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A Navy SEAL Commander’s 3 Pillars Of Authentic Leadership

By Brent Gleeson

I’ve been a student of leadership for many years – through a combination of military and business experience – and having the privilege to write this column has allowed me to explore many facets of authentically leading people in all aspects of life. Serving as a Navy SEAL offered me the opportunity to witness truly authentic leadership in action. Literally. Servant leaders who place others before themselves in the most dynamic and dangerous environments one can imagine.

I recently had the honor of sitting down with Mike Hayes, former commanding officer of Navy SEAL Team TWO. The core focus of our conversation was his incredible new book, Never Enough: A Navy SEAL Commander on Living a Life of Excellence, Agility, and Meaning. Mike has lived a lifetime of once-in-a-lifetime experiences and applied his leadership philosophies on the most diverse battlefields in the world and earned Bronze Stars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition to his twenty-year career as a SEAL, Mike was a White House Fellow, served two years as Director of Defense Policy and Strategy at the National Security Council, and worked directly with both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Beyond his military and government service, Mike is currently the Chief Digital Transformation Officer at VMware where he runs global operations. He holds a M.A. in Public Policy from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and received a B.A. from Holy Cross College. So, needless to say, I was excited to pick his brain.

Outside of the incredible storytelling, the book provides deep and actionable insight that any current or aspiring leader can benefit from. Over his many years of leadership, Mike has always strived to be better, contribute more, and put others first. His new book is a tremendous example of this. And not just in its wisdom, but in the fact that one hundred percent of his proceeds pay off mortgages for Gold Star families.

Mike shares how we can push ourselves to the limits across many different dimensions – we can never be strong enough, never focused enough, never patient enough, never accountable enough. Never Enough is based on three pillars: Excellence, Agility, and Meaning. Each pillar is broken into three fundamental supporting principles. So, hear they are.

Never Excellent Enough

On and individual level, we must look to be never excellent enough and build our own capabilities in terms of knowledge and capacity, strength and control, and accountability and orientation.

Choose the hard path.

Excellence has been a core value of all three of my companies because it signifies a mindset of continuous improvement and never being satisfied with the status quo – for ourselves and others. Mike says, “The greatest trajectory to excellence is trying really hard things.” I couldn’t agree more. Effective leaders push themselves and their teams to choose the hard path, which doesn’t mean working hard simply for the sake of working hard but rather focusing on outcomes, not outputs. And it definitely doesn’t mean taking risks at the sake of your values.

Build comfort with discomfort.

As we say in the Teams, “Get comfortable being uncomfortable.” Its easy to show the best sides of ourselves when faced with obstacles we are confident we can handle. It’s a far greater challenge when we’re pushed beyond our perceived limits. We are who we are at our worst, not best. Through continually improving our emotional intelligence, we can enhance self-awareness and control our emotions in the most arduous of circumstances. And the more actively we pursue the fine art of comfort zone expansion the more we, and our teams, gain the strength and foresight to navigate adversity.

Incredible confidence and extreme humility.

An important duality of leadership that we must embrace in all aspects of life is that it requires both incredible confidence and extreme humility – often at the same time. You have to think slow and fast, serve others before yourself, and apply feedback for making continual improvements. 

Never Agile Enough

On a team and organizational level, we must aim to be never agile enough and understand how to shift between roles to best serve our missions, how to put systems in place that lead to superior decision-making, and how to keep our teams as flexible and responsive as possible.

Know when to lead, and when to follow.

This is a critically important aspect of leadership. At TakingPoint Leadership, we see this challenge in leaders we work with across the globe. When do I lead from the front? When do I lead from the rear? And when do I set the vision, but then get the heck out of the way? In SEAL training, the class wins and loses as a team. And the leaders (Naval Officers) bear the brunt of the suffering. In an organization, a culture of accountability starts at the top. The more you hurt, the less the team hurts. In high-performance teams, hierarchy doesn’t and shouldn’t always matter. Hierarchy must never stand in the way of the best decisions being made or appropriate actions being taken to achieve the desired result.

Learn how to think, not what to think.

Leaders must have agility in the decisions they make. Strong leaders have the ability to jump from one role to another, one industry to another, and one organization to another. It’s not simply about gaining knowledge in a given area of expertise, but having a system and process for decision-making, gathering the broadest range of input possible, and knowing when to make the decision. Mike uses a simple tool: a graph with one axis measuring the value of the information at hand, the other being time. And again, your values (and the values of the team or organization) should be reflected in every decision you make.

Gain authority by giving it away.

One of the best ways to attract, develop, and retain top talent is by creating a cultural environment of diversity, creativity, and autonomy. In the highest performing organizations, the core functions of the leader are to set the vision, articulate the mission and desired outcome, and to create more leaders. Effective leaders push credit out to the team and own the blame. 

Never Meaningful Enough

On an impact level, we must act to be never meaningful enough, knowing that we will make the biggest difference for the people in our lives and in our communities, and potentially on an even larger scale.

Push your values out into the world.

One of the lines from the SEAL Ethos states, “The execution of my duties will be swift and violent when required yet guided by the very principles I serve to defend.” Authentic leaders, first find their purpose and clearly define their set of values and guiding principles before imparting their beliefs on others. We can’t really know the future, so we must make the best values-based decisions we can now.

Live and die for people, not causes.

Be intrusive in people’s lives. The term “intrusive” often has a negative connotation, and maybe sometimes it should. We don’t want to overstep boundaries, make people uncomfortable (unless its necessary), or push past the point of politeness in our interactions. But Mike believes we need to reframe intrusion as something critically necessary to having meaningful relationships. We must be willing to intrude, to ask the hard questions and have the hard conversations – or we’re not really making a difference.

Make differences where they will count the most.

We all want to find meaning in what we do. We all want to know the things we do make a difference, whatever that impact, large or small, may be. As a SEAL, a deep understanding and passionate connection to the mission is relatively simple. Execute the mission and protect your teammates. It is not always as simple in the civilian world or a business organization. As a leader, it’s even harder to engage every member of a team in the “purpose” of the organization. Leaders have to prioritize their time and energy where they have the most influence and impact. When they do that, the team will follow.

Excellence. Agility. Meaning. Three fundamental pillars for authentic leadership and living a fulfilling life bound to leave a powerful impact. So, keep striving to be the best in all dimensions of your life. As I cover in my new best selling book, Embrace the Suck: The Navy SEAL Way to An Extraordinary Life, always think and behave with the end in mind. Start managing the list of regrets you don’t want to have. We can all achieve the outcomes we are aiming for and inspire others to achieve their goals as well. So, get after it!

Follow Mike on Instagram @thisis.mikehayes and Twitter @thisismikehayes

This article was written by Brent Gleeson from Forbes and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to

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