A Life In Special Operations

Nobody goes through life and is successful all on their own. In his memoir “Sea Stories: My Life In Special Operations” retired Admiral William H. McRaven chronicles some of his experiences, achievements, and challenges that would not have been possible without the help of others. 

I never know what to expect from memoirs, autobiographies, or personal accounts. “Make Your Bed”, however, made me feel excited to learn more about the life of Admiral William H. McRaven. He first went viral following his commencement speech at the University of Texas at Austin reaching a broad audience at home and abroad. His remarkable career within special operations could be described with an endless list of Hollywood movies that includes the capture of Saddam Hussein, the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips, and the infamous Operation Neptune Spear – the mission to bring to justice the leader of Al-Qaeda – Osama bin Laden. Sea Stories is the rendezvous of his personal account and professional experience. Across eighteen chapters, McRaven tells his story of becoming a special operator. Born into a military family, McRaven gradually evolved his character from a rambunctious average child to a skilled and trusted leader. The early chapters eloquently describe the struggle to follow the footsteps of his family and the generation that ended European tyranny. Finding his profession through an evolution of athletic endeavors combined with the grace and support of good people helping the young McRaven along the way was heart-warming to read but also inspiring when McRaven reflected

knowing I could set a goal, work hard, suffer through pain and adversity, and achieve something worthwhile made me realize that I could accomplish anything I put my mind to

McRaven’s writing style is entertaining yet sometimes a little bland. Each chapter has its own charisma and appeal, which make this book a great read for a commute or as an alongside read to another book.

Critics called out that other communities within special operations have taken a different approach to public relations, one defined by discretion and the principle of the quiet professional. McRaven’s memoir continues to amplify the already romanticized image of the Navy SEALs without critically examining the current issues within the Navy SEAL community ranging from alleged war crimes to mental health to discipline problems. When in reality, the Navy SEAL community is drifting away from its core values prompting retired and active duty Navy SEALs to speak up against the exploitation for personal gain by so many former special operators. McRaven failed the reader in that regard, but perhaps more tragically failed his fellow SEALs. Sea Stories is nothing more than repeating special operation missions already known to the public. In some cases these stories were immortalized by heroic portrayals of Hollywood actors. But it’s also nothing less than a personal account of serving 37 years, almost four decades, in one of the toughest professional organizations within any military industrial complex in the world. I found pleasure reading some of the stories while its sometimes repetitive nature often undermined a true takeaway for the reader.  

Learn To Lead With These Simple Strategies And Tactics

Jocko Willink’s field manual translates leadership theory into a practical guide for your everyday leadership. 

Leading people to achieve sometimes abstract business objectives is arguably among the most intricate human endeavors. Leadership Strategy and Tactics: Field Manual by Jocko Willink is a step-by-step guide on leadership strategies and how to become effective in leading other people. 

The book is structured in two parts spanning seven sections. Each section covers a specific area and appears to answer a specific question. For example, in part two section two, subsection e. titled “Decentralized Command or Lazy Designation?” Willink explores different styles of leadership to illustrate that a decentralized command can have the collateral appearance that a leader is constantly avoiding work or taking responsibility. A solution to this problem is a blend between observation and readiness to perform. This means, a leader should be aware of attitudes or misperceptions before they bloom into problems. Any inkling of that should be mitigated by taking over a task or taking charge of the most challenging project. This requires a leader to maintain a certain level of involvement and skill training. At this point, it becomes clear that Willinks advice finds its boundaries in the complex, corporate world where an upper-level manager is unlikely to maintain involvement in the ground operations of his reports. If one or more reports turn out to intentionally undermine the decentralized command to get rid of work, then, according to Willink, a leader should seek means to replace those reports, which is also not feasible and oftentimes can expose the company to legal risk. Nevertheless, the subsection provides important clarity on appearances and perceptions for both leaders and reports. Moreover, the mere awareness of an attitude within the team or certain individuals can help preempt certain leadership decisions in favor of a more collaborative solution. 

Another interesting subsection covers “Everone Is The Same, Everyone Is Different”. Therein Willink explores the concept of scaled leadership in moderation. In most organizations, large or small, there will be a high degree of individuality, but also a clear, common denominator across the employee pool. It is the responsibility of the leader to create basic leadership tools applicable across the entire spectrum of employees whenever a business’ need requires a specific team to perform. At the same time, the leader must retain an observant mindset to effectively modulate these leadership tools depending on the situation and the individual members of the team. In his example, Willink suggests understanding the drivers of the situation first before taking diplomatic steps that might result in increasing or decreasing a reports’ responsibilities. While it may be common sense in theory, these concepts rarely translate well into the real corporate world without a modicum of friction or confusion among reports. Tact, diplomacy, and subtlety, therefore, make or break an effective communication which is the foundation to successfully drive a critical business need to completion. 

In his conclusion titled “It’s All On You But Not About You” Willink reiterates the importance of keeping your ego in check and making it about helping others to succeed. All responsibility stops with the leader of an organization or team. But it’s not about the responsibility or about the leader. Leadership is about making informed, inclusive decisions to effectively drive company objectives together as a team to succeed as a team. It’s about forming effective relationships of trust across all levels of the organization. This requires discipline over ego and emotions. Failing to enable others to perform at the highest level possible will inevitably invite corrosive attitudes into an otherwise well-performing team. Understanding that a leader only succeeds when the team succeeds is true leadership. It really summarizes the theme of this book: be humble and if you take care of the work, the work will take care of you.

Jocko Willink spent his formative years in the military. His leadership as a commanding officer of SEAL Team 3 aka “Task Unit Bruiser” led to the most military decorations of a Special Operations unit during the Iraq War. With all that in mind, his writing style is militaristic, relies on military terminology, and often draws premise from complex, military regulations. Altogether this really undermines creative extrapolation into everyday leadership. If you aren’t familiar with his previous publications this book can appear too detached from everyday business issues for the non-military, mid-level manager of a brick-and-mortar business. Overall Leadership Strategy and Tactics: Field Manual is a good book. While it rides and repeats common sense concepts it creates value as an everyday guide for early and experienced leaders alike. It does compete with other business and management books on leadership in a rather saturated market. This makes me believe the audience for this book would be found in the military, government or other large-scale corporations. I’m having a hard time seeing this book attracting an audience in more progressive sectors.

You can find Jock Willink on
Facebook @jkowillink
Instagram @jockowillink
Twitter @jockowillink
YouTube @jockopodcastofficial

Tales Of Invincible Frogmen

Men In Green Faces is a gripping fictional combat novel. It shows the cruelty, intensity, but also the strategic intelligence and psychological resilience needed to prevail in war.

The story follows Gene Michaels and his team of highly-trained, elite commandos on their tour of duty during the Vietnam War. They are stationed on Seafloat, a floating Mobile Advanced Tactical Support Base (MATSB), somewhere in the Mekong Delta at the southern tip of Vietnam. Throughout their deployment, the team goes on different missions roaming the thick tropical jungle in search for specific targets and evading enemy positions. With each mission, the reader learns a little more about the complex, individual characters. They’re not just warriors devoid of emotions, but live and struggle through the atrocities of war – far away from home and their families.

Men in Green Faces is a dialogue-heavy fictional combat novel. It’s the kind of book that poses a situation and you’d want to discuss it with someone else or, if you’re so adventurous, enlist in the Navy right away. I learned about this book when Jonny Kim shared that his motivation to become a U.S. Navy SEAL was partly inspired by this book. To illustrate why this book is in part so powerful, I’ll leave you with the below excerpt of one of the teams early missions to extract a potential target for interrogation:

“Almost without a sound, the squad, already in file formation, came on line and dropped down to conceal themselves within the foliage. The last thing they wanted was contact. Through the bushes and trees Gene caught movement. It was one lone VC (Viet Cong) in black pajamas, talking to himself even as he strolled closer to their location. Not another person in sight. Just ten feet farther to the left, and the VC would have seen their tracks in the mud. The squad was dead quiet. Their personal discipline never faltered in combat. Almost mesmerized, Gene watched the VC strolling closer. The man passed Doc without detection, then Cruz and Alex. He came within eighteen inches of Brian, who was still in Gene’s position. The VC, carrying an AK-47 over his shoulder, holding it by its barrel, continued to talk to himself, just walking along within inches now of Jim. Jim grabbed the VC, slapped a hand over his mouth, and took him down. There was virtually no sound. Before Gene realized he’d moved, he had the VC’s AK-47 in his hand and the rest of the squad had backed in around the three of them, ensuring 360-degree security. Gene positioned his 60 inches from the VC’s head. The man’s eyes were stretched wide, almost popping from their sockets. He knew about the men in green faces, and it showed.”