A lesson from the Navy Seals


Three names dominate the speaking industry, which has elevated them to “rockstar” status. I had the privilege to converse and interview two of them in New York a couple of years ago, and for that brief moment and encounter, they deserve the accolade accorded them. The three names are Dr. Adam Grant, Brene Brown and Simon Sinek.

In a podcast, the three covered the topic of work, and one of the fascinating sections of their conversation involved Navy Seals. Simon Sinek asks, “What kind of person makes it through the selection process to the SEALs? I can’t tell you the kind of person that does, but I can tell you the person that doesn’t.” He says, “the star college athlete who’s never really been tested to the core of his being, the leader who likes to delegate everything, none of those guys make it through. None of the guys show up with huge hulking muscles covered in tattoos to show how tough they make it through. Some of the guys who make it onto the teams are skinny and scrawny; you might even see them shivering out of fear. But they all have one thing in common: when they are physically and emotionally exhausted, they can dig deep inside themselves to find the energy to help the person next to them. Those three examples of people who don’t get in are driven by individual performance or recognition, whereas the guys who make it in are really about each other.” And then Simon Sinek says: “In the United States, we double down on rugged individualism a little too much. We over-indexed on rugged individualism, Marlboro man, etcetera. And our incentive structures in our businesses reflect that over-emphasizing of one value, rugged individualism. And I think we’ve over-indexed so far that we have forgotten the value of service by its very nature, some struggle or sacrifice, time, energy, all kinds of things.”

We love all these tremendous high-performing team stories, but want to embody that in a single person? Dr. Adam Grant interjected, saying, “The most meaningful way to succeed is to help other people succeed.”

During the Q&A portion after my presentation in an intimate business gathering among high-level business owners and executives, a question was asked: “Mr. Francis, we recognize and award our top performers. Hoping that the rest of the people would be encouraged to perform better, but that did not happen. Others are demotivated and lack the drive to excel and achieve. Why is this so?” I smiled and said, “Well, what has happened is that the person whom you have recognized and acknowledged has, in the process of doing so, created more enemies than he deserves. So, was it an award or a punishment?” And everybody laughed.

Here is the clue to understanding leadership dynamics. It is similar to Simon Sinek, Brene Brown and Dr. Adam Grant’s observation that when we encourage people with the lessons from the Seals, we inadvertently encourage them to become better individual performers, which is what we desire. We hope that a group of gifted performers will bring growth to our business, but it rarely achieves this objective. The ceremony and the well-meant intention send the message that individuals are recognized and rewarded, negating, and nullifying the contribution of others in the team. The truth is that the awardee could not have succeeded alone without the help and contribution of the other members of the team. So, I suggest that instead of focusing only on the individual player, there should be a “Team Award” as you recognize the team’s contribution.1

The spotlight shines on me when I speak in front of a crowd. But only a few people see my daughter boss, Rachel, at the tech booth doing her stuff. It’s incredible to see how good she is with tech and when she does her stuff, other tech people surround her and watch her do her work as if she is giving a concert with the tech people amused and amazed at her craft. Supporting her is her team, whom most people would never see but are there to ensure the success of what I do in public. The people on my team are my power partners, and I couldn’t succeed without them; They are the ones who help me get done what I need to do better than I can myself.

It is not to bask in the glory of being a Navy Seal but to understand what makes a Navy Seal work because of the team and not the individual.



(Francis Kong’s podcast “Inspiring Excellence” is now available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or other podcast streaming platforms.)

1 https://brenebrown.com/podcast/whats-happening-at-work-part-1-of-2/


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