Summary: The Navy SEAL Art of War By Rob Roy
Summary: The Navy SEAL Art of War By Rob Roy

Summary: The Navy SEAL Art of War By Rob Roy

Commander’s Intent

According to Entrepreneur magazine, 90 percent of employees in the organizations included in their “2010 Great Place to Work Rankings: Best Small & Medium Workplaces” report believe management trusts them without looking over their shoulder. Ninety-two percent say they are given a lot of responsibility. How does management achieve this? By doing these five things:

  1. Commit to hiring the right people.
  2. Make people accountable to one another.
  3. Clearly and frequently articulate expectations.
  4. Give employees decision-making power.
  5. Give employees an ownership stake.

SEALs know that the unbending bedrock of these concepts is trust. To confidently convey intent without micromanaging it, a leader must implicitly trust that his followers are properly manned, planned, and equipped to handle the mission. If one has trained his team properly, however, such trust should be easily bestowed. The best part: receiving such unquestioned trust from a commander will inspire and motivate subordinates in incalculable ways.

Remember the words of David Ogilvy, the father of advertising, who famously said, “Hire people who are better than you are, then leave them to get on with it.”


No Limits

ASK THE AVERAGE MAN on the street how many push-ups he can do and you’ll likely get a straight answer. While striving to be honest and, at the same time, burnish his ego, he’ll think for a moment and then say something like “I can do twenty-five.” Or “I can knock out forty.” A straight shooter.

Ask that same question of a Navy SEAL and you’ll get a much different response: “I can do at least one hundred.” And therein lies the ethos of a SEAL—we think in terms of possibilities, not limitations.

When you set hard numbers, you draw a line in the sand. You impose a self-limiting barrier between yourself and your untapped potential. If a man says he can do twenty-five push-ups, he’ll likely stop when he gets to twenty-five, or close to it, basking in the accomplishment. Even if he goes over that number, he’ll soon stop, because he knows he’s already reached his goal or stated expectation. In his mind, he’s done what he set out to do.

SEALs believe that the only limitations we have are those we place upon ourselves. That’s why a SEAL will say, “I can do at least” whatever the number, and then start banging them out—going full bore to the point of exhaustion. We charge all out to a higher standard, not a limitation. And we won’t be counting reps along the way, incidentally. We’ll just go until we can’t go anymore, exhausted from a Herculean effort. It’s how we roll. If we don’t attack challenges in that way, we know our teammates will rightly ask, “Is that seriously all you’ve got?” Or “Why didn’t you keep going?” In other words, why did you quit when you had something left in the tank? You only have to go to failure once to prove to yourself and everyone else that you gave it your all, whatever the outcome.


Observe, Orient, Decide, Act—The OODA Loop

SEALs are masters of maneuver warfare. They quickly decode complex environments before their enemies do, taking decisive action and exploiting the confusion their initiatives invariably cause. And then they confuse some more. They defeat their rivals by responding to rapidly changing conditions over which they have no control. Their agility is endless. They adapt. They improvise. They overcome.

To achieve this state, SEALs employ the prescient tactics of the brilliant military strategist John Boyd, a former Air Force fighter pilot and dogma-busting Pentagon consultant in the late twentieth century. Boyd’s musings on how fighter pilots employ rapid assessment and adaptation skills to win dogfights transcend the cockpit and are applicable in any competitive endeavor. SEALs use what Boyd termed the “OODA Loop” concept to hone their tactical decision-making skills, giving them superior competitive advantage.

According to Boyd’s concept, decision-making takes place in a recurring, interacting cycle of Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. Whoever can synthesize this cycle more quickly—and ideally even “get inside” their enemy’s own decision-making loop—will outmaneuver their opponents and ensure success. When done seamlessly, these maneuvers appear ambiguous to the enemy, generating confusion and disorder—yet another combat multiplier.


Team Ability

SEALS EXPECT TO LEAD, but they are also willing to be led by someone with a better plan. In the absence of orders we take charge, leading our teammates and accomplishing the mission. But if, in the heat of battle, someone else on the team has a better extraction plan than the team leader, the team leader will defer to the other’s expertise. That kind of “team ability” requires trust, confidence, and respect from every member of the team. It’s also what makes SEAL teams so special and effective. Rank may have its privileges, but it’s usually moot on operations.

Those who think they always know what’s right or, even worse, what’s best, make poor teammates and bad leaders. That’s especially true if the person leading starts dictating. A successful SEAL learns early on the value of teamwork and does his best to fit into the team and know his place and play his role, rather than try to bend it to his will or desires. A good leader may not always have the best ideas, for example, but he may be great at getting them from others. Confident in his abilities, he doesn’t need to conquer or dominate the group. If he’s a genuine professional, others will quickly recognize it and respect his authority.


The Power of Patience

IN THE REAL WORLD, patience is a virtue. On the battlefield, it can be an actual weapons system. Hard-charging, dynamic individuals like Navy SEALs thrive in what are known as kinetic operations: full-auto, full-fury engagements. We see the hill. We take the hill. But successful SEALs know that instant gratification, while rewarding, is often unattainable and usually counterproductive.

SEAL snipers are among the most patient—and productive—warriors in America’s arsenal. While stalking their prey clandestinely in ways a larger, conventional force could never do, snipers measure success in the inches they can silently advance over hours—days even—of effort. When perched atop a building, providing watch over maneuvering forces on the ground, snipers take out unsuspecting threats before they present themselves, or use their detailed observation to convey actionable intelligence to their comrades on the streets below. Heat, cold, and discomfort are mere distractions that they never let hinder their quest. Their reward—one shot, one kill—is worth the wait.


Just One More

WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME you told yourself, “Just one more”? I don’t care what it was—a push-up, a bench press, another practice swing, a piggyback ride with your child, another attack at a seemingly impossible problem. When was the last time you willed yourself to go once more, into the breach, and give it something extra? If you’re like most people, it doesn’t happen very often. Comfort and familiarity are habits.

So today, commit to doing “just one more” of something—and that’s after you’ve already given it your all. One more rep. One more lap. One more mile. One more piggyback ride. Dig down deep, grab hold, and push it out. You’ll begin to create new and better habits of excellence and performance. And you will continually expand your capabilities.



When SEAL teams are operating at optimal levels, it’s all about the mission—not the accomplishments or egos of any individual team members. There’s a word for such behavior: humility.

When teams rally around a mission—whether it’s to snatch and grab some bad guy in some far-flung country or prep the boss for the annual stockholders meeting—and put the mission before self, the probabilities for success are staggering. Obstacles are more easily surmounted, problems are circumnavigated, and efficiencies are increased when high-performing individuals commit to one clear goal: mission success. Rank and ego be damned. It’s a beautiful thing to behold. It’s also quite rare.

In today’s hypercompetitive, self-absorbed world full of divas raised on a culture of self-promotion and oversharing (Facebook!), having a healthy sense of humility is a complete anathema to many people. Yet humility is the bedrock of any high-speed team. It’s also a requirement to be a Navy SEAL.



The importance of adaptability is built in to the acronym of our organization. SEa, Air, Land: SEALs train and work just about anywhere you can imagine in the air, on land, or at sea, including desert and urban areas, mountains and woodlands, and jungle and arctic conditions. We pride ourselves on anticipating shifts in the world and changes in technology and fiercely fight for new and innovative ways to deal with it. We think creatively and boldly. We have the vision and the insight to see that the world and technology are constantly changing and we remain ever flexible, ever adaptable.

For SEALs, our adaptive abilities can often mean the difference between life and death. When you are fighting on death ground, firepower helps a lot, but it’s rapid, creative thinking that will save you. Therefore, SEALs believe in the ancient Chinese proverb “The wise man adapts himself to circumstances as water shapes itself to the vessel that contains it.”


Reputation Is Everything

WARREN BUFFETT once famously said, “It takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

The wise leader, like Buffett, knows that reputations matter. The relationships you are able to build, the revenues you will generate, and the loyalty of employees and customers alike are all dependent on your personal brand—your reputation. It determines your value position, based on how well people trust and respect you. The expectations they have of you. A good reputation greases the skids and opens the door. A bad one can derail options and block pathways.

Whether online or off, your personal and professional reputation is something that sticks, and must be guarded and protected at all costs.

For SEALs, reputations are built at BUD/S. And it’s amazing how fast they develop and quickly—and how far—they spread. When a candidate is labeled as someone who continually makes excuses, is always unprepared, or who can’t control their temper, for example, that reputation will precede them everywhere they go. At BUD/S we remind SEALs every day that their reputation begins now.

A smart leader sweats the small stuff. Do what’s expected of you and do it to the best of your ability.