The Rules for Leading a Navy SEAL Team Are the Same as Leading a Startup. I Know, I've Done Both.
Alden Mills, creator of Perfect Pushup and former military commander, outlines the mindset and tactics for success.
Whether you’re leading a Navy SEAL team or a startup, the leadership principles are exactly the same. You might balk at that statement and say, “Hey wait a minute, startups don’t risk their lives like SEALs do!” True, but figuratively speaking, the startup’s “life” -- this fragile little idea of a company -- lives on the actions of its leaders.
Though you might not be getting shot at in an entrepreneurial enterprise, make no mistake, there are competitors out there actively attempting to squash your dream. Many entrepreneurs get lulled into a mindset of leadership complacency because they convince themselves that all they need is their “first to market world’s best idea” to win on the business battlefield.
I know, I’ve been there and have embraced that very temptation when launching a number of products. I created a first-of-its-kind fitness device in an entirely new category. But guess what? I raised $1.5 million dollars only to learn $1.475 million dollars along the way that the product was not launch-worthy. Just when everyone told me it was over -- that I should get a job -- was when I realized that the very leadership rules that were drilled into me in the SEAL teams were the exact ones that would help me and my fledgling startup succeed. We pushed on and eventually found massive success for Perfect Fitness -- you may own or have seen one of my infomercials for our products like Perfect Pushups.
In my new book, Unstoppable Teams, I talk about the essential actions of high-performance leadership. Below are some rules that every entrepreneur must embrace as they soldier on against the odds to turn their dream into a cash-flowing reality. (They are the very same rules I apply in my life now as an investor and ongoing co-founder of several startups.)
1. Lead the conversation.
I speak to companies all around the world. And no matter the business, industry, vertical or organizational structure, if there are humans at work then there is a conversation that you must have. This dialogue is what I call a “conversation between the Whiner and the Whisperer,” or the head and heart.
The Whiner represents the head while the Whisperer best resembles the quiet voice from our heart. The moment we are confronted with something really hard -- something nearly impossible -- voices fire off almost immediately inside our heads. Voices that whine and say things like, “Do you know how hard this is going to be?” “Why do you think you can do this?” “Who do you know who has done this?” And so on. These voices are a smokescreen generated by our lazy brains in an attempt to keep us from working as hard as we need to.
Meanwhile, there’s another voice, a softer one that whispers, “You can do it.” “Try again, try harder.” And “You’ve got this." Leading this conversation inside yourself is what every leader must do first before leading others.
Why? Because your teammates emulate you. Being a team leader comes with a proverbial mirror: how your team acts is a direct reflection of how you act. Have a tendency to blow off meetings or show up late? Then don’t be surprised when your own teammates do the same. You're allowing the Whiner to win! And if you do this, guess where everyone’s focus flows? You guessed it: They become focused on how to avoid doing what actually needs to get done -- you know, the tough stuff like making cold calls or working through a weekend or launching a product in 30 days that everyone tells you cannot be done. (We did exactly that with the Perfect Pushup Basic for Walmart and sold over a million units in less than eight months!)
2. Banish negative influencers.
I’ve often said that SEAL training is easier than starting a business for one reason: The X-division. During SEAL selection, this is where the “quitters” go. SEAL instructors know how fragile the mindset of trainees can be, and one negative mindset can infect several in just a few minutes when pain and suffering is the focus. To prevent this, instructors immediately remove those who ring the bell (quit) so as not to inspire others to join them.
In the world of business, there is no such thing as X-division -- it can be difficult to fire people and even more difficult to ascertain their level of commitment. You must build your own X-division and focus your attention on those you know who are fully committed to the entrepreneurial cause. Friends and family may love you dearly but in my case, many times they would end up in my own X-division because their comments were not helpful towards building an unstoppable mindset to succeed.
3. Become a master at funneling.
When it comes to leading the conversation and building your own X-division, you must become a master at what I call “funneling.”
To understand funneling, you must first understand that your ability to succeed is based on one thing and one thing only: your ability to take persistent action. To be unstoppable means to never give up -- to persist. Persisting is hard especially when the voices in your head (the Whiner) and those around you (X-division) are telling you it can’t be done. (Side-note: All of those voices exist because they haven’t done it themselves!)
At the highest level, we can only control three things: how we think, how we feel and how we act. To make this trinity of controllable things work for us requires focus. When we focus on something, we funnel our energy into taking action. As a leader, your No. 1 job is helping your team focus their energies on the things that matter in moving the company forward. There are so many things that can distract and discourage your team. How you personally funnel your focus is critical to how your team will as well. And if your team is focused, they too will build an unstoppable mindset for success.
4. Enjoy the ride and celebrate your team's success.
The greatest joy I’ve experienced as a leader is the joy helping others achieve more than they ever thought possible. I've had great success, but my entrepreneurial journey isn’t over -- I would argue it’s just beginning. I’m now involved in pet treats. The same rules I just discussed are being used here as well, along with one of the golden rules: work with great, passionate people! Entrepreneurship is a wildly challenging and rewarding path. Over time it becomes an addiction of sorts as you discover that your life is truly up to your imagination, determination and your ability to work with others. Entrepreneurs are the difference makers in this world. And to move forward, you must differentiate between what can help or hurt you.
I'll see you at the top!