Four Leadership Lessons from Navy SEAL Training

By Dylan McCabe

Updated Over a Week Ago

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Navy SEALs are the most elite soldiers on Earth. SEALS conquer mental challenges and physical obstacles most of us only read about. So, what’s the key to a SEAL’s success? Leadership.

Before becoming a SEAL, each man must pass BUDS (Basic Underwater Demolition) training. The SEALs go through a litany of exhausting tests, which cause most men to give up.

For many years, the failure rate was so high that the Defense Department (DOD) decided to find out why.

For instance, a farm boy from Kentucky, who had never been swimming in the ocean, could make it through BUDS. Yet a man with an impressive physical stature who swam like a dolphin could collapse under pressure.

What the DOD found out was that SEAL trainees lacked mental training. In order to prepare SEALS mentally, they developed what is called  “Mental Toughness” Training.

When the Navy introduced this training, the success rate soared. SEALs learned how to beat obstacles one by one, the first one being themselves.

SEAL trainees were taught four key techniques to overcome any obstacle:

1. Positive Self-Talk

During training, the biggest force against a trainee is negative self-talk. “I can’t do this.” “This is too hard.” “I’m not the right person for this.” Such negative self-talk is self-defeating. Many men cut themselves short during BUDS because they convinced themselves they couldn’t do it.

During Mental Toughness Training, the men learned positive self-talk. Positive statements like, “I can do this,” “I’m going to overcome this challenge,” and “I’m going to enjoy the victory” have power.

Positive self-talk and encouragement radically changed men’s ability to pass BUDS and become SEALs.

It’s often said that leadership is a thankless role. Rather than patting you on the back, some people make you the target of their own negativity. As leaders, we need mental toughness and stamina to lead well.

That means encouraging ourselves. Yes, talking to yourself is a good thing – as long as it’s realistic and positive. Saying, “I can do this” or “Winners never quit” can give you needed strength.

2. Goal Setting

Guys entering BUDS training learn a second lesson in mental toughness – goal setting. Instructors tell them to set specific, short-term goals.

One SEAL is recorded as saying, “I got up every morning and said to myself, ‘I’m going make it until breakfast.” Then at breakfast, I would say, “I’m going to make it until lunch.”

Making small goals and celebrating small victories gave the men motivation. Their grip tightened on success one goal at a time.

Navy Seals

Leaders need to set daily goals. Too often, leaders make goals for the quarter or the year. Yet these goals seldom trickle down to the daily or weekly calendar. Setting daily goals will help leaders hit their long-term targets. And when we accomplish our goals, we get a boost in personal morale.

3. Visualization

Mental Toughness Training includes visualization, which is the art of rehearsing a situation before you experience it. Men in BUDS are taught to think through a challenge before facing it.

They visualize the steps needed to overcome an obstacle. This practice familiarizes them with the challenge, which results in greater success.

As leaders, we can visualize the presentation, the board meeting, or the situation before it happens. The act of rehearsing the event beforehand will enable us to think through potential scenarios and even pitfalls.

Visualization also familiarizes us with the situation, putting us at ease. With clarity of thought, we can forge ahead and pursue the desired result.

4. Deep Breathing

Mental toughness also involves deep breathing. SEALs in training are taught how to relax by breathing deeply. Deep breathing has a calming effect. It gives people the ability to set their own pace rather than being pushed along by chaos.

This results in sharper thinking and increased success. The opposite is an anxious rush to and through an obstacle.

To lead well, we need to practice a healthy pace in our routine. Many of us would benefit from slowing down, taking deep breaths, and calmly approaching our challenges.

Conscious deep breathing has been proven to help control the response to stress rather than getting stressed.

A relaxed, confident approach to the day will no doubt help us reach our goals.

Navy Seal

Want to Be Mentally Tough?

The secret to successful SEAL training is mental conditioning. Those who become SEALs carry their mental toughness skills into the fray of battle. Their self-leadership enables them to overcome life’s toughest challenges.

Let’s practice the same method to stay mentally strong in our own journey of leadership:

First, practice positive self-talk each day.

Second, begin this week by setting daily goals. Put each goal on your calendar.

Third, be sure to visualize any upcoming tough or challenging situation.

Fourth, set your own pace with deep breathing and a relaxed approach.

What Leadership Lessons Can You Learn from a Navy SEAL?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Dylan McCabe
Dylan McCabe
Dylan McCabe is the host of “Leader Journey,” a weekly podcast on leadership. Dylan’s passion for leadership started during undergrad where he received a BS in Servant Leadership. He’s also the VP of Operations at Jumpsix Marketing, a national digital marketing agency. He lives in Dallas with his wife and daughter. His motto: “Lead well and enjoy the journey.”
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