4 Business Lessons From a Retired Navy SEAL

Navy Seals in training
Miguel Salmeron Getty Images

As Memorial Day rolls around again, we pause to remember those who have sacrificed their lives in defense of our nation.

My own military career exposed me to hundreds of leaders and units, operating in a wide variety of situations, including combat, crisis response, and rapid organizational transformation. My personal lessons and observations are innumerable, but a few key ones stand out because they have helped me become a more effective business leader:

Keep crises in perspective
It’s important to distinguish between a true crisis and an artificial or self-generated crisis. My military experience, especially in wartime, significantly elevated my crisis threshold. Helicopter crashes, incoming fire, parachute accidents, maritime collisions, injury, and death: These experiences have taught me how to identify a real crisis that requires immediate action.

Many of the crises in the business world are driven more by fear of what could happen rather than by actual events, and the real stakes are usually much lower. This ability to recognize what is important from what is not is invaluable in business because it allows for more objective decision-making and builds employees’ confidence in you as a leader. No one trusts a leader who gets rattled by routine events.

Know when to side step the bureaucracy
The military’s huge bureaucracy, with its processes, checks, and balances, ensures that service members are paid, training happens, jets are maintained, reports are filed, etc. Such a vast, complicated machine needs a bureaucracy to execute these functions. The system moves slowly and deliberately, and leaders adapt themselves to its pace.

There are times, however, when events accelerate—the first few weeks after September 11th, for example—or an opportunity suddenly presents itself. In these cases, I’ve learned that an effective leader must have a warm network of decision makers and action-oriented supporters who can move rapidly in order to keep pace with events or to make big wins. But leaders must be savvy and selective about when to side step the bureaucracy, as doing so too often can burn out a team.

Money doesn’t motivate
Compensation may attract and retain, but it doesn’t really motivate. The military pays only modestly, and there aren’t a lot of perks. Yet, I’ve continually observed hundreds of service members’ breathtaking level of personal sacrifice and commitment.

I don’t believe that civilian employees are any different when it comes to motivation. They, too, crave good leadership, a well-defined purpose, and strong team bonds over money, and will respond with hard work, loyalty and achievement when these conditions exist.


Invest in people
It’s a truism—almost a cliché—that people are any organization’s most important asset, but it is so important it bears repeating. The military’s meritocracy demonstrates that anyone from any background can and will respond to good leadership, training, and opportunity, and achieve in ways that you can never predict. Just one example: One of the most respected and accomplished SEALs I know comes from a disadvantaged minority. He could barely swim before beginning training, but went on to be highly decorated, deeply respected, and led at high levels within the SEAL community. Leadership is the business of people, and every single person has the potential to develop and succeed.

Mike Goshgarian is a former U.S. Navy SEAL and partner at McChrystal Group.

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