The Cost of Leadership is Self-Interest

Navy SEALs tying knots underwater (Pic courtesy of ItsTactical)

Navy SEALs tying knots underwater (Pic courtesy of ItsTactical)

Each year, less people become Navy SEALs then get drafted into the NFL.

The SEALs are the best special forces operation unit in the world – and who we call when Somali pirates kidnap Americans on the high seas. They’re also the team responsible for taking down Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. If you’re not privy to the sheer magnitude of their badassery, here’s a short story that brings us back to 2009.

In the Indian Ocean off the cast of the Horn of Africa, the cargo ship Maersk Alabama has an interesting crew on board. Retired from his usual position at the helm, Captain Philips stands with 5 days of beatings on his face and an AK-47 aimed at his back. The tired bodies of three Somali pirates disperse the restless air of the cabin.

Desperate, the pirates threaten the life of the Captain a little too convincingly.


Three perfectly placed shots ring out from 40 yards away. All three pirates slump down onto the deck. No trigger-pulling Hollywood death scenes here, Captain Philips, have no fear.  The Navy SEALs don’t do failure.

There’s no room for it.

The three SEAL sharpshooters that saved Captain Philips’ life are grand masters of their craft. They stared down scopes at the bobbing heads of their friendly neighborhood pirates for hours, bobbing up and down with the waves of their own navy ship vessel. Peaceful negotiations went south, and the pirates got too aggressive. Wind, gravity, drift, drag and all the bobbing two boats can provide had no match for three SEALs – an innocent life was at stake (Story on ABC News).

For SEALs, this feat was just another day at the office – and I’m fascinated by them.

What makes SEALs tick?

Of the those selected to try out for SEALs, one out of ten are good enough to join the most elite Special Warfare unit in the world.

In an interview with a SEAL, the question was asked,

Who makes it?  Who actually survives training?”

The SEAL sort of pauses.

“I can’t tell you who makes it. I don’t know. But I can tell you who doesn’t make it.

You know the big burly guys who think the size of their muscles are an indicator of the size of their strength?

None of them make it.

The guys covered in tattoos who have them simply to show how tough they are?

None of them make it.

The college star athletes. These preening leaders who like to delegate everything but not get into the mud?

None of them make it.

Some of the guys who make it, they look scrawny. Some of the guys who make it, you’ll see shivering at times out of fear. I don’t know who makes it, but I can tell you something about the guys who do make it. 

Every single one to a T – 100% of them – share one thing.

When all the chips are down, when they have no strength left, when their minds and bodies are absolutely exhausted, every single one of them has the amazing capacity to go deep within and find the strength to help the guy next to them.

That’s who makes it.

So now if we consider our most elite forces on the plant the people who put others first, why would we consider the elite in anything any different?

In the military we give medals to the people who sacrifice themselves for others. In business, we give bonuses to those who sacrifice others. That’s flat out wrong.

Would you make it?

A special thanks to two people for inspiring this essay.

To Chris Miller, who is a brother to me. Chris has been obsessed with making his positive impact on this world as part of the SEAL tribe since we were 12. While he’s not a SEAL yet, Chris is a living representation of the SEAL ethos above.

A second thank you goes out to Simon Sinek for the explosion of neuronal transmission that inevitably follows this story. I pirated the above goodness from an interview with him. Don’t worry Simon, I’m using it for completely nefarious reasons. No need to send the SEALs after me.

For those of you who don’t know Simon, he gave a TEDx talk called “How great leaders inspire action” in 2009 that’s reached over 8,000,000 people on TED alone.  Since then, Simon’s concept of leading from the beliefs that inspire us has swept around the world. Now Simon spends most of his awake hours inspiring the people of Disney, Microsoft, members of the US Congress, and the UN while working heavily with the senior leadership of the US Air Force. I highly recommend his TED talk and book!

Written with love,


PS: The SEALs have agreed to do a targeted insertion of badassery into your inbox.  Join our community on the left!


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