Lead with Courage like a Navy SEAL

Navy SEALs in Training

Fear holds us back from achieving outstanding performance. The more rapidly you can identify the type of fear you’re facing, the more easily you can overcome it. Whether it’s fear of failure, fear of not being liked, or fear of loss, understanding and embracing that fear enables you to move beyond it.

Today’s post is by Mark Divine, author of The Way of the SEAL (CLICK HERE to get your copy).

The SEAL leader stands on the ramp and peers into the inky blackness below. His team is inserting from 20,000 feet above ground level on a mission to rescue hostages taken by ISIS. He notes the familiar tightness in his chest, narrowing of focus, pit in the belly. ‘Hello fear, my friend,’ he thinks to himself with a grin. He reviews his mental checklist, taking comfort in the countless hours of training as well as the expertise of his teammates. Connecting once again to his “why” the feelings of fear are soon experienced as determination, intense focus and you might even say… excitement! The light turns green. The SEAL turns, smiles to his team, and with a thumbs up leaps off the ramp into space.

Back in New York, you are getting ready for your speech at the annual gathering of industry titans. That same tightness and pit in the stomach that the SEAL experienced hits you. This creates anxiety as you face an unknown crowd with your first major speech. Public speaking is scary to you, almost as much, you imagine, as jumping into the night out of a C-130. You don’t know how you’re going to perform or what the outcome will be. Tension builds, your field of sight narrows and those nasty “fight-or-flight” symptoms kick in. Your body’s sympathetic reaction creates an extreme hormone imbalance and you want to run, the inner dialogue and emotions spinning out of control. Oh boy…this is gonna suck!

There is good news. You can learn to turn fear into your friend – just like the Navy SEAL leader. It will take dedicated practice with new skills, those not normally taught in business school or leadership courses. Leaders must transform fear into focus, determination and drive. I have learned that the experience of fear can be transformed to energize performance, and firm up your commitment.

The first order of business, though, is to acknowledge that fear is not the enemy, but your friend. Let’s begin to develop a healthy relationship with your new friend.

Start by acknowledging that often the fear response arises from false evidence or false expectations that appear real to you. You have not investigated the situation deeply enough to see that falseness, so you remain irrationally stimulated, which spins your body and mind further out of balance.

There exists a gap in your comfort-level when you allow false evidence or expectations to distort reality. Your mind will desperately seek to come back into the comfort zone, but the “gap” is overwhelming. This is the time for a reality check: Is the threat I am experiencing real, or does it just “appear” real? Imagine entering a dark room and seeing a coiled snake. The evidence that this is to be feared appears real. Then you turn on the light and see your garden hose coiled neatly. Whoops, bad intel.

The next reality check is: Is my expectation for this experience real? Expectations can create a self-imposed prison and fear around not meeting that expectation. Back to your speech: imagine yourself as a member of the audience now. Are your expectations for other speakers the same as those you place on yourself? Likely not. It would be false to expect that the audience will judge every word you say… that if your speech isn’t utterly brilliant and groundbreaking they’ll boo you off stage. That false expectation builds anxiety. In reality the audience wants to learn something new and to be entertained, and frankly, they’re more interested in themselves than you anyhow. Let go of that expectation and the fear subsides.

Overcoming fear requires that we develop empowering belief systems about what is real, and let go of expectations for any outcomes. You’ll see that most of the things feared are total bull… made up. Let’s consider some common fears that can trip up even the hardiest of leaders:

Fear loss of reputation. Nobody wants to be judged, whether in public such as on social media, or in private as gossip. We have a false expectation that what others think about us is important. This creates anxiety and fear around the loss of your reputation. It really doesn’t matter what others think or say, when you are living your purpose and doing your best to focus on the team and mission. Reputation will sort itself out with or without you stressing about it.

Fear loss of balance. You have a sense of feeling happy or balanced, and don’t want that to rock the boat. You’ll go to great pains to avoid difficult conversations, soliciting valuable feedback or any other activity which could imbalance the system… even if it means you hold onto mediocrity to avoid the pain of growth.

Fear loss of hard earned money. This can be personal or organizational. You have worked hard to build your revenue stream and retained earnings. The market changes rapidly, but you avoid making the hard choices to shed old models out of fear… which can lead to greater loss as the market leaves you in the dust.

Fear of incompetence. You may not feel worthy simply because you haven’t put in the dirt time yet. Even though many SEAL candidates have the right physical attributes, their sense of incompetence compared to others leads to not putting 100% into the task, leading to fear and failure.

Fear of not being likeable or lovable. This one is a deep emotional issue from early childhood, and can lock you in challenging relationships which become self-fulfilling. This one will limit your ability to care and connect authentically as a leader, diminishing trust and reinforcing fear.

Life is a constant state of change, yet often you hang onto a false expectation that things are stable and permanent. You attempt to control your environment and the people in it to stay predictable.

But then the change comes, sparking fear of the unknown – the “reality gap.” Leaders must control mental and emotional states leading to a positive relationship to change, no matter how rapid or volatile. Learn to “win in your mind” and “embrace the suck” of the unknown, leaning into fear to make it your friend. This keeps you present, alert and focused.

Turn fear into your friend. Let it remind you to eradicate false evidence and expectations as you move forward relentlessly. Soon its positive feedback loops will bring courage and even greater success. You might even thank your fear for helping you find a new level of performance.

The Way of the SEAL

Mark Divine served in the U.S. Navy SEALs for 20 years, retiring as a commander. He’s the author of The Way of the SEAL (CLICK HERE to get your copy). As the founder of SEALFIT, and U.S. CrossFit, he has coached thousands of Navy SEAL and other Special Ops candidates to succeed in the most demanding military training programs in the world. In his new Unbeatable Mind Academy (, Mark trains the public in the eight Way of the SEAL principles.

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Photo: Rock Portage at Coronado Island by DVIDSHUB

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