Leadership lessons from unlikely sources

When corporate leaders are asked who they look to for leadership lessons, they’ll likely answer with the names of other executives from the business world. People like Richard Branson, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are inspirational in their own right, but renowned CEOs aren’t the only ones with leadership wisdom to share. Admiral William H. McRaven proved this with his recent commencement address at the University of Texas at Austin.

Mc Raven, the former commander of U.S. Navy SEAL Team 3 and the current commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, led the SEAL mission responsible for finding Osama bin Laden in 2011. In his speech to the newest graduates of his alma mater, the transcript of which was published by The New York Post, McRaven offered 10 lessons from his SEAL training that can benefit all types of leaders:

1) Always begin the day by accomplishing something small. For instance, sailors start the day by making their beds.

“If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day,” McRaven explained. “It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed.”

2) Don’t try to go it alone. Even SEALs have to work in teams to get things done.

“For the boat to make it to its destination, everyone must paddle,” McRaven said, referring to the seven-strong boat crews formed as part of SEAL training.

3) Don’t count people out for superficial reasons. Judging a book by its cover may mean missing out on some prime deals, partnerships and other opportunities.

4) Learn to take the good with the bad. McRaven noted that recruits who got easily frustrated didn’t have the tenacity to make it through their training.

5) Don’t be afraid of extra work or additional hardships. McRaven used the example of “circuses” – additional training exercises that recruits with lackluster performance were expected to perform on top of the regular rigors of the day. Although many recruits bowed out, the ones who persevered ended up being some of the strongest of all SEALs.

6) Take risks to reap rewards. A candidate who broke a record for hand-over-hand upside-down crawling across a rope did so by rewriting the script and sliding headfirst.

7) Face problems head-on. Recruits who encounter sharks during swimming exercises are required to punch them in the nose rather than back down.

8) Rise to the challenge. When circumstances are disorienting, difficult and distracting, SEALs and leaders alike need to stay calm and focused.

9) Embrace hope. During dark times, the light at the end of the tunnel can keep people going.

10) Don’t give up.

“In SEAL training there is a bell, a brass bell that hangs in the center of the compound for all the students to see,” said McRaven. “All you have to do to quit is ring the bell. … If you want to change the world, don’t ever, ever ring that bell.”

Lessons from Lincoln

In an article for The Week, Eric Barker outlined lessons from another great non-corporate leader – Abraham Lincoln – that have weathered the test of time and still frequently prove relevant for the leaders of today. Barker noted that Lincoln is said to have spent three-quarters of his time meeting with people, was outside of the White House more often than he was in it, maintained an open-door policy and is believed to have met every single Union soldier who signed up for early enlistment in the Civil War.

Lincoln also shied away from ordering around his inferiors. In lieu of this, he elected to make requests and use other less direct tactics that were persuasive rather than coercive. For instance, he was known to be an acclaimed storyteller, and he sometimes used this skill to inspire and encourage people to do what he wanted without having to directly command.

Although he backed away from being an order-barking, strong-arming type of leader, he was by no means a shrinking violet. When it came to failure, the buck stopped with him, and he wasn’t afraid of accepting responsibility. Similarly, if someone else triumphed, he didn’t try to take their credit. He was also a big believer in taking risks and thinking outside the box. Much like some of today’s best leaders, he rewarded his subordinates for taking chances and did not punish them if their efforts ended up being for naught.

It can be easy to dismiss leadership lessons from outside the corporate realm, but at the end of the day, good leadership is good leadership, whether it’s displayed in the Oval Office, as part of SEAL Team Six or in the boardroom.

About Caldwell Partners

Caldwell Partners is a leading international provider of executive search and has been for more than 40 years. As one of the world’s most trusted advisors in executive search, the firm has a sterling reputation built on successful searches for boards, chief and senior executives, and selected functional experts. With offices and partners across North America and in London, the firm takes pride in delivering an unmatched level of service and expertise to its clients.

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