The Navy SEALs are run by great leaders. And the SEALs are the best at what they do because they are a team.

As an illustration, consider a football team. The quarterback on a football team doesn’t micromanage the offense; each player on a championship football team knows his job, knows how to adjust as the defense adjusts, knows how to react when the play unfolds, and understands how critical his job is to mission accomplishment. It is the quarterback who calls the play, gives the orders to start (calls the cadence), and has the most strategic view of everyone on the offense on how to accomplish their part of the mission.

If you’ve coached team sports before, you know that what is most important to winning is not having the best players; it’s having the right ones. You need players who can do the job, of course, but there also has to be no question that each member on that team knows his job and is committed to team success before his own success.

It seems that we can deduce that what it most important to great teams isn’t having great people – it’s having the right people. I’m not saying the SEALs aren’t great people – they most certainly are — it’s just most important that they are the right people. I assert that building and leading a very effective team hinges on 5 things (not in any order):

1) Getting the right people on the team,

2) Keeping the right people on the team,

3) Getting the wrong people off the team,

4) Training and equipping the right people to be able to accomplish the mission, and

5) Establishing a mission that the team wants to achieve.

What jumps right out is what’s missing from the list – the need for you to be George Washington. You don’t need to be whatever caricature you may hold in your head about what a great leader is in order to run a great team. Instead, you need to be a person who can do those 5 things. Good news, right? Well, I’ve known a few SEAL team leaders, and here’s a list of what I found to be their key leadership traits

1) Humility. Arrogance is a sure-fire route to mediocrity, and it is a roadblock to delegation. Humility DOES NOT mean meekness or timidity; it means that you honestly do not consider yourself a better person than your team members. If you have a problem here, get help, because it is extremely unlikely that you will ever lead a world-class organization.

2) Trustworthiness. This article has an excellent set of indicators whether or not you are trustworthy: you share the interests of the stakeholders, you are genuinely concerned for others, you deliver on your promises, you are consistent, you are honest, and you communicate frequently, clearly, and openly.

3) Accountability. “The buck stops here.” One of the foundations of leadership is that you can delegate responsibility, but you cannot delegate accountability. In other words, although a SEAL leader can delegate the responsibility of accomplishing an objective to a member of his team, he cannot delegate the accountability. In the event something goes wrong, it’s the leader who is must be held accountable, not the subordinate.

4) Empathy. After humility, I think this is one of the hardest traits for someone to adopt, but without it you will find it difficult to understand and appreciate the members of your team. Look, I’m no teddy bear – I’m not talking about group hugs or singing kumbaya. Just seek to understand your people.

5) Clarity. A leader has to know where he’s going.

6) Competence. You don’t have to the expert, but you’ve got to understand the business and what everyone’s role is.

7) Integrity. You better be who you say you are, and act in complete accordance with your stated and implied values, or you will lose your team. If you can’t pay this price, don’t be a leader.

8) Honor. Stand up for what’s right, defend your team’s reputation, care for the well-being of your team, take personal accountability for team failures, etc.


Contributed by:  Don Mann, Retired from Seal Team 6