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Want Elite Performance? Adopt These 5 Practices Of Top Tactical Units Learn how the development of elite tactical units, like the Navy Seals, can create a better team.

By Jon B. Becker

entrepreneur daily

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

The question of what creates elite performance in a team is a frequent topic for leadership discussions. The strategies and approaches for creating elite performance are myriad, as are the number of "leadership gurus" who, for a price, will teach you their foolproof method for forging a high-performing team.

Yet, despite this abundance of information, poor leadership continues to abound, and we continue to see catastrophic failures during critical events rather than high performance. What is it that separates success and failure? What makes elite tactical teams perform at such a high level in complicated and demanding environments? The answer is one word: culture.

For the past 40 years, I have had the privilege of working with and serving some of the most elite tactical units in the world. As the CEO of a business that focuses on the protection of tactical operators, I have had the gift of a ringside seat to observe what makes elite units unique.

Strikingly, the most interesting observation I have made is that, despite being located all over the world, coming from a variety of origins and operating under divergent mission sets, all elite units I have worked with have a similar culture that resolves around a group of five core practices: intentionality of culture, individual accountability, direct communication, rigorous enforcement of high standards and obsessive attention to fundamentals.

These practices underlie the unit culture, which then generates elite performance. Fortunately, these practices are all directly transferrable to business and therefore are important for business leaders and entrepreneurs to understand.

1. Intentionally built culture

Culture is like a reputation; you have one whether you want it or not, and if you are not paying attention to it, it's probably not a good one. Culture drives the limits of personal behavior; for elite units, culture is very intentional. Nothing is left to chance. Cultural rules are deliberate, usually written down, taught to everyone and enshrined into unit traditions. These traditions indoctrinate new members to the unit's rules, remind them of their responsibilities and provide a standard against which members can measure themselves.

The celebration of unit heroes creates role models for new members and ensures that everyone in the organization is educated about what it means to be a part of the team. To an outsider, the mission statements, unit mottos, logos and challenge coins common in elite units may seem superficial. But, they are anything but superficial. They are cultural icons that quietly and steadfastly share the gospel of the unit and establish the values against which everyone will be measured.

Related: Want Excellence? Embrace Strong Personalities

2. Individual accountability

A team is no greater than the sum of its parts. To achieve high performance, elite units focus on individual performance first. During an operation, each team member must deliver 100% of their capabilities. This means they must be fit, mentally clear, well trained and maintain an extremely high level of skills across a wide swath of disciplines. Core to achieving this is a culture of individual accountability.

Every single person is responsible for themselves and for meeting the requirements of their job. This is a responsibility not only to oneself but to every man and woman they work with and the unit as a whole. Each member is expected to conduct themself as a professional and to strive toward excellence constantly. Moreover, members are personally accountable to one another for their actions.

Related: 4 Leadership Lessons I Learned From a Marine Corps General

3. Unvarnished and direct communication

As a result of individual accountability (or perhaps an enabler of it), virtually all elite units have direct and frank communication driven by a culture of saying exactly what you are thinking. This does not mean it's okay to be rude or abusive; just direct and candid. In other words, their culture allows members to challenge one another directly without being considered rude.

Although much of this is accomplished through indirect social pressure (e.g., "Hey, Becker, are you getting fat?" or "Wow, you really shot bad today, huh, buddy?"), it is also perfectly acceptable to directly challenge one another on their thinking, behavior, skills, etc.

This even carries over to the team's self-assessments. The after-action debrief which follows an operation is a no-holds-barred event for most units when movement patterns and tactics are agonized over in relentless pursuit of improvement. Being professional takes priority over being nice. This is the land of "brutal honesty," and it has to be — their lives directly depend on each other. Proper social graces and mediocrity can often run hand-in-hand.

Being too concerned about each other's feelings or how to express oneself can prevent accountability. If preserving egos becomes the primary concern, it becomes very easy to ignore people's negative behavior, failure to meet standards or inattention to detail, which may lead to tragedy.

Related: Elite Sports Teams Are Much Better at Creating Powerful Cultures Than Startups -- Here Are 5 Tips You Can Steal

4. Fundamental skills

A common trait among all elite performers is obsessive attention to fundamental details. There are myriad stories about Michael Jordan shooting thousands of free throws, working on shot fundamentals and binge-watching game films. The same is true with elite tactical units. Small details are essential to elite performance.

Good technique forms the basis for skills, and skills form the basis for tactics. Elite units know this and spend a great deal of time working on them. The amount of time elite units spend working on fundamental shooting skills, basic tactical movement and other perishable skills would surprise most people. While it is very easy to think that the best of the best spend their time working on only super difficult and high-end skills, nothing could be further from the truth. They drill the basics obsessively and, as a result, acquire fundamental skills which are second to none. Interestingly, this is often not the case for less elite performers, who sometimes chase higher-end gains while overlooking the low-hanging fruit of consistency and technical proficiency.

Related: 6 Principles From the Navy SEAL Code That Will Make Your Team Stronger

5. Very high and rigorously enforced standards

Whether it is the US Navy SEALs BUD/s Program, the FBI-HRT Selection or the LAPD SWAT school, elite units pride themselves on using difficult processes with very high standards for those who will join the unit. By running difficult selection processes, they can weed out those unfit for the unit, ensure individual commitment, indoctrinate members into the culture and prepare future members for what they can expect.

Interestingly, these high standards don't stop with the selection of these units. Rather, they continue to all phases of training. While the selection processes may be intentionally more physically or emotionally demanding, the standards for normal unit operations are equally rigorous. More importantly, they are rigidly enforced on all members, regardless of seniority or experience.

As a result, even among the most elite operators, failing to make a qualifying score on a shooting test will remove them from duty status. Taking dangerous chances or conducting themselves inappropriately will get them removed from their assignments or even the unit. Seniority and experience are not a defense used to mask incompetence or to tolerate unprofessionalism. High standards are essential to elite performance, and you cannot achieve high performance without rigorously enforcing the rules.

Related: Are Your High Standards Actually Embarrassingly Low?


Elite units are high performers because of the practices of their members. These practices drive their collective behavior and establish the ground rules for being a member of their organization. In other words, the practices facilitate the unit culture, which drives the performance. While this is far from an exhaustive list, the application of just these five practices can almost certainly improve the performance of any organization or team.

Jon B. Becker

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

CEO of AARDVARK and Host of The Debrief Podcast

Jon B. Becker is the CEO/President of AARDVARK, a supplier of tactical protective equipment to military and law enforcement agencies. Mr. Becker is also the host of The Debrief with Jon Becker podcast and an Attorney admitted for practice in California.

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