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Lessons from SEALS for Startups

At first glance, it would appear that startup founders and Navy SEALs have little in common.  SEAL Hell Week certainly appears to be a touch more brutal than your average week leading up to Demo Day.  But successful startups have more in common with successful SEALs than you might think.


Let's start with the failure rate - up to 90% of SEAL Hell Week participants "ring the bell" - and fail to go on to become members of a SEAL team.  This is roughly analogous to the number of business plans that fail to find funding (leading investors typically invest in 1% or less of their deal flow - but smarter founders are known to apply to multiple funding sources - sometimes dozens - hence the 90% figure.)

Why the high rate of failure?  The easy answer about why both SEALS and founders fail is: they didn't have what it takes.  The individuals in question lacked the necessary grit and determination.  But is that right?  What is really going on here?  

In the Hollywood-funded version SEAL training, it's all about the individual that either measures up - or goes down.  The stories usually focus on that man (or woman, in the singular case of Demi Moore) - that manages to tough it out and graduate (get funded), based on their considerable reserves of individual strength and determination.  

After watching a number of real SEAL training videos, I would encourage you to do the same - take a peek at what actually goes on in SEAL training, to see if you can spot the essential difference between Hollywood's focus on the individual hero, and the real thing. 

Yes, of course it's about being strong enough to endure some incredible painful and trying (and potentially fatal) situations.  But SEAL teams are called "teams" for a reason.  And the more you pay attention to these training videos, the more it becomes apparent that what SEAL training is really about is getting the trainees to understand that humans are strongest when they pull together, as one synchronized force, than they are when they operate independently. 

We've all seen the part of the SEAL training where individuals are asked to do endless amounts of repetitive exercises, as a group.  At first, this looks kind of stupid, and even a little cruel.  But what is really going on here?  Take a closer look - you may spot that what these exercises are designed to do is to figure out which people are most likely to learn how to push themselves to the limit, while working among others, at the same time, at the same rhythm. 

And while this may seem to non-military types as a stupid exercise in discipline or brainwashing, it is not.  If, as a team, you try to carry something that is extremely heavy, or pull on a tug-of-war rope, and you try doing this without acting as a team - you will not be nearly as effective if you act without pulling together. 

Are you developing a product, executing a marketing campaign, or running a sales team?  Do they understand the mission?  Is everyone working as hard as the next person?  Does everyone understand what will happen if everyone doesn't pull on the rope at the same time? 

SEALs do.  One thing SEAL trainers look for is "boat ducking".  Here's what I'm talking about: During SEAL training, six trainees must run to the beach, grab an extremely heavy inflatable boat (265 lbs), put it up on their heads, and walk it into the water - and then turn around and do the reverse when asked to carry it out of the water.  And then do it a number of times in a row.  Across sand.  Without using their hands.  

These craft are so heavy (>45 lbs per person) that it is not unusual for significant neck and spinal injuries to result among trainees.  What is one of the main reasons this happens?  Often, it happens because not everyone is carrying their weight.  Some trainees are "boat ducking" - an act involving pretending to carry the boat while not actually bearing the same amount of weight as your teammates (this can sometimes happen without the intention of slacking off, for example, if you're out of step with the others on your team - but this is just as bad in a real life situation: see the point one, above.)  

Stop for a second and imagine your startup team.  Is anyone on the team "boat-ducking"?  Carrying less weight than the others?  Can this be recalibrated by getting them to work more synchronistically with the rest of the crew?  Or are they slacking off, compared to their colleagues?     

The more that you watch SEAL training in action, the more you realize that the SEAL training is less about learning about an individual's ability to recalibrate (and push) their limits and much more about finding if an individual has the ability to work with others, and form teams to accomplish a shared goal.  You also start to see that it's about getting these individuals to step up and provide leadership, as needed. 

Startups are different from normal businesses.  A franchisee is provided with the product, checklists, price lists, ingredients, operating and marketing plans, technologies - and sometimes even funding.  Startups usually start with nothing except maybe some open-source code and a coffee grinder. 

Most often, they have to invent every part of their business, from product to pricing to staffing plans to option plans to... everything.   Without co-founders or employees willing to step up and show the leadership necessary to succeed at these tasks, it's going to be tough.  Because where a franchise owner simply needs to follow the leadership provided to them in the franchise handbook, startups need leadership at every level to succeed.

This last point is the point I wanted to focus on in this blog post.  SEALS, it turns out, have several mottos that they live by.  There's the well-known Hollywood ones - "The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday" and "It Pays To Be A Winner".  But there's a lesser-known expression of SEAL thinking that I think is core to the success of any mission, startup or SEAL, and that is: "Leadership at Every Level". 

Successful SEALS learn "Leadership At Every Level" during Hell Week, and in their subsequent training courses - at the level of command, at the level of individual units, and at the individual level.  They learn how to lead in a given situation and pull together the resources necessary to win.  At the individual level, it means assuming tasks before they've been assigned to you, and executing them to the best level you can - without being told you need to do it.

I've been running or investing in startups all my life.  Some have been failures, some have been successes.  When I look back on why the successes succeeded, and the failures failed, there is a strong correlation with the SEAL credo of "leadership at every level".   The startups where I failed to hire or partner with leaders, or instil a sense of ownership of the mission or important tasks below the level of the founders, generally failed.   The startups that I led or invested in where I was fortunate enough to hire leaders and doers and team-oriented people at every level - generally succeeded.   

If you're reading this, you're most likely not a SEAL trainee reading this on your mobile phone during a break during Hell Week.  More likely, you're working at a startup, and you're thinking about success/failure every waking minute.  Take a look around - who is "boat ducking" on your team?  Who needs to be brought back into sync, and understand that they are part of a team?  Who doesn't understand that at every level, at the level of the most mundane task, leadership is needed?   

Leadership at every level.  It's worked for the SEALs for almost sixty years.  Let me know if it's working for you. 

John Sharp

John is a serial entrepreneur and investor, and the Founding Partner of Hatcher+, a next-generation, data-driven venture firm that utilises a massive global database in combination with AI and machine learning-based technologies to identify early-stage opportunities in partnership with leading accelerators and investors worldwide.