Navy SEALs: 5 Skills Needed for Missions that Must Succeed

Last Updated May 10, 2011 4:26 PM EDT

In a previous post, I speculated about the books that publishers might publish after the bin Laden operation. On my short list was a book about the Navy SEALs Team Six, the elite, special ops team that killed Osama bin Laden. Turns out a few publishers already have rushed Navy SEAL books in their pipeline into publication.

SEAL Team Six: Memoirs of an Elite Navy Seal Sniper, by Howard E. Wasdin and Stephen Templin (St. Martins May 2011), chronicles Howard E. Wasdin's life and experiences inside Navy SEAL Team Six where he was their best sniper and a veteran of many combat missions. A major portion of the book chronicles Wasdin's service during the savage and ultra-violent urban combat of Mogadishu, Somalia, where Wasdin fought during the battles chronicled in the film and book Black Hawk Down and suffered severe gunshot wounds in both of his legs.

The book narrates in Wasdin's voice his rough childhood, his ambition to join the Navy SEALs and his combat experiences. The book offers details about the ruthless and grueling selection process of becoming a special forces operative. I enjoyed the combat narrative, but read the book to learn more about the training, performance, and leadership culture of SEAL Team Six, a unit held in awe even by other members of US Special Forces.

What does it take to develop human performance that excels in the most dangerous and unstable conditions? How do you find and evaluate the best of the best for missions that can't afford to fail? I came away with these five conclusions:

1. Developing elite performers means ruthless competition, and most aspirants will lose. As Wasdin progresses through basic training, underwater demolition, SEAL training, and Team Six finishing school, very few trainees endure to graduation. There is no favoritism. There are no favors. Instructors deploy little subjective judgment about who survives. As the men are pushed to the limit of physical failure and injury, they can opt to "ring the bell" and leave the program. Hundreds do so. Even those who manage to stick through a course or training can be kicked out if they later fail to meet the metrics. "A number of the racehorses [fastest around the obstacle course] were the biggest crybabies," Wasdin and Templin write. "They'd probably been number one much of their lives, and now when they had their first taste of adversity -- BUD/S-- style--they couldn't handle it. What the hell is wrong with these prima donnas?"

2. Each member must be totally confident in his/her ability to fulfill the mission. Members of Navy SEAL Team Six and similar units not only out-perform their peers consistently on the course and in operations, but have no doubt about their ability to do so. To overcome a series of highly exhausting goals in a complex environment, elite team members simply have to believe they will succeed at the end: "In psychology this belief is called self-efficacy. Even when the mission seems impossible, it is the strength of our belief that makes success possible," Wasdin and Templin note. This trait is seen in Wasdin's battlefield performance in Somalia, where he continued fighting despite nearly losing his leg until shock set in--not because he was brave, but because he believed he could not be stopped.

3. Performing at a high level means being able to make snap decisions, often with limited information. Wasdin recounts how the length and intensity of SEALs training, and the diverse field experience of SEALs Team Six members, gives them the mental clarity to make decisions and improvise under fire, when younger soldiers, even Army Rangers--often fall back on what they've been told, even when there are lives on the line.

4. Even superior performers will fail without learning humility and humanity. Wasdin makes clear his most profound experiences arrived after he'd arrived as a Team Six member. In a number of situations, he came to realize that he shared a common humanity with other combatants, with citizens in foreign lands, and members of the military far below him in rank and prestige. During Desert Storm, he saw and recognized vulnerability in the starving faces of enlisted Iraqi military men, his enemy. In Somalia, he disobeyed orders to help a young Somali boy with a gangrenous leg--and recognized in an old man working for the militia, a victim of circumstances to be spared. These moments mattered because they improved his judgment, not just his humanity.

5. Great warriors eventually retire, and get a chiropractor's degree. I loved the final section of the book where we see Wasdin cope with transition to civilian life, experience a variety of humbling jobs, learn how to be a Dad, remarry and become a loving husband, and find the job of his dreams--as a chiropractor--because he wants to help people. Even those legendary Team Six operatives who raided bin Laden will someday leave the service and need new skills, and a new start in civilian life. Wasdin wants us to remember that ultimately Navy SEALs are people, not superheros.

What skills do you think Navy SEALs have that could be helpful in your management role?

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Herb Schaffner is president of Schaffner Media Partners, a consultancy specializing in business, finance, and public affairs publishing expertise, and is found on Facebook. He has been a publisher and editor-in-chief at McGraw-Hill, and a senior editor at HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter.
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  • Herb Schaffner

    Herb Schaffner is the president of Schaffner Media Partners, which develops business book and media projects. He is the former Publisher of Business and Finance at McGraw-Hill Professional, and Senior Editor at HarperCollins/HarperBusiness. Books that Schaffner edited, developed, and supervised during his years in publishing won best book awards from The Economist, 800-CEO Read, BusinessWeek, The Financial Times/Goldman Sachs, Strategy+Business Magazine, and the Toronto Globe & Mail. He has acquired and edited dozens of bestselling books including Secrets of the Millionaire Mind, Always On, Make or Break, Freedom from Oil, and many others. During his career Schaffner also worked as director of speechwriting and public affairs to a governor, as a communications director at two universities, and for the highly influential Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, DC. He also coauthored leading reference works on labor and the workforce.