization. This CO spent no time working on his weaknesses, did not share risk, and “led from a checklist” of tactics he learned in school. His decisions were made for the good of his career, and not his team so the troops didn’t trust him.
Ruthless Manipulator Masquerading as Leader
I left active duty for the reserve SEALs in late 1996. As I have mentioned in this course and my books, I decided to join forces with my brother-in-law to launch the Coronado Brewing Company. He asked to bring his brother in also, which I agreed to (big mistake). For some reason I expected this new team to have similar attributes to my former SEAL team. I soon found that to be highly unrealistic… an elite team like the SEALs is uncommon in the business world (In lesson eleven we will look at how to build an elite team).
The three of us were the leaders of the new enterprise. Yet, I soon watched my “teammates” renege on every agreement they made. They backed off on investing their own funds (I liquidated my IRA for the business). They failed to help me raise funds (I personally raised the $1.5 million from family and friends and a small business loan). They failed to quit their other jobs to work for the new enterprise, stating that I was doing “just fine without them.”
Then, when the Board of Directors finally held them accountable, they hired a disreputable attorney to discredit me and take control of the business. The ensuing three year legal and control battle almost destroyed the business and tore my wife’s family apart. Eventually, I sold my interest in the growing and highly profitable business just to them to get the hell away from these poisonous people. I walked away from millions to start again alone, or at least with honorable partners. Today those “leaders” of the Coronado Brewing Company still preside over the company, taking full credit for its success.
Academics Masquerading as Leaders
In 1998, I sought to grow my leadership skills through a Ph.D. program in a Leadership program at the University of San Diego. I began the program with an excitement I hadn’t felt since joining the SEAL teams. I was going to learn from leaders about leadership, or so I thought. My enthusiasm waned after the first year as I suffered through course after course of theories taught by boring academics who have never led anyone. The professors were astute but lacked leadership character and real world experience leading teams. So I didn’t trust what they had to tell us. What did they know about leading in high risk VUCA environments, risking personal failure, or how to challenge a team to grow mentally and emotionally?
I thought I would try the professor path to see if I could be different and earned a post as an Adjunct Professor of Leadership in the undergraduate program. I taught a class called “Outdoor Leadership,” which to me seemed like I could use to do some real NOLS type character development of the students. However, on a brief overnight hiking and camping trip, the class nearly mutinied against me when the snow started falling. “We are going to die!“ they exclaimed. I calmed them down a bit, and we had a successful journey, but that didn’t stop them from complaining to the school and their parents. “We did not pay for my daughter to risk her life in the wilderness,” was one complaint to my boss. That ended that. The students were soft and unwilling to be challenged, and the school tied my hands due to their risk aversion. I gratefully left my foray into the academic world when the Navy recalled me to Iraq in 2004. My perspectives on authentic leadership were again validated in the combat zone.
Examples of Authentic Leadership
I was recalled to Naval Special Warfare Group One, the SEAL command that led the west coast SEAL teams. My new boss was Captain Jim O’Connell, the Commodore of the command. I was asked to join SEAL Team One for a special project. Team One was tasked by the DOD to work with the USMC to help validate an initiative to bring Marine Corp special units into the Special Ops community. Back in 1987, when the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) was formed, the Marines declined the invitation to join… so were not part of “SOCOM” until our project ended.
The institutional politics of the experiment were stifling. The Marines were pissed that they were forced to deploy under the SEALs. The SEALs did not want to “babysit” the Marines, worried that they were going to overlap missions and siphon resources from the SEALs. In spite of this environment, I observed the Captain, and the SEAL Team One Commanding Officer, rise above personal and political beliefs to do what was right for the country.
The Marines, expecting desert warfare, contracted to have Mercedes I-Fav vehicles built and deployed to Baghdad for their operations. These are thin-skin vehicles best suited for “Desert Fox” style operations where the threat of IED or Ambush is low. The threat environment when SEAL Team One and the Marine unit deployed to Iraq was too nasty for these tools.
The vehicles were useless, and it would take six months before the Marine supply machine could get up-armored Humvees for the Marine team. While the SEAL leadership was quietly celebrating this obvious failure of their sister service (which would have kept them from the fight and, perhaps out of Spec Ops), Commander Wilson and O’Connell went against the grain and bent over backward to find a solution. The easiest path would have been to say “not our problem… this proves the Marines don’t have the knowledge to operate in a complex special ops environment”
Within a week, twelve Humvees mysteriously showed up. The SEALs began to weld armor plates on the bottom and sides. When the men of the Marine detachment learned that these vehicles were for them, they jumped in and took shifts to build the vehicles. A strong bond formed between the SEALs and Marines over this act of service from one to the other. How the vehicles came to be was never questioned, though you can bet it took some relationship power to pull it off.
Several weeks later, the fighting in Fallujah had reached a peak. Marine General Mattis, responsible for Marine operations in Iraq, called for the Marine “SOF” unit to go to Fallujah to support the Marines. And they wanted to go to help their teammates. But again, the Commodore and the Team One C.O. had to make a tough leadership call in this political tug-of-war. They took the stand that detaching the Marine detachment to fight in Fallujah would invalidate the proof of concept, while the Marines desperately lobbied up the chain of command to get to Fallujah.
O’Connell and Wilson won the argument… to the angst of the Marine Unit and the Marine Corp in general. They put their careers at personal career risk because it was the “right” thing to do. I saw they were right… the Marine unit would have been swept into the “conventional” support role and removed from the special operations chain of command where they were trying to prove themselves. The rationale for the entire deployment would have been invalidated. Even though there was a war to fight, the leaders didn’t take their eye off the longer strategic needs of the country. Within days of that decision, the Marine unit was running operations and proving their mettle complex special operations. Two years later, the Marines had their place in the Special Operations Command.
Military Style Leadership Development in High School
In 2006, I was asked by the President of Servite High School in California to help him design a leadership development program for the school. It started before the freshmen even came on campus “Freshman Formation Weekend.” The President, Peter Bowen, was a retired Marine Colonel and fighter pilot.
The intent behind the Freshman Formation was to create a vertical and horizontal leadership structure for the incoming class. That, combined with leadership training, would “form” the all male school’s students into men of character.
The Freshman Formation Weekend was a crucible event that went from Friday evening through Sunday afternoon. It cultivated courage, a service mindset and team focus. The event would take the young men far out of their comfort zone with events like rappelling from a 30-foot tower, SEAL Grinder PT sessions, Log PT, an obstacle course, public performances, and periods of personal silence and reflection. The program has been a huge success and expanded to all grade levels. Many of the students have since come to SEALFIT training, or even joined the military. All speak of the impact it has had, and point to their high school as more impactful than college. The leadership of Pete Bowen and his team was uncommon, and a model for other educational institutions in character-based leadership development.
The experiences discussed here helped me develop the ideas behind our leadership training program at Unbeatable. The training lays the seeds for authentic leadership, which blossoms over the years. Authentic leaders are passionate about mastering themselves daily in service to others. Authentic leadership comes from the very heart and soul of the individual.