Unstoppable Teams: The Four Essential Actions of High-Performance Leadership
March 25, 2019
Navy SEAL platoon commander and founder of Perfect Fitness Alden Mills reveals what every manager needs—the mostly "soft skills" that usually come so hard earned—to motivate those they lead.
Alden Mills' new book about how to lead is also, essentially, about why we lead. It is about discovering why you care, and about taking care—of ourselves and those that rely on us. Unstoppable Teams begins with great story about a lesson his Navy SEAL instructor taught him, which out friends at Harper Business were kind enough to share with us so that we could share it with you.
If you didn’t pay close attention to his gait, you wouldn’t notice his slight limp, and you’d never know he was missing his left butt cheek. Though we never said it out loud, it was hard not to think of him as Instructor Half Ass. In fact, he beat us to the punch, laughingly—and in classic SEAL humor—referring to himself as Instructor Half Ass while reminding us that he could do more with half a butt than we could do with a whole one. I’ll never forget the first time I met him. We were about to take our final physical readiness test (PRT), and here was this Vietnam veteran who had left a portion of his body in the muddy waters of the Mekong Delta after miraculously surviving a rocket-propelled grenade ambush. He stood in front of a life-size version of a fictional Hollywood monster, a wooden plaque hanging around its neck with the inscription SO YOU WANT TO BE A FROGMAN.
One hundred twenty-two young men stood at attention in a semicircle around this hero and his sidekick frozen in attack mode. Instructor Half Ass said, “Candidates of Class 181, gather around here. I want to let you in on a little secret.”
We shuffled closer to him as he said the word secret.
“I want to let you know how to make it through Navy SEAL training. It ain’t that complicated, you know.” He paused for effect … we leaned even closer to hear his answer. “You just have to decide how much you’re willing to pay. You see, I happen to know for a fact that about eighty percent of you aren’t going to be willing to pay the price to be a Navy SEAL.”
He paused again.
“You see, you all want to be a SEAL on a sunny day, but your country don’t need SEALs on sunny days. She needs them on scary days.”
As he spoke, I kept thinking the “creature” was going to come alive and support his monologue. He paused a third time.
“When it’s cold, dark, and wet and that crack over your head ain’t thunder, it’s from someone who wants you dead … How bad you want to be a SEAL on that day?”
He let that question hang for a moment as his eyes scanned the young men standing before him.
“Well, that’s my job—to figure out how many of you are willing to pay the price. And you know how I’m going to do it? I’m going to create a conversation between here [pointing to his head] and here [pointing to his heart].”
“And I’m going to make this conversation occur the same way those Japanese make a samurai sword.” He holds his hands at about stomach level to demonstrate the process.
“You know how they make that sword?” No one responds, as he cups his left hand.
“They take a hunk of metal, heat it up, and then”—his right hand balls into a fist and slams into his cupped left hand—“then the swordmaker pounds on it. Then he dunks it in cold water. You know how many times he repeats that process to turn that hunk of metal into a sword?”
We slowly swayed our heads back and forth, dreading the answer.
“About two thousand times. I figure that’s about how many times we’re goin’ to do that to you over the next nine weeks in my phase.”
He proceeded to tell us how he’s going to heat us up, pound on us, and stick us in cold water. He even introduced us to his “hammers,” the twenty-five instructors who would be leading us through the first phase of BUD/S.
“Now do yourself a favor and think real hard about how bad you want to be a Navy SEAL before taking this PRT. ’Cause if you pass it, you’re moving over to my side of the compound come Monday morning.”
Most of us had been anticipating this moment for at least two years. If you arrived via the Naval Academy, as I had, or a ROTC program, it had taken four years. Those coming from basic training or transferring from a job in the Navy took somewhere between a year and two. We’d already completed two PRTs, and now we were facing our third and final challenge before officially entering SEAL training school. For the past seven weeks, we’d been learning the ropes of being a SEAL candidate, everything from how to wear our vintage World War II uniforms to learning how to perform a “sugar cookie” exercise (hit the surf, then roll around on the beach until covered head to toe in sand). The only thing standing between us and the official start of SEAL training was this one last physical test, the exact same one we’d taken and passed at least twice before. We’ve got this, right?
After all, we’re physically stronger than ever. What’s more, we’ve undergone mental preparations for this moment, encouraged by Instructor Half Ass to tune in to the conversation between our heads and our hearts. As I stood among my fellow candidates, all of them fit and fast, I figured that, athletically, I landed somewhere in the middle of this group of 122 SEAL pledges. Like everyone else, I’d done the PRT twice before, and I wasn’t expecting it to be a big deal. But when the test was over, our lead instructor read out the names of those who would be starting SEAL training on Monday morning. I couldn’t believe my ears: only 64 of the 122 recruits who had started the program had passed this final PRT test.
How could this be? Why had half the class effectively “decided” not to pass the test? In Instructor Half Ass’s words, they had had a conversation with themselves and had made the decision not to pass. They had decided the price to be paid for becoming a Navy SEAL was too great. They’d done the training. They had the skills, but still they’d failed. Their heads (and their bodies) were in it, but their hearts weren’t.
I’m sharing this story with you because it highlights the first critical component in building unstoppable teams. The first team you must build and lead is your own team, the one inside you. Good ol’ Instructor Half Ass hit the nail on the head when he talked about creating a conversation between the head and the heart. That’s exactly what’s needed to lead oneself.
From the book Unstoppable Teams: The Four Essential Actions of High-Performance Leadership by Alden Mills.
Copyright © 2019 by Alden Mills.
To be published on March 26, 2019 by HarperBusiness, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Reprinted by permission.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alden Mills is a three-time Navy SEAL platoon commander, and was the CEO of Perfect Fitness, one of the fastest growing companies in America. A longtime entrepreneur, with more than forty patents, and more than twenty-five years of experience working with high-performing teams, he lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
This giveaway is brought to you by Harper Business, an imprint of HarperCollins. We have 20 copies available.