How the Navy Seals Train for Excellence

20 September 2015 8:44:00 AM NZST



World-class, high-performance organizations take training and education seriously. But Navy SEALS go uncomfortably beyond.


They are obsessed with training. They are arguably the best in the world at what they do.


The majority of business and professional enterprises, however, do not share this dedication to relentless training and intensive preparation.


Business schools and high-profile businesses often over-invest in ‘education’ but under-invest in ‘training’. They prize knowledge over skills.


‘Under pressure’, according to the SEALS, ‘you don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training. That’s why we train so hard.’


Radical changes were introduced into the SEALS training after 9/11. The course standards were harder but something fascinating happened: the graduation rate grew from 70% to 98% and held there.


There were four transformational training themes which could be applied to all organizations:


Produce excellence, not ‘above average’.
Being ‘very good’ wasn’t good enough. Training programs shouldn’t be designed to deliver competence, they must be dedicated to producing excellence.


Incentives for excellence not competence.
Organizations need recognition and rewards systems that explicitly acknowledge and promote excellence. And they need the courage and integrity to reposition and replace those who can’t – or won’t – step up. SEALS instructors were made accountable and evaluated on their students’ performance. This made a huge difference. Incentives aligning and facilitating accountability improved the entire organization, not just the trainees.


Incorporate new ideas
It is every instructor’s job to be constantly open to new ideas and innovation. Adopting a good idea early and putting it into practice could be life-saving.


Lead by example
This means leaders never ask their teams to do something that they are not willing to do themselves. ‘This can’t be faked’, says the SEALS special trainer and educator. ‘If it is done right the team will respect you and follow you.’ Leading by example truly empowers teamwork especially in small teams.


The level of motivation, dedication and self-sacrifice the SEALS demand from themselves and each other goes far beyond what most businesses and business schools ask, let alone expect, from their people. But for leaders and managers who truly care about their teams and their customers, the SEALS training template deserves to be taken seriously.


Source: HBR, Michael Schrage, May 2015.

Posted in UBT Updates By

Erica Field