What We Can Learn about Organizational Culture from the Navy SEALs

July 9, 2018

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Commander Rorke Denver to learn more about the culture of the Navy SEALs and how we might apply some of their principles to our own organizations. Don’t miss out on these incredible insights he had to share.

GH: Rorke, from your perspective as a Commander with the Navy SEALs, what’s something that might surprise people about the culture of the SEALs?

RD: One of the things that may surprise people most is the diversity of the team makeup with regards to backgrounds. We have everything from Rhodes Scholars to people voted ‘Most Likely to Serve Hard Time’.  People from prosperous families with every privilege you can imagine to folks from families that told them they would never amount to anything. Guys from coal mining towns in Pennsylvania and cowboys from Texas. It’s not a cookie cutter person that comes to SEAL training and succeeds. What those that succeed have in common is an immense mental resilience, a palpable level of intensity (equal whether they are playing checkers or in hand-to-hand combat), and a complete aversion to losing. That diversity and how much we vary is something that would surprise people and is also one of our greatest strengths. This concept spans across the board in the U.S. military—which is without a doubt one of the most successfully diverse organizations in the world. So many people with different backgrounds and different reasons for joining come together, shave their heads and get into uniform, and become one team with one mission.

GH: Your brand, Ever Onward, uses Navy SEAL principles to help leaders perform at their highest levels; what’s one principle the leaders reading this can apply to their work today?

RD: One of the axioms of leadership I like talking about is the concept to ‘choose your ruck wisely’. In the military, a backpack is called a ruck, and it contains all the gear you need for a mission. What I learned early on is that the SEALs have great funding lines so occasionally we would get to buy special gear.  One time that meant buying these enormous rucks that had the biggest liter carry capacity of anything on the market. I remember we went on our first multi-day mission with the new rucks and of course just filled them to the gills. Consequently, we got a mile into it and people were falling apart… we basically had so much weight on our backs that no one could survive it. Ironically, we had done the same mission the month before with a smaller ruck and achieved it. It was an interesting physical lesson that if your backpack is too big you’ll fill it up and it will be too heavy; likewise, leaders have to choose how much they can put on their shoulders. We all know that as leaders, we have this huge load of responsibility to get completed. And you can’t get it done if there’s too much on your shoulders to begin with. You have to make it a habit to lighten the load by giving away substantial tasks to others in your organization regularly. Whatever you’re carrying, make sure that it’s something you can bear. Get rid of the non-essentials and carry the weight that will win the day.

GH: You consult with a number of organizations in Corporate America; what is a common thread issue you’ve seen and how do you coach leaders to address it?

RD: I’d say that in talking to over a hundred different organizations I’ve seen a number of threads. The one that relates directly to culture is how you draw in the right candidates and hire the right people into your organization. And I think the answer is culture. It’s the culture that’s going to resonate and get people excited to be part of your team.  You have to be very purposeful about not only what your culture is but then also how it’s viewed externally.  Then when it comes to hiring the right people, you really need to find a way to create a tryout process, which has been an essential element of every high-performing team I have been a part.  For example, if I were in charge of a company that needed to make 50 hires, I would make 70 temporary hires. Then within a probationary period, and with everyone in the same boat, you really have a chance to throw people into the fire. When people experience that kind of heat and are challenged quickly, a leader discovers they have one of three things:  1) a superstar, 2) a good hire that just needs some additional training and/or mentorship, or 3) a bad hire who falls apart and needs to be released to do something else. Culture and how you convey that culture is going to draw the right candidate pool.  Then you have a rigorous system to find out exactly what people are made of which ultimately allows you to add the right team-members to your organization.

GH: You will be a special guest at the Unstoppable Cultures Fellowship this November. Can you share about what gets you excited about speaking to this group of leaders?

RD: There are two primary things that get me excited.  First, the audience that is going to participate is seeking this type of experience. My sense is they won’t be forced to go; this is an engaged group of folks who are pursuing the highest levels of coaching, performance, and leadership and want to be the best they can be. And they’re taking the active steps to do just that, to put in the time and do the work. That’s what the SEALs are all about; no one gets assigned to it, you have to pursue it, it’s an all-volunteer team. To be part of a team like that you have to pursue it. Learn new things and execute to be part of the team. So that gets me jazzed, people there for the right reasons who are going to be all eyes and ears. And secondly, I enjoy an opportunity to be a part of an incredible peer-to-peer experience both on the coach and participant level. I’ve never not taken something away as a coach or teacher. So, the idea of being around the other coaches and participants, people of different backgrounds and experiences, that makes it doubly engaging. Iron sharpens iron and I’m excited to sharpen myself against these other leaders.

Regardless of the type of organization you are part of or the role you play, as Rorke said, leaders sharpen leaders, and I want to encourage all of you to join us at The Unstoppable Cultures Fellowship this November 12-15 at the Four Seasons Rancho Encantado in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Now through August 31, you can use the code RORKE to receive 10% off your registration. I hope you’ll join me as we experience the power of a group of leaders who want to get better, and do better, to impact organizations and to impact the world.
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