How the Navy SEALs Train for Leadership Excellence

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By Michael Schrage

Almost every world-class, high-performance organization takes training and education seriously. But Navy SEALs go uncomfortably beyond. They’re obsessive and obsessed. They are arguably the best in the world at what they do. Their dedication to relentless training and intensive preparation, however, is utterly alien to the overwhelming majority of businesses and professional enterprises worldwide. That’s important, not because I think MBAs should be more like SEALS—I don’t—but because real-world excellence requires more than commitment to educational achievement.

As an educator, I fear world-class business schools and high-performance businesses overinvest in “education” and dramatically underinvest in “training.” Human capital champions in higher education and industry typically prize knowledge over skills. Crassly put, leaders and managers get knowledge and education while training and skills go to those who do the work. That business bias is both dangerous and counterproductive. The SEALS can’t afford it. “Under pressure,” according to SEAL lore, “you don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training. That’s why we train so hard.” When I see just how difficult and challenging it is for so many smart and talented organizations to innovate and adapt under pressure, I see people who are overeducated and undertrained. That scares me.

So I reached out to Brandon Webb, an innovative SEAL trainer/educator, and CEO of Force12 Media for real-world perspective on what industry could learn from a special operations sensibility. Webb, who served in the Navy from 1993 to 2006 and radically redesigned the SEAL training course curriculum, graciously shared his insight about what works – and what fails – when effecting a training transformation.

A member of Seal Team 3, Webb became the Naval Special Warfare Command Sniper Course Manager in 2003. This was a precarious time. The SEALs leadership recognized that technical excellence—better shooting and better shots—didn’t go nearly far enough in addressing the complex environments and demands that would be made upon sniper teams in wartime deployments in multiple theaters. The wartime challenge demanded better collaboration, greater situational awareness and more strategic application of cutting edge technology for the war-fighter. The post-9/11 environment demanded it. In response, some of the radical changes that Webb designed are the following: He broke the class into pairs, assigning mentors to boost support and accountability; he created classes that explore and explain technologies giving participants greater insight into the physics and underlying mechanics of their equipment; and he adopted the “mental management” techniques of Olympic world-champion marksmen, which we were at first reluctantly but then enthusiastically embraced. The results impressed the war-fighting community. SEALs like Marcus Luttrell (Lone Survivor) and Chris Kyle (American Sniper) observed how that course transformed their field capabilities and effectiveness.

“Our instructors were teaching better, and our students were learning better,” Webb noted in The Red Circle, his 2012 SEAL memoir. “The course standards got harder, if anything—but something fascinating happened: Instead of flunking higher numbers of students, we started graduating more. Before we redid the course, SEAL sniper school had an average attrition rate of about 30 percent. By the time we had gone through the bulk of our overhaul, it had plummeted to less than 5 percent.” And as he told me in a recent email exchange, he accomplished this by drawing from many diverse areas outside the military: “We took best practices from teaching, professional sports, and Olympic champions, and we made our course one of the best in the world in a very short period of time…” Webb noted. “We re-wrote the entire curriculum and saw our graduation rate go from 70% to 98% instantly, and hold there…”

Webb explicitly emphasized four transformational training themes. They’re neither obvious nor cliché. Unfortunately, I rarely see them in Fortune 1000 training programs/executive education or elite MBA programs.

1. Produce Excellence, Not “Above Average”

The first describes where Webb simply would not professionally go. “Being very good wasn’t good enough,” Webb declared. “Training programs shouldn’t be designed to deliver competence; they must be dedicated to producing excellence. Serious organizations don’t aspire to be comfortably above average.” “I honestly don’t even want to focus on good or competent,” Webb wrote, “it’s not in my nature and I don’t want to be part of any team or organization that is willing to set this standard. ‘Aim high, miss high,’ and you can quote me on that.”

In other words, training divorced from excellence is mere compliance. It is more “box ticking” than human capital investment. Is “above average” training really worth the time, energy and expense? A kaizen—continuous improvement—ethos is one thing. But customer service and leadership training that only enhances rather than transforms capabilities and skills doesn’t buy very much.

Webb’s hardcore perspective poses an existential challenge to most organizations’ views of human resources. Do they really want training to empower and bring out the best in their people? Or does everyone train with the tacit expectation that excellence matters less than being a bit better? Webb wonders whether most companies are serious about what training can and should mean.

2. Incentivize Excellence Not Competence