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6 lessons for bosses from top U.S. Navy SEAL team

How The Culture Code unpacks the success of the famous Team Six

 

“The real courage is seeing the truth and speaking the truth to each other.”
 - Dave Cooper, retired Navy SEAL.
 

You may not have heard of Team Six, but you will know of its successful mission, which resulted in the death of Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011.

Author Daniel Coyle (The Culture Code) sought out legendary Team Six leader Dave Cooper (now retired from the U.S. Navy), whose teams often succeeded “when things went to hell – especially when they went to hell.”

Here, Dave’s lessons and insights on building a hugely successful team:  

  1. SEALs are highly intelligent, copious readers.  This surprised and hooked the young Dave Cooper when a student. He’d planned to be a doctor, but instead joined up and survived Hell Week and the selection process to become a SEAL. Now a business entrepreneur solving complex risk management problems for clients, Dave Cooper continues to be a keen reader. He recommended these books in an interview for Stanford’s Graduate School of Business: Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman and Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

  2. If a superior tells you to do something, by God we tend to follow it. Dave said this to Daniel, explaining that humans have an authority bias that’s incredibly strong and unconscious. He says having one person tell other people what to do is not a reliable way to make good decisions. So, how do you develop a hive mind? You have to create conditions where people challenge each other, to create leaders among leaders, he says.

  3. Merely creating space for cooperation is not enough.  Dave says he had to generate a series of unmistakable signals that tipped his men away from their natural tendencies, and towards interdependence and cooperation. He started with small things like his title. When a new team member used his title, he corrected them with “You can call me Coop, Dave or F@*%face, it’s your choice.”  He started sentences with “Now, let’s see if someone can poke holes in this” or “Tell me what’s wrong with this idea”. He steered away from orders and instead asked a lot of questions “Anybody have any ideas?”

  4. The best thing to improve a team’s cohesion is to send them to do hard, hard training. Dave told Daniel that “…there’s something about hanging off a cliff together, and being wet and cold and miserable together, that makes a team come together”.  He said spending time together outside, and hanging out helps.

  5. After-Action Review (AAR) is a very useful tool.  After each SEAL mission, a short meeting is held in which the team gathers to discuss and replay key decisions. There are no agendas and no minutes are kept. The goal is to create a flat landscape without rank, where people can figure out what really happened and talk about mistakes – especially their own. “It’s got to be safe to talk, rank switched off and humility switched on. You’re looking for that moment where people can say I screwed that up. In fact, they might be the most important words any leader can say: I screwed that up.”  Usually, the mission is gone through in chronological order, and every decision and every process is talked about. “You have to resist the temptation to wrap it up in a bow, and try to dig for the truth of what happened, so people can really learn from it”.

  6. The mission to go after Bin Laden came with an order that Dave found unacceptable. Dave tells in The Culture Code how he tried to convince his superior to not use stealth helicopters on the mission.  Without going into detail here, he felt they presented a risk. However, the order stood, so Dave doubled down on preparation.  Over two months the SEALs built replicas of the Bin Laden compound, and simulated downed-helicopter scenarios over and over again. Each scenario would be followed by an AAR. In the chilling story set out in The Culture Code, the first helicopter did, as Dave predicted, crash land in the courtyard of the Bin Laden compound, forcing the other helicopter to land outside. All that preparation paid off. Cooper said his team went to work. “They didn’t miss a beat. Once they got on the ground, there was zero doubt”.  It was over in 38 minutes.

 

Daniel Coyle writes that Team Six succeeded because they understood that being vulnerable together is the only way a team can become invulnerable.

As Dave Cooper told him “People never want to be the person who says, ‘Wait a second, what’s going on here?’ But inside the squadron, that is the culture, and that’s why we’re successful.”

Members of the The Growth Faculty can hear more of this and other stories and lessons from The Culture Code by logging in and watching our livestream interview with Daniel Coyle on November 20. We welcome members' questions for Daniel Coyle about teams and culture to include in the interview. Contact us. 

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