Navy SEALs provide proof of importance of training top performers

"In the Western tradition, we have focused on teaching as a skill and forgotten what Socrates knew: teaching is a gift, learning is a skill.” -- Peter Drucker

(Editor’s note: This is Part 5 of a 10 part series examining the building blocks of effective L.E.A.D.E.R.S.H.I.P. This time? E = Education.)

Interestingly, this L.E.A.D.E.R.S.H.I.P. series has prompted several suggestions about what concepts I should use for some of the letters remaining in the series. I considered several candidates, as I’ve done for each column … Élan, Enjoyment, Energy, Engagement … and while there are a lot of worthy candidates, my objective is to select the 10 essential qualities of leadership that truly differentiate great leaders. For me, there is nothing more powerful than E = Educaton.

Our first reaction to that word is usually to think about our own education, and we certainly must be committed to educate ourselves to be the best leaders possible. One of the cornerstones of successful leadership is to be a lifelong learner and continually advance our own education to become as knowledgeable and well informed as possible.

But, that’s only the ante to get a seat at the table. To be a great leader, you need to become an educator of other people. If you accept the premise that the greatest measure of your leadership is the successful leaders around you, your primary mission must be to continually educate your team and equip them with the tools, knowledge and qualities that will make them successful leaders in their own right. That education and training includes not only content expertise leavened with some academic knowledge, but broader leadership, management and communication skills that are integrated into a complete executive development curriculum.

I recently finished reading The Finishing School by Dick Couch, about the Navy SEAL training regimen. It covered not only the infamous BUD/S course that washes out the great majority of SEAL candidates, but also the extraordinary learning program that is the core curriculum of Navy SEAL training. The Navy SEALs spend 18 months in full-on training for every six-month deployment and for new SEALs, that training follows one of the most rigorous 12 months anyone can experience.

This full-time training commitment includes a broad range of individual skills training, physical fitness and tactics based on the most likely scenarios faced by combat units. Each six-month block is devoted, respectively, to individual, unit and squadron training to prepare everyone to succeed, in their individual capacities and as part of a team, under the most challenging conditions.

In the middle market, it seems that few companies spend enough time training their people. One exception is reflected in a very short video about the Container Store, a proud employee-centric culture that devotes eight weeks of training for each new employee. In my experience, most leaders believe it's too expensive to invest so much in training and education, opting instead for a “give them a kickstart and throw them into the deep end” approach to see who survives. The Navy SEALs employ those tactics to test the commitment of SEAL candidates, but that early “weeding out” process is never used as a substitute for training.

While many companies still see training and education as a cost center, leading companies realize that the more effectively their employees deal with the issues facing them, the more successful the company will become. There might not be immediate, short-term rewards, but the time devoted to training will, in the longer term, foster more knowledgeable, capable and effective leaders.

The Best Places to Work research confirms what's required to attract and retain top performers – the assurance that they can challenge and be challenged, constantly learn new things, adopt new technologies, and modify what they believed yesterday to accommodate what's required tomorrow. I've seen no research to contradict this conclusion nor an example of superior organizations that aren't committed to continually educating their people, their teams and organizations across all the disciplines required for success.

We can probably agree there is no substitute for hiring top talent and building the best leadership team you can assemble. When you dig a little deeper, you also realize that top talent has only achieved that status because they educated themselves, took on new challenges and never stopped learning. If you’re not promoting this culture, those executives will move on to be top performers somewhere else.

So, if you want to be a good leader, educate yourself. If you want to be a great leader, educate others. Invest in your people and give them greater capabilities to be more successful in everything they do. It’s the best business investment you’ll ever make.


Lary Kirchenbauer is the president of Exkalibur Advisors, providing practical business strategies for middle market businesses. Exkalibur works closely with senior executives and their businesses at the intersection of leadership, finance and business strategy. You can subscribe to his newsletter at the Exkalibur web site at www.Exkalibur.com. You’ll also find a library of valuable resources, including a new video and podcast library as well as articles and insights related to middle market businesses.