Team Leadership Lessons from the Navy SEALs

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu observed that the challenge of leading a small army versus a large army is largely a matter of “dividing up their numbers” and “signs and signals”. In modern terms, this means instilling the structures, communications, and processes that are necessary for scaling an effective small force into a larger one. As fast-growing, team-based startups replicate their small, highly-effective teams into a larger, high-performance organization—or, when larger organizations want to behave like those small startups—they face the question: How do we scale our business and maintain the habits of engaged, energized, and highly-effective teams?

Scaling Start-up Teams

Jack Welch, the former CEO of GE, said that the game of business is simple, and if you build the best team, you win. For a start-up company, the corollary is that scaling a business is complex, and if you do not build the best team, your business will likely die. Over the past 25-plus years, I have experienced the pleasure, and at times pain, of leading four tech start-ups. I have also had the opportunity to coach dozens of entrepreneurs and speak with many more during my research on team effectiveness. In my research, I found that those startups who retained their high levels of team effectiveness as they grew had several habits in common. First, startups that scaled successfully maintained clarity of purpose for their teams. Second, they maintained their focus on team norms, specifically on the key values of psychological safety, conversation equality, and building upon individual strengths. Last, they ensured that, as the number of teams increased, experience-expectation gaps between teammates, with the team leader, or across teams, were quickly addressed.

While I also found start-up teams that managed to scale despite lacking one or more of those habits, often there were unintended consequences. One high-profile example is Uber. The company raised hundreds of millions of dollars, created a multibillion-dollar market capitalization, and built a workforce of over 12,000 people. Yet, toxic team norms polluted their culture. The result was high levels of executive turnover and the removal of the company’s co-founder and CEO. Their new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, now faces a monumental cleanup task as he rebuilds team norms and the company culture.

Sustaining Performance

Organizations as diverse as Google, Deloitte, IDEO, and the US Navy SEALs demonstrate that a high level of performance can be sustained as the number of teams grows. Those organizations, and others like them, combine a robust framework for team effectiveness, discipline in implementing that architecture, and habits that reinforce key behaviors. All of these companies regularly reflect on and examine their team’s performance, adjusting as needed. For the SEALs, the post 9/11 world brought new demands and the need to make rapid adjustments to their program. In response, they reinvented themselves through four transformational team leadership themes ‡ :

  1. Produce Excellence, Not “Above Average” – Aspiring to be very good is not good enough, Training must be dedicated to producing excellence. Serious organizations don’t aspire to be above average.
  2. Incentivize Excellence, Not Competence – Even if your training itself is world-class, organizations need recognition and rewards systems that explicitly acknowledge and promote excellence. And, have the courage and integrity to reposition and replace those who can’t—or won’t—step up.
  3. Incorporate New Ideas from the Field – Successful training must be dynamic, open, and innovative.
  4. Lead by Example – and never ask your team to do something you aren’t willing to do yourself. Focus on getting better at getting better.

While the expectations of SEAL team leaders may go beyond what would be considered reasonable in a typical business setting, the team leadership lessons can be applied within any organization to sustain high levels of team performance.

Excellence is a Choice

Business is not exactly war, but teams are about winning. Taking a page from the SEAL-Google-Deloitte-IDEO team playbook: for every team, excellence is a choice – and a habit. Every organization experiences growing pains as they take on the challenge of scaling small, highly-effective teams into a larger organization. Scaling multiple teams is complex, and ensuring the effectiveness of those teams as a business grows is not easy. By focusing on the modern-day version of Sun Tzu’s “dividing up their numbers” and “signs and signals”, you will develop the habits that enable the scaling of high-performance teams.

  1. Maintain clarity of purpose.
  2. Focus on people and especially team norms.
  3. Consistently close experience-expectation gaps between teammates, with the team leader, or across teams.


‡ Excerpted from How the Navy SEALs Train for Leadership Excellence by Michael Schrage, HBR May 2015


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About the Author

Dr. Jeb Hurley is a leading expert on team dynamics and building high-performance hybrid / remote teams. He guides leaders in understanding and influencing human behavior and creating trust and psychological safety. Jeb’s innovative, behavioral science-based approach to leadership development improves team performance and people’s wellbeing faster and at a lower cost. Learn more about Jeb’s work at Brainware Partners.