Intro to Leadership of “I”

Topic Progress:


“I never said it would be easy…I only said it would be worth it.”--Mark Divine


“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 is 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. Finally we will take a ride into “The Way of the SEAL” and discuss ways of thinking that can take your personal leadership style to an unconventional level. This lesson is separated into two parts due to the breadth and depth of the topic. In part 1, we will look at leadership theories, poor leadership and the authentic leader from the “I” perspective. In Part 2 we will look at authentic leadership from the “We” and It” perspective and look at an interesting leadership style I call “The Way of the SEAL.”

Most of what we know about traditional leadership comes from the field of psychology. This cognitive approach looks at traits and behaviors of successful leaders and asks us to emulate these. The training provides tips, tactics and techniques to be employed by those in charge in an effort to mobilize, motivate and reward followers. Much effort is spent in the corporate and academic world trying to actually define leadership. A book from a leadership course I took had literally hundreds of definitions each equally acceptable depending on the viewpoint of the author. Leadership is a chameleon social theory like many other social sciences created over the last century to try to make sense of the fabric of our society. These “sciences” make meaning by dissecting a subject into its most microscopic elements and studying these elements in isolation. This reductionist strategy kills the patient (the authentic leader) in a well-intentioned effort to see what makes his brain work.

We begin to address leadership at a personal level, just as our founding fathers and citizens all took personal responsibility for their lot in life. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Our current leaders and institutions are blind to the reality – as the saying goes, “When you are inside the bottle you can’t read the label.” As Unbeatable Mind students we must stand up and step out, risking more to enforce integrity at all levels – self, team and organization.

When I was at SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team ONE the team had a Commanding Officer (CO) who was a classic bureaucratic manager. This guy tried to do things right rather than do the right thing, and he often failed at that. On Friday’s he would check his “motivation” box and lead the entire command in a jog around Ford Island in Pearl Harbor. He would drop us down to do a few push-ups every half mile or so. The workout was so uninspiring and ineffective at developing SEAL-level fitness and team spirit that we all dreaded these mandatory events and tried like hell to miss them. Later in my tour this CO led a mission where his micro-management bungled critical decisions, sending a million dollar mini-sub 1,000 feet to the bottom of the Pacific. This man was in a serious leadership role, a position of authority and responsibility. Yet he was an utter failure because he had no concept of how to be an authentic person with his team. He spent no time working on his weaknesses, did not share risk, led from a checklist of tactics he learned in school and made decisions for the good of his career and not his team. The men simply did not trust him. He mistook positional authority with leadership. At SDVT-1 there were authentic leaders, but the CO was not one of them.

In 1996 I left active duty and joined forces with my two brother-in-law to launch a new business venture, the Coronado Brewing Company. While the SEALs were filled with many men of honor working on mastering themselves daily, I soon found that this was not as common back in the “real world.” I observed what happens when you mix a lot of money with adults who never develop integrity and authenticity. My newfound teammates reneged on every agreement they made – to include putting personal money into the business, raising outside money, and actually working. When the Board of Directors held them accountable, they embarked on a nasty campaign in an effort to discredit me and take control of the business. Their actions wreaked havoc upon our family and after several painful years of legal wrangling I arranged to sell my interest to preserve my wife’s sanity. It seemed that authentic leadership was as sparse in the small business realm as it was in large corporate and military settings. I was desperate to work with real people – those willing to work hard, risk failure, be responsible for their thoughts, words and actions and to be held accountable. Where were they?

In 1998, I sought some answers through a PHD in 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, so I thought. My enthusiasm waned after the first year as I suffered through course after course of leadership theories as taught out of a book vs in real practice. I soon saw that the professors, while very astute, had little real world experience leading teams. They knew theory and data, but not the heart and soul of leading people. They had no experience in leading high octane environments, did not know what it meant to risk personal failure on behalf of their teammates or how to challenge a team to break mental and emotional barriers. They were in the glass bottle and believed in their expertise but were not integrated and authentic.

I was not fooled. I thought I would try the teaching path to see if I could be different. I earned a post as an Adjunct Professor of Leadership in the undergraduate program. There I led a class on outdoor leadership. On a brief overnight outing to Mount San Jacinto the class nearly mutinied against me when the snow started falling. “We are going to die!”, “My parents did not pay for me to be miserable at school!” Hmmm, fail. Not only were the students soft and unwilling to be challenged, I soon found my hands tied by the institution due to their risk aversion. I could not implement any of my ideas of leadership development, such as challenging the students mentally, emotionally and spiritually as I was in the SEAL Teams. I gratefully left this foray into the academic world when the Navy recalled me to active duty to go to Iraq in 2004. My perspectives on leadership were soon validated in the combat zone.

When I was recalled to active duty with the SEALs in early 2004 the situation in Iraq had spiraled into chaos. Scott Helveston, one of my SEAL instructors and later a personal friend who was a pioneer in functional fitness, had just been killed in Fallujah along with his Blackwater convoy team. This event was widely viewed as the end of the post-invasion euphoria and the beginning of the insurgency. I had been avoiding recall while focusing on my PHD, but I accepted this assignment in honor of Scott and to help the cause (and perhaps to flee from the Academic world I was so ill-suited for).

I was recruited by Commander Mike Lumpkin of Naval Special Warfare Group ONE (Mike later ran for Congress in California). He needed someone to join his staff to augment SEAL Team One as the head researcher for the Marine Corps “SOCOM Detachment ONE” proof of concept deployment. The aim of the proof of concept deployment was to validate that the Marine Corps handpicked team of operators was qualified to join the Special Ops community. Back in 1987, when the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) was formed, the Marines declined the invitation to join as a component, believing that the effort would fail and that the Marines were already the “special operations force” for the country.

The institutional politics of the SOCOM Det experiment were stifling. The Marines were pissed that they were forced by Rumsfeld 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 if admitted to SOCOM. In spite of this environment it was the leadership of two SEAL officers with the attitude “what is right for the country is right for the SEALs” who made the deployment work for the Marines. The success or failure of the Marine Special Ops proof of concept hinged on a few tough decisions made by these authentic leaders, at great personal risk to their careers.

Captain Jim O’Connell was the Commodore of Naval Special Warfare Group ONE. He was a true combat leader, recalled from retirement to take a leadership role after 9/11. O’Connell was Lumpkin’s boss and responsible for the West Coast SEAL Teams, including Team One. Commander Bill Wilson was the Commanding Officer of SEAL Team One. These men stuck their necks out and made unpopular decisions to support the Marines in their proof of concept deployment.

A couple noteworthy events will illuminate my point. 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, augmented by SOCOM Det ONE, deployed to Iraq was getting nasty.

The I-Fav vehicles were useless, and it would be six months before the Marine supply machine could get up-armored Humvees for the team. Commander Wilson, backed by O’Connell, put his team to work to find a solution. The easy 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 – proof of concept fail!” Wilson was not going to let the Marines sink or swim on something that could certainly be solved with some unconventional thinking. The Commander put Warrant Officer Jackson on the task. Within a week, 12 Humvees mysteriously showed up, and the SEALs were in helmets welding 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. The team bond that formed from this incident broke the ice between the teams, and brought them together as two units from different service branches, fighting on the same team. Where did the vehicles come from and how did Jackson get them so quickly? Wilson never asked the question. He took to calling Jackson his “Asset Reallocation Specialist.” The vehicles were not stolen, we knew that. Yet this man was able to circumvent the entire military supply bureaucracy and obtain in 2 weeks what the Marines could not get for 6 months. All of this was done for the good of the larger team, the nation, and by setting aside personal politics and petty bullshit. It was a big risk and it paid off big time for the Marines.

Several weeks later, the fighting in Fallujah had reached a peak. Marine General Mattis, responsible for Marine operations in Iraq, called for the SOCOM Det to come up to Fallujah to support the Marines on the ground. The SOCOM Det was chomping at the bit to go support their boys, and “bring it” to the enemy. They had yet to enter the fight in Baghdad because Commander Wilson was easing them into the operational matrix methodically. A political tug-of-war ensued, with Commander Wilson and Captain O’Connell arguing that detaching the Marine Det from SEAL Team ONE to fight in Fallujah would invalidate the spirit of the proof of concept deployment. The Marines argued that this was war and they needed to get into the fight. The SOCOM Det desperately lobbied to go to Fallujah.

The argument went very high up the chain. O’Connell and Wilson won to the angst of the leaders and men of the Marine Unit and the Marine Corp in general. The logic was sound though, and proved to be another call that was made at great personal career risk, yet done because it was the “hard right” thing to do. The Marines would have been swept into the larger Marine operational support role, removed from the special operations chain of command and environment, which is very different from the Marines. The proof of concept would have failed. Instead, within days of the decision to retain the SOCOM Det in Baghdad with SEAL Team ONE, they were running operations alongside the SEALs, and then independently, proving their mettle in the complex special operations world -albeit with a fire hose of education from the men of SEAL Team ONE. Two years later the Marines were a full component of the Special Operations Command, contributing the valuable missing link to the country’s Special Forces.

In 2006, I was asked by the new President of Servite High School in Anaheim, CA. to attend a meeting to discuss a program called “Freshman Formation.” Peter Bowen was a retired Marine Harrier pilot and former Ethics Officer for the City of Los Angeles. Pete had an interesting idea for this private Catholic High School. He wanted to organize it like the US Naval Academy!

The intent behind the Freshman Formation was to create a vertical and horizontal leadership structure for the incoming class, combined with leadership training, which would “form” the freshmen boys into men of character. The tradition of the school was based on service to God and the belief that one cannot serve God, and thus his fellow man, if he is not built of character himself. How crazy and out of touch with pop culture they were! Imagine actually seeking to build character – the kind that cannot be taught in the classroom.

I helped Pete design the Freshman Formation Weekend, which is a crucible event that all incoming freshman must attend. It is a Friday evening through Sunday afternoon event which builds courage, a service mindset and team, character traits developed by taking the boys well out of their comfort zone then filling the gap with experienced based learning. Rappelling from a 30 foot tower, serious SEAL grinder PT sessions, Log PT under a 300lb log, an obstacle course, public performances and periods of personal introspection are all built into the intense weekend. The program has been extremely successful and has been in effect for 6 years now. Each class,freshmen to senior, now have formation events. Servite graduates become men of character and embark upon a life of honor and service, staying very connected to the school and their classmates. The leadership of Pete Bowen and his team is uncommon, authentic, inspiring and a model for other educational institutions.

The experiences discussed here, along with my direct leadership of men in my SEAL platoons and other roles, helped me develop the leadership training program I deliver at the SEALFIT Academy and Kokoro Camp. I am not constrained by institutional risk aversion or political correctness and legalism. I know how to challenge the students beyond any measure they have experienced before. The training lays the seeds for authentic leadership, which blossoms over the years as the individuals who complete the training become passionate about leading and mastering themselves daily. I love teaching leadership at SEALFIT because we can get busy right away in the “arena” where leadership is displayed through thoughts, words and actions. We teach leadership in an accelerated learning “whole person” manner using our Five Mountain model – physically, mentally, emotionally, intuitionally and spiritually. It works and is a also model for leadership training for corporate and political leaders.

I believe that authentic leadership stems from the very heart and soul of an individual, in spite of the organization or system he or she is enshrined in. We need to develop a concept of Leadership Kokoro – the merging of heart and mind in action in our leaders. Then we must integrate this Leadership Kokoro into the “I,” “We,” and “It” spheres of the leaders experience. In essence we want authentic leaders who are on committed to self-mastery, developing personal integrity, trustworthiness and Kokoro, to lead from the front with example and to serve their teams with humility. We need our organizations to support the efforts of these authentic leaders and teams. There is no quick x or simple implementation plan for this vision. It can only be executed by developing one authentic leader at a time.

Course Discussion