The Navy SEAL and What Leaders Get Wrong

Too often, we get the position and continue to feel the need to overly prove ourselves, reinforcing to everyone that we’re the real authority.

It was a common sight during the scorching Iraqi summers — a family sleeping on an elevated platform outside a shack.

But as Navy SEAL Commander Mike Hayes peered through his green night-vision goggles, something about this scene felt a little different.

Suddenly, he saw the father begin to reach for an object.

“Instinct told me this was bad,” Hayes writes in his book Never Enough.

“I rushed as fast I could toward him before he could grab what did turn out to be a weapon. He was reaching for an AK rifle, just as I put my foot on his arm so he wouldn’t be able to point the weapon at me or any of my teammates.”

Hayes and a fellow SEAL subdued the father and, after a long interrogation process, discovered he was the No. 2 most-wanted enemy in Western Iraq.

Hayes is now removed from his days hunting insurgents — presently working as a chief digital transformation officer at a Silicon Valley tech company — but he recently reflected on some crucial leadership challenges that unite Navy SEALs and just about all of us as leaders.  

To Hayes, there are essentially three key phases to any successful career:

1. Getting really good at something
2. Trying to show the world “you’re really damn good”
3. Being so confident you’re good that you no longer need to prove it to anybody

Many of us master the first two, but the third proves to be the real challenge.

“One of the things that young officers always wrestle with is how to walk the line between being a leader when a leader is needed to step forward but, at the same time, really having the humility that a lot of other people know a lot of things that you don’t know,” Hayes recently said on the Jocko Willink Podcast.   

“When do I step forward and say, ‘All right, guys. Shut up, lock it on, we’re going in this direction,’ and when do you step back?”

Just about all of us as leaders were hired to our respective positions because someone trusted our skillset, our knowledge, our communication skills, our philosophies.

But far too often, we get the position and feel the need to overly prove ourselves and reinforce to everyone that we’re qualified. 

“What I see often times is a lack of confidence that makes the person feel if they’re not in front of the room making the decision, then they’re not seen as the one in charge,” Hayes said. “It’s a failure of leadership when you can’t step back.”

Very few people would likely associate the military with hands-off, Type B personalities, but Hayes said the most effective SEAL commanders were often the ones who could appropriately delegate and make peace with not always being entirely in control.

The same applies to us. As leaders, we have to be comfortable enough in our own skin to distance ourselves from certain situations and instead empower our team members to take ownership — living with the results if they come up short.  

It’s not weak to be hands off at times — and we’re no less of an authority for stepping back and acknowledging that we don't have all the answers.

“Leading from the rear is O.K.,” Hayes said.

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